Helen Astill, MD Cherington HR Ltd, explores how company culture will be affected as businesses emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic
We have all seen a huge change in the way businesses are organised and their working practices since the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in March 2020. There was initially a phase of disbelief at the severity of restrictions and the fact that some sectors of business were ordered to shut down completely. But as the weeks have grown into months, businesses have adapted to provide new ways of delivering their services or products to clients – or they have spent the time planning their reopening. So how will this affect the culture of businesses when we emerge from the pandemic?
What is culture?
Company culture is the essence of a business. It is normally described in terms of, “how things are done around here.” That will include things like: the symbols and where the real power sits; the organisational structure (is it flat or highly hierarchical?); the controls and processes (long working hours or is a good work-life balance encouraged?); the rituals, routines and communication methods; and the stories people tell about an organisation. So, think about whether the company is formal or informal in the way it deals with staff; how the employees are controlled – is there a high degree of trust or wariness? Are there informal gatherings or just formal meetings? Do the directors have their own allocated parking spaces etc?
The most important aspect of a company’s culture is how the staff believe they are treated. If they feel that their views are considered and that they are part of the business, they are more likely to feel involved and motivated. On the other hand, if there is no room to do anything without permission and there is a high degree of control, it is less likely that the business will benefit from employees being creative. It is easier than it used to be to get a feel for a company’s culture because of staff comments on social media sites like Glassdoor.
How will things change?
Whatever your company culture looked like in 2019, it will most certainly have changed by the end of 2020. If you had open-plan offices and hot-desking arrangements before, the arrangements post COVID-19 will be more structured than they were previously. The hot desks will go, and staff will be sitting further apart when they return to work.
If you work in a factory, retail or warehouse environment, there will be more rigid controls over ways to move around the premises and perhaps changes to lunchtime canteen breaks and staggered working hours. These may all serve to distance colleagues from each other socially and some will find this hard to cope with – especially when we have no idea as to how long these controls are going to be in place – and they may already be anxious about returning after the lockdown. There will be stricter controls over how staff will be treated if they show symptoms of COVID-19 and how they will be allowed to interact with others, so the employer may come across as less accommodating. This means a greater emphasis will be needed on monitoring of employees’ mental health.
The “New Normal” – working from home
We all thought that the lockdown would be for a short period of time and that the changes were temporary, but businesses who have the vast majority of staff working from home have made discoveries about flexible working that they would never have imagined. Up until now, many managers have been wary of flexible working and reluctant to agree to requests because it would feel like a loss of control and a perception that it would not be as easy to manage remote staff.
Before COVID-19 spread, the government had already indicated that it was going to bring in a right to request flexible working for new employees, rather than having to wait six months as is the case currently. They also said that there would be an expectation that unless there were exceptional reasons, all requests would be granted. However, many businesses had appeared reluctant to embrace the idea until they were forced into the reality of staff having to work from home during the lockdown.
It hasn’t worked for everyone because of personal circumstances, but I already have several clients who have told me that their staff are working in a more productive way; that they are more focussed and that videoconference meetings and telephone calls are shorter and more effective than the discussions they would have had if they were still in the office. There are lots of businesses planning on continuing to work in this way for the rest of the year and some will no doubt do away with the cost of having large offices that they don’t need and change to working from home permanently.
This may be more effective from a business perspective, but it will change the face of work because it may be more difficult to supervise junior employees closely and so those roles will change – perhaps be outsourced to businesses that retain their offices
Evolution or revolution?
It would be too easy to let things continue as they are or develop as the furlough scheme evolves, but that may mean that the new company culture you end up with will not the one you need. That means it will be difficult to shape into the culture you need to revitalise and relaunch your business. Therefore, while we are still in this transition phase it is important to take the opportunity to ask yourself what you want your company culture to look like. Visualise being part of that culture so that you make change decisions to design your new business so that you steer it in the right direction.
Be creative in identifying the new culture direction for your business. It may mean making some difficult decisions, but if you have a critical people issue to solve, talk to a reputable HR Adviser as they will be able to help.