When COVID-19 hit, most people were forced to adapt to a new way of working, almost overnight. 

For HR directors, this meant making some rapid changes to retain a productive workforce for what we all thought would be a matter of weeks. 

Over half of the employed population started remote working, new temporary safety measures were introduced, methods of communicating were completely changed, and all of us were trying to make sense of the uncertain and alarming situation unfolding.

Fast forward to today and lots of the above still applies. The way of working has changed for good, and for many organisations, this has had a big impact on workplace culture. 

We spoke with Lisa Kramer, Business Psychologist at Kooth, to discuss some of the cultural gains and losses, and to get her advice on how HR directors can retain the positive changes and redefine their culture.

 

Cultural Losses

 

Work and life balance

For many people, working remotely some or all of the time can make it difficult to form the necessary work and home boundaries.

Lisa Kramer: “We have become resilient in working from home, and actually sometimes performing better than we did in the office. Some people have become super productive and the pace has picked up. This has caused a work-life imbalance, with many people ‘living at work’, rather than ‘working from home’.

“There is a constant ‘on’, and the boundaries have become blurred for many – just because we can check our emails at 10pm at night, doesn’t mean we should. From an organisational perspective, this gives increased potential for burnout as people are being too conscientious and putting in too many hours. This can be useful for productivity, but not when it turns into burnout. It’s like a marathon – you can’t run at peak levels the whole time.” 

Less standardisation for employees

Now that many people are hybrid working, there are issues for HR directors and managers around how to standardise practises for employees and ensure fair treatment. 

Lisa Kramer: “If you have employees that are in the office everyday, they might be more likely to be considered for a promotion. Research suggests that seeing someone in person can help put them at the forefront of thinking and strengthen relationships. People working remotely might also be likely to miss out on off the cuff conversations and in-person chit chat, which is actually really important for strengthening bonds within teams. It can also help with an employee’s sense of belonging.

 

“There might also be staff who don’t want to come back into the workplace yet. Where do HR policies fit with this and what are the legalities around this? It’s all quite unclear. It’s also difficult to know how to manage meetings and day-to-day procedures when you’ve got half the team in the office and half at home.” 

Training new employees

For the many people that have changed jobs during COVID-19, the training process might have looked different. For new starters, and especially young employees where they may have less experience in the workplace, there has been a lot of responsibility and pressure to find information or the contact they need. It has also been difficult for HR leaders to adapt their recruitment and training processes to ensure thorough training.

Lisa Kramer: “For those who are new to the workplace, there is a lot of responsibility to seek out the information they need. In the office, you pick up so much by hearing conversations, shadowing others, and integrating with the team. Online you simply don’t get this. If you’re an apprentice for instance, you need to be with others to learn the skills of your trade.”

Cultural Gains

As well as the clear losses, there have also been some surprising and significant gains. 

Flexible working

Until very recently, an employee had to wait until they had spent 26 weeks in a company before they could ask to work flexibly, and these requests could only be made once a year. The Flexible Working Bill has recently changed, however, meaning that employees can now request this from day one. This is perhaps a reflection of our new understanding and trust in empowering staff to work flexibly: the pandemic showed us that home working and flexible arrangements can be made and that people perform to a high standard. 

Lisa Kramer: “Hybrid and flexible working is now something that we are all entitled to. For employees, it allows consideration for individual circumstances and for some employers, it potentially gives them access to a more diverse and inclusive talent pool, as they can now recruit the best person for the role, irrespective of location or proximity to a central office.”

Increased resilience

Many organisations have been forced to adapt their approach, which has led to further innovation, new opportunities, and improved strategic resilience.  

According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the foundation of this is stronger, more hardy teams. A sense of “we are all in this together” has connected employees, and there has been more understanding, compassion, and adaptability from both employees and employers. 

More understanding of mental health

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on wellbeing, with many of us experiencing isolation, loss, and changes in routine. Many more adults are experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression since the beginning of the pandemic. The Kooth Pulse 2021 report highlights this, finding there was a 28% increase in adults feeling down, depressed, or hopeless everyday, and a 17% increase in suicidal or self-harm thoughts.

Lisa Kramer: “Mental health is finally being seen on a level with physical health. There is more understanding around what mental health is, how it can affect us, and how we are all susceptible to it. This can help to reduce stigma, which is really important. We can learn to address it in a different way and build a workplace culture that recognises and accounts for mental health.”

So much change has left HR leaders thinking about what they need to do to retain the positive culture changes. Now more than ever, people want compassionate, ethical and supportive employers, and evidence shows that people are not afraid to leave somewhere that doesn’t embody these things:

  • Resignation rates are at an all time high and in one global study, Microsoft found that over 40% of employees were thinking about leaving their employer.
  • Job vacancies are also at a record high in the UK (Office for National Statistics, 2021)

 

Lisa Kramer suggests there are a few things that employers can do to redefine their workplace culture:

Embed mental health into every level of the organisation

Employee wellbeing is one of the biggest drivers of productivity, engagement, retention, and success. With increased rates of ill mental health and 60% of HR directors reporting more demand for mental health support at work (Wellbeing at Work, 2021), employers need to find ways of prioritising wellbeing at every level.

Lisa Kramer: “Mental health needs to be ingrained into the culture of the values, and has to be considered in every decision making process. It’s about reducing workplace stressors, creating a non-judgmental environment, having compassionate and supportive leaders, and taking a flexible approach to individual circumstances. It needs to become the norm in standard practices across the company.”

This can be done by:

Equipping leaders with training

Line managers and leaders need the skills and confidence to have conversations around mental health, and to know when and where to signpost to. 

Lisa suggests that it is not about asking people to be mental health experts, it’s about asking them to be compassionate leaders that aren’t afraid to talk about mental health:

“Line managers need skills in active listening and in approaching conversations in a non-judgemental way, as well as knowing what to do if they are concerned. Put mental health check-ins as part of one-to-ones, performance reviews, and general conversations. By asking ‘how are you really doing?’ and seeing that person in context, you get to know what else is going on in their life. You can then understand that person better and are then able to detect any changes in mental health or productivity.”

Providing necessary tools

When it comes to providing wellbeing support, make employees aware of what is available to them and offer different options for accessing support. For some people, this might be face-to-face therapy, for others, it might involve offering an anonymous, text-based service. It’s about making wellbeing support accessible to all, whether they are working in-person or remotely. 

For some organisations where having conversations around mental health might be new, Wellness Action Plans (WAPs) are a great tool to help open up the dialogue around mental health. WAPs are personalised plans that can be used by all employees, whether they have a mental health problem or not. They help to understand what keeps an individual well at work, what might be an issue, and what to do if they are experiencing a problem. WAPs also allow for employees to take accountability for their own mental health.

Designing or redesigning policies and procedures around wellbeing

For work to have minimal impact on mental health, policies need to reflect employee wellbeing. This involves reducing workplace stress by giving manageable workloads and opportunities to feedback if this isn’t the case, allowing people to find an acceptable work/life balance (for example, relaxing rules around working hours and encouraging staff to take regular breaks), and offering flexibility to account for individual circumstances. 

Effective communication 

It’s all well and good having the above points in place, but ultimately it comes down to communication across the organisation.

Managers need to be clear in how they communicate with staff, ensuring they come across as open, understanding, and transparent in their expectations. 

For people to feel comfortable, HR leaders also need to communicate to staff that the workplace is non-judgemental and safe. This comes down to how mental health is promoted, championed, and spoken about by senior leaders in the organisation. 

Rethinking what is meant by “community”

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community and social networking, and that it doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be limited to in-person meetings – which many employers have traditionally relied on to build culture and community. 

We all have strong ties (people we are closely connected with and mix with frequently), and weak ties (acquaintances who you interact with fleetingly) within a community. According to research by Mark Granovetter (1973), a sociology professor at Stanford University, it is actually the weak ties we should be focusing on building at work. Having lots of casual acquaintances can help to improve our sense of belonging and introduce us to a more diverse range of information and ideas.  

According to Lisa Kramer, companies need to focus on making opportunities for weak ties to flourish in this new way of working:

“If you’re in the office, you bump into people at lunch, and you can make small talk with employees in different departments. All of these candid and fleeting interactions are actually integral to building community at work and generating a broader spectrum of ideas. We need to make spaces for these interactions to happen.” 

Employees that are remote working tend to focus on mixing with their strong ties, the people that they work closely with and feel connected to already. While this is great for building a wide emotional support network, it can shut off opportunities to mix with a wider range of people. 

It can be especially difficult for new starters, who may have few strong or weak ties in the workplace, to integrate into a team and feel connected, with research suggesting new employees have reported higher levels of loneliness during COVID-19. 

It is down to HR to rethink the spaces where connections form. This might involve setting up a coffee morning (offline or in person) for employees, putting time aside before a meeting to have informal chats, or pairing current staff with new employees to help with training. 

Listen and adapt

Workplace culture has to reflect employee wants and needs. HR teams need to invest time in listening to staff and reflecting employee voices throughout their redefinition of culture. 

Lisa Kramer uses employee perks as an example:

“If you chat to staff, they might no longer want meal or cinema vouchers as employee perks, because a lot of people are still hesitant to go out at the moment. Access to online digital mental health support, for example, might be more appropriate as an employee perk post-pandemic.”

Whilst COVID-19 may have initially brought panic to employers and employees, the experience of cultural losses and gains has served as an opportunity for HR leaders to consider and evaluate their workplace. 

Many organisations are making vast and important changes to reflect new priorities. Redefining any part of workplace culture can take years to implement, and this experience has shown that these changes can happen quicker. That being said, now that we are moving forward and adapting to a completely new working world, take your time, let employees adapt and ensure that changes are fully thought through and realise that this is an iterative process.  

Start with compassionate and open leadership, allowing space to try new approaches and giving employees room to work out and voice what feels right. From here, you can start to build a stronger, more collaborative workforce, with employee wellbeing at the forefront.

By Milly Bennett-Day, Kooth