The Culture Shift That Covid-19 Built (And What Businesses Should Do About It)


Erin HutchinsonForbes Councils Member

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Many have long considered corporate culture a key driver of a company’s success (or failure), even if it’s not a chief focus of the business. It has an undeniable way of steering the nature of relationships among employees and management, for better or worse. And in recent years, many companies have placed a greater focus on developing, articulating and propagating a strong culture throughout their organizations.

During the pandemic (and likely for the foreseeable future), far more employees have been working from home, as 2020 Pew Research Center data illustrates. The role of culture in strengthening employee connections has grown even more important while simultaneously becoming more difficult to define and to champion at an enterprise level. Historically, the most prominent component of culture was the personal — aka “in-person” — bonding among co-workers. Sometimes that meant large, meaningful moments — things like team outings, all-hands staff meetings, holiday parties and retirement ceremonies. But I’d argue that an even bigger part of culture was about the simple things and the unplanned moments throughout the workday: Monday morning coffee, cross-cubicle chatter, brainstorming sessions, making connections and introductions when a new person walked past, small tokens of recognition displayed on desks and so on. For many companies, culture was largely built organically through personal moments that came together to shape ongoing attitudes and behaviors.

At Merkle, we’ve always been focused on building a culture that creates a competitive advantage. But more recently, we’ve increased our emphasis on how culture should evolve to address a rapidly changing workforce.

Now that many organizations aren’t congregating in large groups, how should culture change in the new hybrid workplace? For one thing, we shouldn’t rely on a corner-office figurehead to model our cultural standards. It can be harder to “follow the lead” from behind a computer screen. But this is also an opportunity for employees to collectively own culture and reinvent the way they make it real. We can all have an impact on how it manifests — how it shows up in our day-to-day business.

The Culture Shift

The future of corporate culture could depend on how small groups within an organization are empowered to create relationships and drive culture in the virtual and hybrid workplaces — culture that can permeate throughout the organization. Recently, I wrote about the future of work as it relates to the “new normal” for CMOs. I think the future of work is going to be hugely dependent on how organizations foster an atmosphere of micromoments that create a sense of common purpose, shared values, empathy, respect, fun and so forth. The dilemma is how to drive that desired feeling in a virtual environment. But if companies approach them correctly and weave them together, I believe these small points in time can build a sense of camaraderie that drives a similar result to the previous model. Can they be the same? Probably not, but this moment in time is an opportunity for organizations to step back, clearly define and articulate their cultures and focus on finding new ways to bring them to life through employees and for employees. As these moments catch on, people may start thinking creatively about how they can become better acquainted personally, more connected in their business goals and generally more fulfilled in their work lives.

As business leaders in today’s organizations, we should empower employees to help identify and create the micromoments that drive culture. And as employees, we should seize the opportunity to create personal moments with those around us. Culture is not only a leadership obligation. It’s the responsibility of everyone in the organization. As members of the organization, we all have the ability to make contributions that affect change and to behave in ways that drive or reflect the desired corporate culture. It’s cliché, but it’s true; you have to be the change you want to see. Working from home has opened up opportunities for different points of connection and sharing. We may not see each other in person as often, but through video conferencing, we now get to see each other’s homes, families, pets and such. We see into the personal lives of our co-workers and leaders, which takes relationships to a whole new level; there’s a sense of humanity in these interactions. We are all becoming more real to each other. And while some may thrive on this kind of intimacy more than others do, I’d say that, on balance, these connections can make us closer, more empathetic, more trusting — and more trustworthy.

As the pandemic, economic and social conditions continue to fluctuate, a very common scenario I’ve seen is that of a hybrid work model where those who have been working from home start to dip their toes back into the office setting. This model can give employees the opportunity to immerse themselves in virtual activities and foster widespread relationships across office locations. It can also give employees the chance to connect in person from time to time — and to engage in in-person experiences similar to those of the past.

Employee Experience

Think of the employee experience in much the same way as you do the consumer experience. It’s about the way the organization makes people feel about all their interactions — from attracting and recruiting job candidates to onboarding new employees and supporting their career development throughout their journey with the company. If organizations want employees to be steadfast and true, they should foster a positive employee experience; meet employees where they are; and attract and retain them in the same way a brand would attract and retain consumers.

They should also consider the experience for each distinct employee audience — tenured employees, new employees, employees starting their first job out of college, those who have come in from an acquisition and so on. How do they learn about and experience the company’s culture? It begins with their employee experience, which is an amalgamation of many constant micromoments.

And while many of these micromoments may be virtual, rest assured that the culture they foster is decidedly real. The idea is to thrive through this challenging period, not just muddle through. How do you make it very real and tangible for your people?

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Erin Hutchinson