When the office goes, what happens to culture?

In the early months after Submittable, a Missoula, Mont.-based software company that employs about 100 people, shut down its office because of the coronavirus and told employees to work from home, people manager Asta So spent a lot of time figuring out how and when to bring workers back. But as the pandemic dragged on, her focus has increasingly been on boosting the morale and gauging the work/life balance of homebound employees.

“One of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to keep our culture,” So says. One of her recent projects was “trying to get 15 random employees to get shaved ice in this park near our office—to go outside and, socially distanced, see people that they don’t normally get to see, to cultivate more spontaneous or impulsive interactions.”

In the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, So and her teams also organized virtual lunch get-togethers, though lately there’s been some “Zoom fatigue.” Now, some teams are establishing lunch hours where people make sure to go offline or trying to arrange one-on-one meetings in safe outdoor locations—although, “with winter coming, it’s going to be more tricky.”

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None of this was in the training manual for So—or for any other HR executive—when they signed up for people management. As the extended pandemic not only triggered lengthy shutdowns but also inspired many firms to announce full-time work-from-home options for many or all employees, people managers needed creative solutions to brand-new problems. Do workers have the right technology, ergonomic chairs or other logistical support? How do you foster a collaborative culture when workers aren’t in the same place? And what about workers who struggle emotionally with being home alone?

Related: Learn about the new tech options to support remote and hybrid environments at the 2020 virtual HR Tech Conference. Click HERE for more info.

“The biggest problem is isolation: How do you force these collaborative pathways?” says Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She says one of the biggest new tasks for HR is to work closely with middle managers to make sure they have the right tools and apps, and a smart strategy, to make teamwork happen remotely. “The virtual watercooler is needed,” Rothbard says, “but it may feel weird to managers, and so you will need to create models.”

Rothbard also notes that companies saving money from downsizing offices or expenses such as maintenance need to think about ways to reinvest some of these dollars on the new needs of employees working from home. Some firms are already doing that, including ServiceNow, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based software company, which early in the pandemic gave each homebound employee $500 to spend on wellness needs, then expanded the payout to $700 to address other issues such as technology for workers’ kids learning from home.

See also: How to build culture for blended workforces

Karen Drosky, a vice president for human resources at ServiceNow, says monthly wellness surveys have been critical. “Those wellness surveys informed us what we needed to do to make employees happier,” she says. “They told us what they needed.” ServiceNow also employs gimmicks such as a contest for the best “staycation,” because the tech firm—like many of its rivals—worried that locked-down employees weren’t using their time off.

Submittable’s So says she also directs considerable attention to keeping the workforce both energized and connected without an office, taking formerly in-house features like exercise classes or lunchtime-discussion groups onto platforms such as Zoom. “We’re trying to translate all the things we used to do in-person to online,” she says.

Alex Alonso, the chief knowledge officer at the Society of Human Resource Management, says it’s important for HR leaders to be patient, realize the pandemic may not end quickly and be flexible. “I would ask most HR officers, people managers and other business leaders to think about what happens in the pandemic that you’re going to make permanent,” he says, “and, rather than just thinking in terms of cost and operations, think about what kind of cognitive work to take from this so when the next situation arises, you’re ready to deal with any number of challenges that arise.”

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