Can an organisation’s culture be preserved during the pandemic?

Will an organisation’s corporate values and culture dry out during the pandemic? Is it really an issue for corporations to be concerned about? In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Work From Home (WFH) Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture” by Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott, the authors discussed how companies like Slack, Infosys, and IBM have realised that their existing approaches are inadequate to convey aspects of corporate culture to remote workers.

For tech companies, this is a real, pressing problem, as most companies are onboarding new employees remotely since March 2020. It is not unusual to have new employees who have been employed for over a year who have never stepped into the office premises. Some have not even met or interacted with a single colleague physically. At 99x, we have added over 70 employees who have yet to spend a day at the physical office. All their interactions from hiring to onboarding, and to their current project engagements have been virtual. Personally, I am very grateful to be able to work from home, as it avoids the panic, contact tracing, and follow-up measures needed when working within the office. However, the scenery after 15 months of WFH is all too familiar as well. 

Culture is caught rather than taught

A former colleague shared that when new employees join a company, they first look up to the leadership and see how they behave. Then, they look around to see how their peers behave, and use these observations as cues to adapt their behaviour. In corporate culture theory, researchers identify elements such as stories, symbols, ceremonies, and celebrations that portray corporate culture to employees. IT companies have always competed to provide the coolest offices to attract talent, providing extravagant spaces to foster creativity and innovation. What happens when the comforts of a pool table, TT table, and foosball table disappear and all you have is your desk or worse, your dining table? What happens when all interactions with your employer are limited to virtual meetings? Virtual channels restrict how behaviour can be interpreted compared to physical interactions, as online interactions are almost always focused on an outcome.

I remember a game I played years ago where you attempt to steer a ball towards a goal with a cardboard funnel on your face. You see the surroundings only through the small, coin-sized opening at the end. Virtual interactions are similar when it comes to communicating the whole story, especially aspects of culture. Yes, some messages are transmitted but not every aspect comes across when it is communicated virtually. 

Should companies be concerned?

Since joining 99x in January 2020, I have met less than 20% of my colleagues physically. I was lucky to have two months in office before the first lockdown was imposed. While the productivity levels can be maintained, I have found WFH is more draining than a regular day in the office. Unlike in a physical office environment, there are very few light moments or welcome distractions when working from home. Over time, a sense of isolation can set in and the element of “fun at work” with colleagues can erode. 

Focusing on culture, the traditional onboarding processes for new employees are harder to implement virtually. Even when replicated fully, the effectiveness is questionable when online delivery is used. The facilitators will need to expend more effort, and use different tools to engage participants and ensure the content is absorbed. Virtual delivery also limits the bonding that is common among a “new batch” of joinees during the induction, until they form stronger ties with the rest of the company. As a result, the organisation will have employees who may not have fully integrated themselves into the company or have close friends in the workplace. While they contribute on projects, they may not have a passion for the company, its values, or purpose.

 What are the symptoms?

During WFH, employees feel less connected to the company and to each other. As a result, there is a drop in employee engagement and the drive to engage fully in activities outside of your core role. The pandemic has made it impossible to engage collectively in sports, CSR, or fun events. While you can replace the Aluth Avurudu games with a virtual event or move the Sports Day to an e-sports competition, it is not the same. Sometimes the ties built when collaborating on activities outside of the usual project work are much stronger.

The remote working arrangements impact those who are new to a company than those who have a longer tenure and have built stronger relationships. Without any ties to the company or commitment to its values, new employees can look to freelancing opportunities as a flexible, more financially rewarding alternative. Longer term, it could become a challenge to retain employees as their level of engagement is lower.

A hybrid WFH model will help

It was encouraging to see Singapore take bold steps and return to more flexible social interactions. Thanks to the Covid variants, I cannot guess when we are likely to be back at work. The results of a survey published by The Future Forum covering 9,000 knowledge workers identify that only 12% would like to get back to working in office full time. The majority, 72% of employees, prefer to work in a hybrid model, with selected days within office premises. As opportunities for more face-to-face interactions increase, the onboarding processes can be tailored to have sessions focused on culture as a priority. 

In the interim, the HR representatives and project leadership will need to take extra effort to maintain engagement. Even simple measures like virtual tea/coffee break conversations with new employees can help build relationships and become opportunities to share stories of the company’s culture and values. 

(The writer is the Chief Marketing and Corporate Affairs Officer at 99x and spearheads marketing activities while supporting business development and customer success initiatives. He is an accomplished practitioner with over 25 years of experience in the tech industry with complementary roles in programme management and corporate consulting. Before joining 99x, he was the Executive Director of SLASSCOM. His industry experience includes banking and financial services and global IT services with Virtusa, Societe Generale [SOCGEN], Nations Trust Bank, and Union Bank of Colombo)