Mar 27, 2020 Nick Bartlett

COVID-19: How to keep company culture thriving even though everyone is working from home

COVID-19: How to keep company culture thriving even though everyone is working from home

As a member of HR, you feel you need to be prepared for anything because our roles involve dealing with people. No two days look the same when you’re working with hundreds or thousands of unique individuals, each of whom has their own challenges to overcome, both personal and professional. Even then, coronavirus caught us all completely unaware.

Although as a technology company with expertise in remote working solutions, 1E was able to get everyone working from home quickly, the challenge was still overwhelming. For 1E specifically, getting people up and running at home wasn’t that difficult. Within a week we had 98% of our staff remote working, which included shipping equipment and purchase of desks for certain employees. No, my biggest concern was—and still is—the potential longevity of the coronavirus pandemic and what that means for the strong company culture we at 1E have striven to create.

Why company culture matters

Fostering a strong, positive company culture has always been really important to me. Not least because one of 1E’s core values is being part of the 1E community. Globally, we have social spaces that our employees use to relax, we provide breakfast and snacks to encourage employees to spend time in the kitchen to catch up with their peers away from their desks, we have several social events per year to help people unwind and let loose, we ensure all our employees globally meet every single year and visit the London HQ. Put simply, we want everyone to feel that they are part of 1E, are 1E and want to be at 1E.

And I think we’ve succeeded. Over the years, I’ve seen colleagues turn into lifelong friends or partners, personal milestones joyfully celebrated in the office, photos of smiling employees on noticeboards or desks around the office, hysterical laughing and spontaneous hugs in all corners of the office.

So, what do you do when you no longer have access to that space and freedom of movement that had so much influence on fostering such a great company culture?

Thinking creatively for the unplannable future

It became very clear to me early on in this pandemic that whatever we did, there was no way to really plan for this new way of working other than to accept that this could be the norm for some time now.

As a result, my HR team has been forced to think creatively about how we can function and thrive in the long term by fostering company culture in a remote workforce. We know we’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed by this challenge, especially given its importance. After all, we all acknowledge that a company is only as good as its people. And, with all the challenges this pandemic poses to the personal lives of our colleagues, we can at least ensure their working lives are the best they can be.

That’s why I’ve decided to share the initiatives we’ve implemented at 1E with the wider world so we can all learn from each other in this unprecedented time.

Helping employees manage their work/life balance in times of crisis

The first hurdle I wanted to tackle after self-isolation was enforced globally is understanding how best to support employees who are in more vulnerable circumstances. Many of my peers have young families or care for elderly relatives, and some are doing so singlehandedly. Working an 8-hour day or being online during standard core hours are simply untenable objectives for many who are carers.

We quickly implemented a support scheme that focuses on giving employees as much flexibility in how they work. Our efforts focused on communicating to employees that the company actively encourages a discussion and review of each individual’s circumstances to work out what the best option would be for them personally. As a result, some employees have taken up flexible work hours, others have used annual leave or other unpaid leave, while others have adjusted their core hours or spread out their working week across the whole week to enable them to manage their home and work commitments effectively.

Giving employees this freedom to work how and when they want is crucial to easing the burden on their shoulders in this difficult time. We, as a business, are in this together and we owe it to our employees to help them as much as they help us to succeed.

Fostering communication in a remote workforce

You don’t appreciate the advantage of bumping into a colleague at the coffee machine and then popping into an empty meeting room to continue the chat until it’s taken away from you. Now, communication is remotely done, which means it’s more structured and less spontaneous than ever.

We quickly realized that we couldn’t underestimate the power of video calls in fostering collaboration and keeping people engaged. It’s much easier to sense tone and feel close to peers when you see them, even if it is on your laptop. How many of us have opted for video calls with friends and relatives during this period of self-isolation? Seeing a familiar face, even virtually, makes you feel less alone, which is why we’ve made it company policy that all meetings must be a video conference.

Spontaneous communication is also something we’ve thought long and hard about. We’ve opted to make Microsoft Teams our go-to platform for all things collaboration. To keep the company culture alive, we’ve set up a 1E Everyone group and encourage employees to share photos of their home office space, share funny stories or videos, share recipes, share TED talks or other motivational content, and generally feel connected with everyone. We’ve seen the group space explode with content and responses. It’s nice to know that despite the distance between us all, we still feel connected in some way.

Encouraging virtual fun

I take pride in 1E being a fun place to work. In the office, Friday afternoons would be the time for people to unwind over a cocktail or two. Every month, we would host a lunch and learn session for employees to share knowledge about something they’re passionate about. Every day, there would be a new music playlist on in the kitchen.

We don’t want to lose that fun aspect of working for 1E even if people are working from home. That’s why we encourage our employees to continue pursuing these fun activities in a virtual environment.

Many teams have opted for virtual happy hours where they can all unwind with a drink and a catchup about anything other than work. Some teams host virtual lunches and breakfasts to reconnect with employees who they no longer can bump into in the office. We also encourage employees to tell us how else we can keep the company culture alive at this time so they can socialize freely as they would be in the office.

Supporting remote employee management

Company culture is massively influenced by the manager-employee relationship. While some managers have been managing teams in other locations, many have not. And when managers are confronted with having to manage an entire team remotely, the first challenge is instilling trust in all parties so they can openly collaborate and share their concerns or struggles. The second challenge is understanding how to effectively manage performance from afar and in a supportive way.

If I’m being honest, this is an area that I’m still working hard to build out. Right now, we are focused on management coaching to share best practices on remotely setting objectives, assessing performance and managing people when you are not in the same room with them. However, we are developing a more robust plan for effective remote employee management that I will share with you soon.

We’re in this together

The coronavirus pandemic has taken us all by surprise. I don’t think any company was really prepared for this really sudden shift to a new way of working. As HR leaders, it’s our role to help our employees adjust as best as we can in this time so that their professional lives become the least of their concerns. I hope these insights from 1E help you in keeping your company culture thriving in this challenging time for us all.

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