What does company culture look like in a post-pandemic world? Can we ever get back what we’ve lost?
I find myself picking through the remains of what used to be corporate culture before the pandemic. Tech – in the form of Teams and Slack – has replaced almost all the engaging elements of work. And what it means to be a community; the cohesive societal – rather than just social – aspect of work has disappeared.
Why does it matter? Some businesses (like ours) have worked hard to build culture as a point of difference and a unique aspect of our employee value proposition. Our people rate “the people I work with” as the most valuable part of working for our agency. When we lose that human connection, we lose the essence of what makes us who we are.
A business like any other
I notice it because, working in HR – or, as we call it in my agency, people ops – my role is connected with culture. We are seeing people leave us who would not have left before. They’re leaving because working for a bank or working for an agency feels much the same when relational work falls away and only the transactional elements are at play. We meet, agree, build and bill. But relations have not received the same level of care.
But it’s not just about losing talent. The loss of corporate culture taps into the broader issue of isolation and loneliness that so many people are feeling around the world. I have no church, I don’t know any of my neighbours’ names (well, not their real names – Squeaky Gate Neighbour probably goes by a different moniker outside of our household). So, if I want to know more about a car I am considering buying, or talk about a punk band I just discovered, I go to people I work with – people I know are the right choices for these conversations because of incidental interactions shared in a pre-pandemic workplace. Those incidental interactions don’t happen in scheduled Teams meetings.
And then there’s the matter of empathy – and the social capital that comes with it. When you only ever see people as talking heads online, it’s harder to notice when someone’s not around because they’re off sick. You don’t always see when a colleague is upset, and you also don’t see them beaming after a big win. As humans, it’s these moments of empathy that form the foundation for bonds.
Building corporate culture in a post-pandemic workplace
By now it’s clear that we will never return to work as we knew it before. Hybrid working environments have become the norm and some businesses have gone fully remote. So how do we rebuild the culture we’ve lost? We don’t. Instead, we focus on building a new culture for a new world – one that needs more active facilitation. Interactions that once were incidental need to be engineered. Here are three places to start…
We need to raise wins and losses in a new way and find easy ways for people to show they care about each other. These could be mechanisms like care parcels for people who are struggling or announcing wins in a public forum.
2. Belonging badges
We may not be in a position to notice someone’s Harry Potter mousepad or the milk stain on a new parent’s shirt, but there are other ways for people to identify as part of a group – for example, email footers, social profiles and check-ins at the start of meetings. People could be asked to choose three badges from an extensive list that includes options which allow them to be as personal or detached as they feel comfortable with. I, for example, might start a meeting by sharing that my badges are “married”, “pet-parent” and “Grey’s Anatomy devotee”. These identifiers help facilitate non-work-related conversations and enable people to “find their tribe” within the organisation.
3. Social spaces
We can create communities that like-minded people will gravitate towards, such as a book club, a new parents’ society or a gaming community. As leaders, our job is to amplify these spaces and then get out of their way and allow the incidental interactions to happen within them.
As I pick through the remains of what used to be corporate culture, what I’ve realised is that there’s no point focusing on what we’ve lost – instead, I see so much potential for what we can build.
Vanessa Gibb is People Operations Director at VMLY&R South Africa.
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