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Driving workforce culture for a post-pandemic world

By Dr. Rebecca Mulvaney, Jackie Attwood-Dupont, and Mary Schwarz
Managing Partner, ICF Next Government
Oct 23, 2020
7 MIN. READ

With much of the workforce working in virtual offices from home, business leaders can seize the opportunity to transform culture and drive employee change.

Many employees have been working from home for months, and this is likely to continue and expand even after the pandemic. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Nationwide are already committing to varying models of increased and permanent remote work. Given the cost and efficiency benefits of flexible or more formal telework programs, how can companies adopt this model while continuing to drive innovation, strong organizational culture, and high employee engagement?

Culture often manifests itself in day-to-day interactions and practices, so there is a risk when routine changes and daily structure looks so different. Perhaps most importantly, engagement among employees is now more critical than ever as companies seek to both continue to recover from a significant economic downturn as well as transform in order to succeed in the future. 

For employees and businesses, it’s tough out there

We know how isolating the sustained transition to remote working has been. Whether an employee or business leader, basic new challenges have united us: being full-time employees plus full-time homeschool teachers, our teams overhearing our spouses’ conference calls, or sharing our office chairs and zoom backgrounds with our pets. While some companies experienced an initial novelty and connection around the sudden and intimate view into people’s lives, there is a new phase of change happening now. As businesses make more permanent decisions about work locations and face a prolonged economic downturn, they are heading into more of an engagement marathon—starting with employees who are already exhausted by change and by the general anxiety 2020 brought with it.

What exactly has been lost from the traditional building blocks of culture and engagement? Most obvious has been the lack of face-to-face congregations around public spaces like kitchens, cafes, or even hallways. These proverbial “water cooler” moments are fertile ground for ideas, collaboration, and innovation. They are also the home of the company’s unofficial culture. Networking has proven to be particularly challenging—whether internal or external—as opportunities and communication styles have been forced to change in an online environment. For countless others, employees’ time and focus are evolving and must be more flexible due to family commitments or other important tasks at home.

In fact, research has shown that these challenges existed long before the COVID-19 crisis and are now much more widespread. For example, teleworkers in particular can experience lower quality of work life and higher level of professional isolation than their peers. But research has also shown us the potential benefits of a work from home environment: most notably, increased efficiency.

Culture must work for companies through change

For businesses, there is a big opportunity at play. Businesses must be purposeful and innovative at this crucial moment in their approach to culture, employee engagement, and employee inclusion. They need to dial up the benefits of efficiency and cost savings while limiting or reinventing approaches to any potential downsides related to innovation, career development, and engagement. Further, we know from our research that employees are expecting increased flexibility in the future and operations teams are expecting savings on real estate. For both the now and the future, companies must prepare for a new kind of culture and engagement model. Now is the time for a reset—to both the business strategy and an evolving workforce culture.

Get intentional and embrace flexibility

As workforce culture continues to be impacted by the pandemic, businesses should seek to get intentional about—and double down on—culture, as well as embrace the new norms of employee flexibility.

We encourage our clients to take the following steps:

  1. Consider your business model.
    Some business models face regulatory, compliance, or product delivery challenges in a permanent remote situation. In these cases, the goal of culture and engagement work has to be about sustaining culture and commitment until employees can begin to return to the office. However, many other businesses are realizing that an in-person model is not required and are beginning to reimagine the way work gets done in the long-term. Those changes to daily work patterns will change culture, and businesses should take steps to protect valuable pieces of their culture while allowing or even encouraging evolution in other areas.
  2. Consider your culture-driven opportunities and threats.
    Every culture has elements that are a “double-edged sword,” which the virtual environment can change and enhance. For example, a consensus-driven culture can mitigate risks but also slow decisions. In a virtual environment, the steps required for consensus may either be more extensive and time consuming to ensure no one is excluded or may be broken because they relied on offline conversations. Instead, consider the constraints of the virtual environment as an opportunity to state a preference for shorter paths to approval and re-state more streamlined decision-making guidelines. The new environment, combined with new processes, will ultimately change the culture.
  3. Ask your employees.
    Employee surveys and work sessions are helpful tools for understanding the model that is preferred by your workforce and how that would reinforce or alter previous components of company culture. Businesses have the opportunity to engage the workforce in the process of something new, which is critical for strong change management. Existing data and documentation about what define a company’s culture and values should be compared to what employees report about their current situation—and what they want to see moving forward.
  4. Map your technology.
    A thorough technology needs assessment is required to see what is possible and to create a roadmap for the best working environment in the future. Businesses should also keep in mind the path to implementation and how to encourage employee adoption.
  5. Play it out.
    Before putting in place new policies or launching any engagement work, companies must carefully think through the full runway of effects. For example, if hiring managers can pursue talent from any location, how will time zones impact workflow? In closing some but not all regional offices, will companies introduce career path challenges for those who are suddenly remote? And if employees no longer need to be in an office, will they be empowered to work from anywhere? Legal, tax, and HR implications must be considered along with cultural implications.
  6. Keep the good.
    If happy hours and office parties were important to culture prior to the pandemic, how can you keep doing them and model them into the future? Some companies may have success with smaller format and game-driven virtual engagement. There are also opportunities to create engagement communities around shared interests. Groups focused on interests such as parenting, career development, and inclusion can suddenly span geographies and employees in a way not possible before when, for example, they were office-based lunch gatherings. Of course, in-person events will be possible again one day. Companies should consider how they want those to operate if they move to a more remote model.
  7. Encourage moments of connection.
    While chance run-ins are currently a thing of the past, companies can encourage employees to connect one-on-one by email and instant messaging. Whether they are sharing an article, a funny meme, or recap of a favorite television show, less formal communications with colleagues is a chance to engage on a personal level and sustain relationships.

Consider your future-state

In short, when planning for the evolution of your business’s employee experience, take into consideration the following inputs: where your workforce culture is today, your current engagement levels, what your current technology makes possible, and alignment between your business model and customer needs.

Businesses must also start to consider that employee flexibility will become a battleground for both employees and employers to be more competitive. Businesses who can meet employee expectations and also thrive in still producing excellent and competitive work will be best positioned. These businesses will have:

  • Purposeful culture.
  • Defined and meaningful employee value propositions.
  • Clear and competitive policies for remote work.
  • Strong technology enablement of culture, teams, and workflows.
  • Focus on continuous improvement and change management.

Businesses everywhere need to be more agile now in order to foster and drive a strong workforce culture while also embracing change. As the saying goes, change is the only constant—and these days, that couldn’t be closer to the truth.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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By Dr. Rebecca Mulvaney, Jackie Attwood-Dupont, and Mary Schwarz
Managing Partner, ICF Next Government

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