How COVID is Transforming Culture and the Workplace

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June 4, 2020

It’s hard to gain clarity when you’re sitting in the eye of the storm, that storm being COVID-19. The virus has single handedly rocketed working life into the future. Huge businesses have done in a matter of weeks what would have taken years to implement but with this comes questions around the impact this has on employee wellbeing? And how will company culture adapt and evolve to support the new normal?

We were thrilled to have Marcus Thornley, Play and Totem CEO, join Mercer’s Nick McClelland, Partner & Growth Leader, and Teresa Beach, HR Director in their webinar to discuss work wellbeing and culture beyond COVID-19. Each voice brought a new perspective, one an SME and the other an enterprise business, bringing their experience and learnings of the past few months to the table.

The Challenge of Remote Work

The initial impact of COVID made leaders recognise the feelings of material and emotional responsibility for who we work with. For small, close knit teams like Marcus’ that spend a lot of time with each other, you become close and can easily notice nuanced changes in each other. Face to face, these things can be dealt with in real-time but are much harder when remote and it’s difficult to keep this connection alive and pick up on how your people are doing.

Bigger companies like Mercer also experienced similar challenges around improving visibility and opening channels of communication. “As Brits we’re known for saying ‘I’m fine’ – not until the third time of asking that you get an honest answer,” Teresa explains. “So we’ve been learning to ask active questions especially now we’re working with fewer verbal and visual queues.”

The Evolution of the Office

“The doing of work and the premises of work has been decoupled. We’re now all working from home and the pendulum is going to swing back – but not to where it was.” - Marcus Thornley, CEO Totem

COVID’s impact on the workplace seems to have come in a series of phases, from transitioning to working from home to managing wellbeing. What’s next? In line with the evolution of the office, Marcus shares that his focus right now is on making sure we’re connected and openly discussing the return to work and what that looks like.

What we’re learning now is what we need from our offices in the future. We can’t afford to not take this opportunity and evaluate where we’re going. It’s raising questions like: What’s an office for? What are our roles and responsibilities with each other? What does employee experience mean when working from home?

Why Building Trust Matters

Setting up employees for success at home has had its individual challenges and we’ve learned the obvious like working from home isn’t for everyone, managing home schooling is tough and so on. But on top of this employees have been frightened, placing reliance on leadership to provide information, reassurance and act instinctively.

Teresa explains that amidst all of this, we’ve learned, “how creative, loyal and committed our workers are and that there are true advantages to remote working. For example, there is nothing more balancing than everyone occupying the same tile on a screen. We’re learning what it takes to manage people, how to act with more contact and empathy. To develop trust through really listening.”

Building trust is more important than ever as work has now occupied a private space. It’s important to tread very carefully and push leadership as far down the business as possible. To create a trusting culture that is really aligned, ask yourself what are the best behaviours and decisions to exhibit?

The Growing Needs of Employee Wellbeing

“If work and home are dissolved together, then work has to step up in terms of supporting people at home – but doing it in such a way that is not intrusive,” Marcus explains. Work used to be synchronous but this can’t work as it normally does with the thousands of other things going on at home. Play are tackling this through increasing flexibility.

In switching to asynchronous working, whilst at home and on the return to the workplace, the crucial factor in success is building channels for communication. People simply need to know when you’re working so they can respect that space. It’s about setting boundaries so they can be recognised and respected, giving people the opportunity and trust to define their own rules.

It’s important to recognise that whilst the way we work is changing, the way it looked before wasn’t perfect either. For a lot of people it felt very artificial and now we have an incredible opportunity to rethink what work looks like. How it can evolve with us as we change and adapt with technology. To hear the full conversation, click here.