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HR from a distance: How to build a strong company culture during and after the coronavirus crisis

Rethinking culture-building during a pandemic
aerial view of a laptop on a home desk while an HR leader works to build company culture while working remotely during the coronavirus crisis

An open door policy is one that many HR leaders embrace—except if no one is in the office, no one can come through your door. The coronavirus crisis has prompted HR leaders to rethink the culture-building work they do for their organizations on a day to day basis. How can we make employees feel seen and heard—when we can’t see or hear them in person? What can we do to ensure teams have the tools they need so they truly feel they’re still working collaboratively? When should we allow employees to work remotely on a permanent basis—and when should we allow them to return to the workplace?

To get answers to these pressing questions for our HR community, we spoke with organizational culture expert Jane Garza, managing director at NOBL. Jane shared her tips for HR leaders on how to build a strong company culture during these unusual times—even from a distance.

Below is a condensed version of the Q&A, edited for clarity. Some of the questions include:

  • How can we better foster a positive company culture and collaboration from afar?
  • What collaboration tools are most effective for HR leaders?
  • How can we make remote meetings more productive and engaging?
  • Will the experiences of the coronavirus crisis permanently change workplace culture?
  • How should HR professionals manage requests from employees to continue working from home indefinitely?
  • What practical steps can HR leaders take to make good decisions about remote work and returns to the workplace?
  • What suggestions do you have for communicating with leadership about major workforce decisions?
  • Are the benefits to a remote workforce from a culture perspective? 

In response to the coronavirus crisis, many organizations quickly switched to working remotely without much advance preparation. How can we now better foster a positive company culture and collaboration from afar?

Right now, there’s a bit of a scramble for companies who have never done remote work. What ended up happening is that many organizations adopted a flush of new tools, new meeting styles, everything. Everyone’s calendar got booked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with Zoom calls. 

That transition period was somewhat directionless, because we were just trying to get through it and adapt. But now, HR professionals are at a place now where you can tell what’s working and what’s not.  We can do a retrospective on the last 90 days or so and see what we’re going to officially endorse as our way of working going forward.

For example, we could decide we’ll use a specific for all internal communication, another tool for video calls. We’ll only set meetings if we have an objective. If we need a brainstorming session, we’ll use certain practices around what needs to happen so those sessions aren’t happening in this ad hoc, as-you-go way. 

Working from home, we can default to practices that can feel really unhealthy for people, blending home life with work really easily. That’s top of mind for me. Even if people aren’t saying this, you can probably safely assume that they’re feeling meeting overload because every conversation I’ve had with a client or friend or leader has included something along those lines. I would operate from: How do we protect people’s time in a moment in history when we’re all overwhelmed to a certain extent, just dealing with all of this?

What collaboration tools do you recommend for HR leaders?

There are a lot of collaboration tools out there, like Miro, Mural, and Slack—as well as apps inside Slack like Donut, which randomly pairs people for coffee dates. But collaboration is really less about the tool than how you use it.  

The real key is knowing when you’re going to collaborate live versus asynchronously.. A recent study showed that for healthy remote collaboration, you want what’s called “bursty” communication: lots of silence and focused work, then a burst of communication, before going back to the silence and focus. You can formalize that process a little bit and say, for example, mornings are quiet hours, afternoons are meeting times, or give guidelines for how to collaborate inside Miro. 

The thing about like remote collaboration is you do need to plan more and give things structure: Where are we going to collaborate? How are we going to do it? Does everyone know how to use the tool? Does everyone have an account? All of those preemptive steps will help you get the most out of those collaborative sessions and not have it be this painful new technology clunkiness that often happens.

Three months into the safer at home orders, many employees are reporting “Zoom fatigue.” How can we make remote meetings more productive and engaging?

Don’t make every meeting a video meeting. Humans are not made to sit still in front of a webcam all day, every day, and to think about our presence and watch ourselves constantly. It gets exhausting, and you’re trying to force a sense of connection that isn’t really there. 

Make it a phone call if there’s no reason to actually to see people’s reactions and sense how people are feeling. For example, there’s no reason to make a simple approval meeting a video call.

Do you think the experiences of the coronavirus crisis will permanently change workplace culture?

There’s the most optimistic version of myself that hopes we’ll have more empathy and care for each other as a result of all of this. We’ve been getting on calls with colleagues and seeing kids run in and dogs barking, and we accept that right now. For a long time, it was the opposite in the office. It was very buttoned up, especially in certain environments—you had to be perfectly polished. I hope that all of this extends a little bit more human empathy for everyone.

My other hope is that we don’t stop doing a true check in with people at the top of a meeting, where we really ask, “How are you doing? How are you dealing with this?” For a long time, the norm was just to dive right in. This moment has caused us all to be more thoughtful and caring about where everyone is coming from, in a way that I hope we’ll hang on to after this.

For leaders, this crisis is not too dissimilar from 9/11, in that you’re going to have people returning to the office who have gone through a range of experiences. Some people have felt no difference beyond just working from home, not seeing their colleagues. Others have felt extreme grief and lost a loved one. Others maybe have partners or dependents who have lost their job and are dealing with financial insecurity. 

I hope that we don’t forget that context—the range of experiences that are coming at us every day inside the group of people that we work with.

Many surveys have reported the majority of employees who started working from home during the coronavirus crisis would prefer to continue working from home at least some of the time. How should HR professionals, from a culture perspective, manage these requests?

Almost every leader I talk to right now is in the middle of making huge sweeping decisions they don’t feel they have a right answer to—decisions like: Do we go back to the office and put costly safeguards everywhere, or do we just remain remote and figure out how to convert our culture remotely? And at one point does this become the norm versus the temporary? 

From an HR perspective, what matters first is to remember that, for the time being, we’re all working in the middle of a pandemic. The biggest thing that HR can do is understand how to meet the overall needs of an employee right now versus getting really lost in objectives and goals. At this point, people are still asking, “How do I protect my family? Will going to work mean potentially not protecting my family because I’m in an office with a bunch of other people?”

I worry that some companies are just going to go back to the norm because that’s what we tend to do. Humans just tend to snap like a rubber band back to what we’ve done before. 

But I would almost look at this as a clean slate and consider: If you were building this business from the ground up today, is there really a reason to be in an office? Or can this be done remotely? If you’re not feeling like you’re losing a whole lot of traction, what harm could there be in continuing remote work? And if you’re going to continue remote work, what practices are you going to put in place that are codified in your culture? 

What practical steps can HR leaders take to make good decisions about remote work and returns to the workplace?

Number one, this should be a conversation between HR and people leaders. So first, design a focus group inside your organization—your team leaders and HR together—to walk through a series of questions, starting with: Are we going to go back to working full time in the office or not? 

Let’s not assume that a return to the office is a given. Let’s figure it out. If there’s a chance that you can save a lot of money on real estate, and maybe spend that money on things like cultural initiatives or bonuses for your people, this is an opportunity to rethink how you’re using your resources.

So I would look at it that way: What do we want to do with this resource? And what’s our strategy behind it? 

I’m not for or against returning to work. it just really depends on the type of work that you’re doing and the types of teams you have. Sometimes there are certain jobs that can’t be done from home. Certain teams may just need to be able to see each other and be together. 

Second, if you do return to the office, ask: What’s our really good reasoning around that decision? 

People are going to want to know why. I don’t think you can just say, “we’re going back,” and not explain. The best thing that you can do for people right now is give some reasoning around what’s next. 

The third thing is, I would plan some test cases. A lot of folks that I know in the HR community are doing this now. For example, if a certain team has to be in the office, pick one part of that team, bring them back to the office, then do a test run for a couple of weeks to a month. See what you can learn from that, and see what works or doesn’t. 

For these test cases, try to find people who are interested in volunteering. There are people happy to work remotely, but I also know people who miss the collaboration and the community. Find that target group.

What if the desire to return to business as usual is coming from leadership? If an HR leader wants to start with a conversation as you recommended, but the CEO wants everyone to get back in the office as soon as possible, what suggestions do you have for communicating with leadership?

I would start by directing leadership back to the why. I would say, “Okay, sure. We’re going to go back to the office. What I would recommend that we do is do a little bit of scenario planning. What could go wrong if we go back to the office?” 

Then just list out what could go wrong. The most effective way to do this is to say, “We’re going to put ourselves three months down the road. We’ve returned to the office and everything has gone wrong. We look around and people aren’t working well together. People are sick, everything has blown up in our faces. What happened?” Then, make a list together as a team.

Then rank that list by likelihood. What is most likely going to happen for our culture, our people, our specific context? Start to create some strategies around that. How would we make this successful? 

If people are upset, for example, that we returned to the office too fast, what can we do about that? We can provide the reasoning. Sometimes leadership wants to do something different from HR. But there needs to be a real reason. Otherwise it looks like you are putting people at risk and it doesn’t seem like a sound decision. 

Whatever you can do to help advocate for the employee’s voice, I would start there. 

Related: Performing a project postmortem

Are the benefits to a remote workforce from a culture perspective? 

One thing we’ve seen through COVID is that parenting is a full-time job, even more so now when kids aren’t in school. That’s just one example of the lives that people have outside of work, and working from home provides the ultimate flexibility—it allows you to put the laundry in in the middle of two meetings, then come back and still get work done.

That’s one huge benefit of a remote workforce. It creates autonomy for people and their day and how they work. It limits distraction. We went through a whole phase of open space offices, and a lot of our clients felt that pain because a series of studies that showed that those offices are actually really, really distracting. 

It varies for the type of job, but that’s one benefit. Most companies aren’t finding a dip in productivity. That old school mentality of “butts in seats will give me productivity” is not really true. A lot of people have felt that and have hoped that leaders would feel that soon. And coronavirus has brought it all to a head, because there was no way around it.

Many studies show too that most people aren’t productive from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those people may be productive from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. then 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Allowing people that flexibility to choose their working hours is a useful way to get more out of your people and give them the power to choose how they get that work done. 

The one negative is, of course, you have to be more thoughtful about how you collaborate. That would be the number one thing I would think about: How will I create those magical moments of collaboration between people in a way that still feels useful, not overly structured, and gets us the same benefit of innovation that happens when people run into each other in the hallway and start talking?

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