A Shake-Up in Employee Engagement and What We Mean by ‘Company Culture’

8th March 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown company culture and employee engagement are no longer the preserve of senior management. They live and breathe through all employees at all levels.

Due to the pandemic, no longer is company culture and employee engagement something that lives only with senior management. Precovid, HR often put these ideals on a ‘to do’ list, as part of a tick box exercise. Ways to bridge the gap between actual culture within an organisation, and desired culture, often met with internal communications around mission statements and core values. This would be accompanied by employee perks such as free fruit in the staff room, dress down Friday or monthly birthday celebrations.

Employee engagement surveys sent out and with the culture-building exercises complete, senior management would comfortably move on, feeling they had achieved their objective. They had put actions in place to align their people with company culture, improve employee satisfaction, boost employee happiness; thus increasing employee engagement (and staff retention).

Events of the pandemic have pushed organisations to re-evaluate their approach to employee engagement and company culture. In fact, mass working from home, plus the demand for flexible working has flipped the whole thing on its head. These influences have forced a step-change in what employees expect from the organisation they work for…

We explore seven reasons why employee engagement approaches will change:

1. Top-down approaches

Remote working is fatal to top-down employee culture approaches.

Top-down leadership/employee culture approaches often result in communication challenges – these can be further amplified by remote working situations. Top-down leaders don’t receive feedback from their employees around opportunities and threats to the business. As such, senior management leading on company culture approaches may not be successful going forward, particularly if remote working continues. It is likely that in the future, different people and functions within a company will play different roles in cultivating and maintaining a desired company culture.

2. Office routines

We are no longer following the routines and rituals of an office environment.

Covid-19 has changed the way leaders and employees interact, as well as how coworkers connect with each other. Employees are no longer in the office; they are now individuals in their own space, outside of organisations routines and rituals. Their needs therefore are going to be more diverse requiring their organisation to be flexible, empathetic and varied in approach. Companies will need to shift not only the way they communicate with their people, but also how they engage with them, and build trust, in a meaningful, personal way.

3. Desired vs. actual culture

Remote working will stress test the desired culture vs. actual culture of an organisation.

As mentioned, there is a difference between “desired” culture and all that this entails and actual culture. “Desired” is the values an organisation promotes as being their culture – essentially branded culture. There is always an element of aspiration with a desired culture; it is something that the organisation wants its people to continue to support and pursue. Actual culture is the current reality and is based on what people do, how they treat each other and how they behave at work.  In the office, there are many opportunities to promote your desired culture through brand placements and office rituals. With a strong internal communications strategy that covers every touchpoint, actual culture plays a smaller role.

Many organisations have found a sweet spot whereby their desired culture and actual culture are similar. For these organisations, the challenge will be in trying to keep them aligned, especially when new recruits join. New people, in working remote,  will be less aware of the culture and could dilute things by behaving in ways based on previous employment. This could be a stress factor for an organisation.

For organisations with disparity between desired and actual culture, a remote workforce means that there is less opportunity for internal communications to support closing the gap. This means actual culture will become more obvious and employees are able to see discrepancies between what is the current working culture versus the culture the organisation likes to pursue and promote. Gaps are also at risk of opening further as the workforce are influenced from new, non-work factors present in their work from home environment.

4. A company culture shift

Company culture will shift from ‘brand values’; becoming more about personal values and human experiences.

The fact that organisations are having to shift more towards the needs of the individual, rather than the individual being asked to align with the company culture, highlights a step change in employee engagement and what it means to have a “company culture”. Perhaps it calls into question whether employees of the future will be expected to engage with brand values or whether company culture will be more about the human experience, the way we treat each other in the workplace and meaningful human connections.

5. Focusing on productivity

The pandemic has proven that levels of productivity are more essential than hours worked.

The jury is out at this point whether the pandemic has entirely put an end to the commutes and 9-5 hours. Equally, the vast majority of the UK workforce has experienced a different working lifestyle where less time is spent travelling and where they are measured on their work outputs as opposed to the hours sat at their desk. This is going to change employee expectations on how, where and when they can work. Organisations are going to need to consider their stance on how they want to approach work life balance by examining the relationship between hours worked by their people vs productivity – as this is a major part of company culture. Offering flexible working arrangements, that fit the needs of the individual,  is likely to attract and retain top talent that remain engaged.

6. Catering to individuals

Organisations will need to cater to the needs of the individual as opposed to requesting that individuals follow a set of values or office routines.

In response to the demand for flexible working, organisations will need to continue to support a positive work environment for their employees post covid. This must include making sure that work fits into their employees’ lives and not the other way around. Management will need to pay attention to factors that impact employees outside of work. When employees feel that their personal needs are valued by management, their emotional connection to the organisation is strengthened and they are more likely to stay on.

7. Giving recognition

With less emphasis on being present in an office – recognition will be key to employee engagement – particularly if remote working continues.

If anything the pandemic has highlighted that employee happiness does not equate to employee engagement and vice versa. In fact, research has shown that recognition is more likely to result in a culture where there is increased levels of accountability, responsibility and leadership initiatives. “Research shows that high performing teams have a praise to criticism ratio of 5:1, meaning they give each other 5 times more positive feedback than criticism.” Deloitte.  Recognising employees may prove challenging for organisations with a remote workforce; identifying who is performing well and knowing how to recognise them in a meaningful way. The WOW! Awards employee recognition programme could provide a solution to such a challenge.

Covid has shaken up the employer/employee relationship. – Organisations are now having to shift to accommodate for each individual employee on their terms. What does this mean for the future world of work? It’s too early to say how things will evolve when we eventually surface from the chaos of lockdowns and pandemics. One thing we can predict is the onus will be on an organisation to build individual, meaningful relationships with their people. Connecting with employees based on empathy, trust, flexibility, responsiveness and recognition.