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Culture Shifts during COVID-19 and Beyond

By: Camille Cantrell, Marketing Manager 

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Beyond Remote Work: COVID-19 Culture Challenges

Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, much of our focus has necessarily been on logistics: the nuts and bolts of reorganizing the workplace. As companies scrambled to continue operations as safely as possible, health guidelines have changed the physical layout of offices and factories. For employees able to work remotely, technology issues, virtual schooling and scheduling challenges have littered our working days as we adjust to an ever-evolving new normal.

As time goes on, our focus has to shift to the long-term challenges of working in a COVID and even post-COVID world. The pandemic has precipitated changes in company culture, and today’s leaders are tasked with not only righting the ship, but also charting a sustainable long-term course.

Long-term Shifts and CEO Attitudes

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A PwC survey of nearly 700 CEOs indicates that the majority believe operational changes spurred by COVID-19 are here to stay. These CEOs predict more remote collaboration (78%), automation (76%) and fewer employees in the office (61%), beyond the pandemic and into the future. More than half say their business will be more digital in the future.

These changes require leaders to do more than simply adapt their organization’s technology program and leave policies. For remote work to succeed, there must alsobe a cultural shift to foster trust, engagement and a focus on results. For many companies this means C-Suite leadership teams must adjust their approach.

In July, Siemens became the latest Fortune Global 500 powerhouse to announce a new remote work policy, allowing employees to work remotely in the location of their choice 2-3 days each week, permanently. CEO Roland Busch indicated the policy “will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office. We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.”

Pivoting Leadership Style in the New Paradigm

What does a change in leadership style look like? According to Sue Bingham in Harvard Business Review, leaders should focus on developing a mindset for complexity—which is unpredictable and requires flexible thinking—rather than for complication, which requires linear problem-solving. “Complexity conscious HR leaders view company performance as the result of open and clear communication, positive assumptions, and self-management.”

With a distributed workplace, leading across locations and time zones can be complicated, to say the least. It is particularly challenging for leaders who are new at the helm themselves, who may be trying to lead a group of people whom they’ve never met in person. For example, our portfolio company Sailfish Boats successfully transitioned in new CEO earlier this month, Rob Parmentier, who even dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak within the first two weeks of his tenure. Rob acted quickly and practiced CDC protocol to maintain safety throughout the manufacturing facility. He used CDC recommended contact tracing and the entire team was tested immediately.  Within a day, the entire facility was disinfected, and test results began to come in.

Successful leaders foster inclusion, model flattening the hierarchy, and give employees more control over complex decisions. “Now is the time to focus on interpersonal relationships,” Bingham writes, “rather than control, standards, and hierarchy.”

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Protecting Your Team Against Continued Risk

Until the pandemic recedes, obviously all leadership approaches must include considerations for employee health and safety. Page Siplon, CEO of a portfolio company of ours, TeamOne Logistics, says, “we consistently talk about maintaining social distance within the office and everyone’s commitment to stay home if they do not feel well.”

And as Parmentier learned quickly, it’s important to have a procedure in place for when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. This plan should include steps for protecting the infected employee and their coworkers, collaborating with the CDC and local health authorities, determining appropriate closing, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and acting in accordance with both the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Creating A Seamless Culture Across Locations

Intentional communication is more important than ever, and not just for handling crises or running effective meetings. Leaders should also create opportunities for employees to connect and contribute informally as well—a space to generate ideas and share concerns that may not fit neatly into the day’s agenda.

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Page Siplon puts it this way: “I remind myself to speak with the intention of creating opportunities to listen…. When the pandemic arrived, my efforts to keep in touch with the team did not change but require more creativity sometimes.”

Once some staff return to the office, it will be even more critical to create time and space for all employees to be heard and acknowledged, regardless of their location. Leaders should make a concerted effort to include remote workers in recognition and staff development plans, to avoid falling prey to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

Conclusion

Whether you are a new leader finding your bearings at a company, or a long-established captain of the ship, embracing a positive remote work culture is key to navigating today’s workplace environment. We recommend creating a culture of trust and open communication to get the best from your employees.

When in doubt? Focus on the positive. As Siplon says of his future-focused strategy, “sharing a bright spot in challenging times is a great way to strengthen everyone’s spirit.”

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