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Pandemic Changes Hit Workplace Culture

Just as workplaces have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic—with more employees working remotely and increasingly stringent hygiene measures in facilities—workplace culture has also evolved.

Earlier this year, Security Management covered an Emtrain Workplace Culture Report that traced the sources of workplace culture and conflict back to six key elements: unconscious bias, social intelligence, preexisting mind-sets, in- and out-groups, power dynamics, and norms and practices (read more here).

In its ongoing surveys of clients’ employees, workplace education and analytics company Emtrain discovered several key changes in workplace culture due to the pandemic that it shared in an updated fact sheet.

Comparing responses from 13,000 employees after 15 March 2020 to responses from more than 100,000 employees collected before that date, Emtrain found that employees’ rating their company’s workplace culture as “healthy” in the area of preventing workplace harassment fell 10 percent, even though 9 percent more employee see their coworkers exhibiting higher social awareness after 15 March.

Workplace norms also took a hit—Emtrain reported that 9 percent fewer employees said “there are well-understood norms of behavior governing how people treat each other in their workplace” after 15 March.

This is particularly concerning because strong norms are the primary driver of positive workplace cultures, according to Emtrain CEO Janine Yancey. Security Management connected with Yancey over email this week to briefly discuss the new report findings and how organizations can cope with the pandemic-driven changes in workplace culture.

SM. How does workplace culture shift when organizations pivot to remote or home-based work?

JY. Culture matters more than ever in the “new normal” of remote or home-based work. Real work-from-home practice requires a dedicated office space without any distractions. Today, most people are converting dining room tables and sofas into workspaces, taking care of children, attending more Zoom calls than ever, and trying to actually get work done. Since we’re all remotely connected, we’re checking and responding to messages throughout the evening. Some are afraid if they don’t respond to their managers or team members, they may be viewed as unproductive. This causes stress and anxiety levels to skyrocket. And that’s on top of all the stress and anxiety associated with the actual global pandemic. 

We know from our research that respect and empathy are essential to building and maintaining healthy workplace cultures. Never has that been more true than right now.

SM. What surprised you about the changes in workplace culture findings before vs. after the declaration of a national state of emergency?

JY. I think the biggest surprise was how quickly the culture began to deteriorate after the workforce changed. It didn’t take long for our surveys of employee sentiment to see opinions on things like harassment culture and employee identity begin to fall.

SM. Apart from remote work, how else has the COVID-19 pandemic affected workplace culture? Has Emtrain seen any positive effects?

JY. There have been a handful of positive signs. Our data found the percentage of people who said their coworkers would speak out when someone at work has done something inappropriate increased 2 percent.
Employees’ saying others at work get away with disrespectful behavior due to their authority position declined 3 percent.

SM. How have workplace norms fared during the pandemic? What sort of effect could this have on workplace safety, such as harassment issues or other negative behavior?

JY. A lack of strong norms for the “new normal” is impacting culture. Post-pandemic, we see a 10-percent drop in the number of employees who see “well understood norms of behavior that govern how people treat each other.” That’s a big drop in one of the most significant indicators of healthy culture in our benchmark.

Businesses that are just biding their time until things return to normal may be leaving employees without a clear idea of “how we do things around here” now that everyone’s “here” is different. Consequently, we see an 11-percent drop in employees who say that their “workplace culture is healthy.” That’s a clear signal that it’s time to adapt or develop norms and practices for the way we’re working now.

SM. What sort of manager or organizational leader behavior can mitigate some of the negative cultural effects of remote work?

JY. First and foremost, we know that culture comes from the top.

Leaders, this is your time to shine, over-communicate, and recognize the efforts of everyone throughout your organization. Daily short video updates posted to a specially created Slack channel, or on your internal portal, can go a long way to keep employees feeling connected and motivated. They can also be fun opportunities for employees to get to know you better as a person and a leader. Taking the opportunity to connect with employees either individually or in small groups can also be valuable in nurturing the culture and connections within your organization. You could even take it old school by sending a handwritten note to one or two employees a day during the pandemic.

Another important way to nurture the positive aspects of your culture is to be responsive and professional when someone reaches out to you online. If someone stopped by your desk at the office, you wouldn’t ignore them. If it was a bad time, you’d let them know. Treat Slack or emails in the same way. It’s like someone popping over to your desk with a question or just to chat. If you are buried in a project and can’t respond relatively quickly, simply set your status on Slack. Or if there will be a delay in your response, just simply manage expectations.

One last thing to remember about Slack (or any chat tool you’re using), email, and texts: it’s super hard to read tone in electronic communication. What one employee may believe to be dry humor, another may interpret as cold or even flat out rude.

These social intelligence skills may seem obvious to some, but they are more essential than ever. Embracing the human element in one another will go a long way in nurturing your company’s positive culture now and in the future.

Interested in learning more about fostering positive workplace cultures? Check out these past Security Management articles: 

How to Create a Culture to Prevent Harassment: Experts offer advice on creating an organizational culture to prevent sexual harassment.

Creating Culture TogetherAn organization's culture is crucial to success. If yours is lacking, it can be assessed and improved—one conversation at a time.

Bully for You?: More than three-fourths of U.S. workers report that they have been bullied themselves, have seen it happen to others, or are aware that it happens in their workplaces, according to data from multiple sources.