Company Culture vs. COVID-19

Company Culture vs. COVID-19
This year’s Best Places to Work honorees maintained and enhanced their company culture. (Dean Wheeler)

How can you be a Best Place to Work when no one is coming to work?

How can you have cohesion without the presence of co-workers?

Company culture is one of the many things considered when selection begins for the annual Best Places to Work recognition program. Among each year’s slate of honorees can be found a wealth of traditions, fun and games, community service opportunities and perks that contribute to a company’s sense of unity and camaraderie.

It has been hard enough just to get the job done and turn a profit during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the isolation and safety measures brought on by the historic health crisis have scattered employees to the winds of remote work and forced companies to rethink some of the elements that make their workplaces special.

“We have been in business for over 80 years now and have a number of employees who have been a part of the WELSCO family for much of that time,” said Adam Kohler, CEO of industrial gas and welding supplier WELSCO Inc., a multiple Best Places honoree. “Accordingly, many of them fell into the high risk category for COVID-19. We relocated all possible high risk employees to working from home during that time.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 20% of employed American adults worked from home before the coronavirus outbreak. That grew to 71% after the outbreak, with more than 6 of 10 workers who remained in the same job saying they were just as satisfied and productive in their work as before the pandemic.

Certainly it has been pleasant for companies to see they could accomplish their mission without having staff all under the same roof. But what was the cost to company culture?

Kohler noted that WELSCO was forced to postpone or cancel some of the company’s foundational, cultural traditions like the Drives for Disabilities golf tournament benefiting Easterseals Arkansas, the Arkansas Welding Expo, the annual employee picnic, bass fishing tournament and luncheon for employees with 20-plus years of service.

“These are long-standing company traditions that had to be put on hold until we could guarantee that we could do them safely,” Kohler said.

Culture and Communication

Every business and every employee is different, which makes each company culture unique, but most workplaces share some of the same elements.

Indeed, the American worldwide employment site for job listings, says “Business Culture refers to the set of behavioral and procedural norms that can be observed within a company — which includes its policies, procedures, ethics, values, employee behaviors and attitudes, goals and code of conduct. It also makes up the ‘personality’ of a company and defines the work environment (e.g., professional, casual, fast-paced).”

Some elements of company culture can be easily controlled by management, noted the human resources outlet HR Daily Advisor. This includes policies, procedures, code of conduct, company goals, benefits and perks and disciplinary action.

Employee behaviors and attitudes, management style, expectations, values and the way employees feel about their work are more volatile and affected by intangibles.

In other words, it’s not just about cookouts and happy hours. Maintaining a company culture in these trying times means working at it and being creative.

It is important for company leaders to treat their culture like a business objective, defining what they want to achieve and how to measure it.

That means communicating these objectives to employees and remembering that communication is a two-way street. Leaders should seek feedback in the form of employee surveys and ask questions during meetings, even if the meetings are virtual.

“Like so many other companies, we learned to communicate through Zoom instead of in-person meetings,” Kohler said. “It was a little bit of a change but still an effective method for communication.”

Mike McClellan, president of Harrison Energy Partners, a commercial HVAC company and perennial Best Places honoree, said the pandemic underscored the value of Zoom and other tech platforms to his company’s COVID-19 communication. But he said it’s important to tinker with the format to avoid meeting fatigue and maximize remote “attendance.”

“Where we had large group meetings, those were downsized to smaller, team-centered meetings with staggered schedules so members of our leadership team are able to participate in multiple settings,” McClellan said.

Fun and Wellness

Communication should include wellness checks on employees. While employees are generally feeling just as productive, if not more, the isolation and remote work hasn’t been all positive.

A Harvard Business Review study conducted late in 2020 showed that 85% of people surveyed felt there had been a decline in their general well-being and 89% felt there had been a decline in workplace well-being.

A personal check-in from leadership, management or human resources, in the form of a text, Google Hangout or even an old-fashioned phone call, can remind employees they are still valued despite their remote status. If a company’s benefits package includes counseling sessions, company meetings are a good time to remind people to use the service if the pandemic pressures and related issues start to feel overwhelming in the isolated environment.

“Communication is always one of the primary challenges, and it was even more important during this time of constant change as we learned more about COVID-19 and how to respond to protect our employees and customers,” Kohler said.

A company doesn’t have to jettison the fun and social elements of its culture, even if the situation has most employees scattered. The get-togethers promote unity, camaraderie and boost morale, which are arguably more important now than ever.

Creativity married to the available technology can lead to updated versions of popular work events or result in the invention of new ones. Across the diverse ranges of companies honored in this year’s Best Places program, virtual holiday parties, games, contests and gatherings have at least temporarily replaced live events.

Instead of its Christmas party, for example, Harrison Energy Partners gave each associate a $100 gift card so families could enjoy a meal together from their restaurant of choice.

It may be some time yet before people return to the office en masse, and many employers already accept remote or hybrid work as a new way of doing things. The important thing is to remember that, even if they’re not in the same room, the social events serve the important purpose of bringing people closer together and are a vital pillar of a company’s culture.

“These critical events give us an opportunity to be together without a work-centered focus, allowing us to know each other and our families as people, not just employees,” McClellan said.