Keeping Company Culture During COVID-19

Winter 2020/2021 Issue
  • By:
  • Alice Devine
While in-person work gatherings are difficult or impossible during a pandemic, many companies are finding virtual ways to keep employees engaged with corporate culture. Getty Images

Virtual tools can help maintain camaraderie and connectedness.

Company culture, sometimes apparent and other times intangible, is a cornerstone of the workplace. According to the Harvard Business Review, culture resides in “shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is most commonly experienced through the norms and expectations of a group — that is, the unwritten rules.”

Remote work, which has become widespread since the pandemic, has disrupted engagement and, in some cases, minimized meaningful employee interaction.

Technology and Interaction

In real estate, culture can manifest itself through design and configuration of physical space. During the pandemic, however, technology has become the vehicle by which people interact. So how do tenants cultivate culture when much of their staff must work remotely? Companies can and do create, maintain and amplify culture by doubling down on their corporate values and sparking employee engagement through innovative practices.

Companies are extending a sense of the physical workplace to remote settings. In much the same way that an office manager might order comfortable furniture, companies have funded employees’ remote workspaces. Elizabeth Ford, a corporate assistant at the Fenwick & West law firm in Mountain View, California, says she has received multiple allowances totaling nearly $1,000 to upgrade her home office. With the autumn fires that ravaged much of California and spread poor air throughout the state, even items such as air filters were considered appropriate expenditures.

Other companies create a sense of connectedness with desk accessories. For instance, Adrian Suarez, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscience major who now works for Mindstrong Health in Mountain View, California, appreciates the small touches. Mindstrong sent Suarez small pieces of office decor, all branded with the company logo. While Suarez admits the gifts might seem “relatively superficial,” he appreciates the thoughtfulness and sentiment they express. Biotech giant Genentech offers its employees virtual ergonomic evaluations of their home offices to support comfort and productivity. So while employees settle in disparate locations, company values of appealing and productive workspaces remain the same. 

Transitioning from a physical to a virtual office landscape implies consideration of employee interaction. In past decades, architects and designers planned open office space with connection in mind. The notion behind such configurations is that true innovation results from “chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization,” according to sociometric data published by the Harvard Business Review.

Remote work, however, eliminates these chance collisions, requiring companies to create connection via alternate methods. Companies such as Mindstrong have responded with events such as Donut, which matches workers in a one-on-one virtual coffee klatch. The Donut program intentionally pairs employees from different departments in an effort to replicate the interaction that might occur in a building cafe.

Remote work can emphasize human-centric values. In a recent presentation from the UC Berkeley-Hass Culture Initiative, Doug Milliken, vice president of marketing transformation at The Clorox Company, notes that when high-ranking executives speak from a home environment — which might involve children, dogs and personal effects in the background — there’s a sense of empathy and openness. While companies shift from a campus to virtual spaces, the underlying values of connection remain present, and can seem more authentic.

Ironically, technology can allow for a more varied level of employee engagement. Genentech has also established no-meeting zones during particular times of the day and week as an electronic reprieve. Further, Genentech offers online counseling sessions to provide support for anxiety that threatens productivity. A virtual setting also solves the issue of off-site workers who, in the past, may have been excluded from campus-centric activities.

For example, when Genentech rang its bell in celebration of a recent drug approval, 13,000 employees — not just those on the South San Francisco campus — cheered online. Technology offers flexibility, both in terms of time and geography, that might remain an important workplace component long after a quarantine period subsides.

Face-to-Face is Still Better

Despite these adaptations, the virtual world is often a poor substitute for in-person workplaces. Suarez, who deals with weighty topics of mental distress, especially misses the office camaraderie. Office mates would offer advice and comfort to each other during face-to-face meetings.

“I miss the balance between work and the people who understand the workflow and who can help me cope,” Suarez says.

Communicating over text just isn’t the same, either, because it is precluded by confidentiality practices or because such online chats burden an already overloaded chain of communication.
Ford also misses the dynamic environment of a headquarters office. She says that for holidays such as Halloween, an entire floor might be turned into a pumpkin patch, complete with balloon making and games. It was an event that included families and significant others, allowing for genuine firm-wide participation.

In addition, training can suffer. Ford notes that office settings place assistance a short hallway walk away. While that same paralegal is virtually available, Ford notes that it requires “scheduling and blocking it online.” Motivated employees such as Ford do this, yet one wonders how much employee development might be lost in a more formal multistep process.

Despite the losses felt by the absence of physical connection, technology and human concern fill much of the gap — at least for now. These adaptations may persist in some regard, such as more flexible work schedules, but on the whole, tenants feel the absence of a central workplace keenly. Although it is too soon to tell when, a return to the office will help reinforce company culture and help retain employees who value face-to-face interaction.

 

Alice Devine

Alice Devine is the author of “Suite Deal: The Smart Landlord’s Guide to Leasing Real Estate,” the 2019 Bruss/Robinson Book Award winner from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.