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  • Lisa Walden

Maintaining a Healthy Culture in the Time of COVID-19



When as a kid I imagined what 2020 might look like, this is NOT the Jetsons-esque world I had in mind. This year's headlines read more like dystopian fiction than news, but for a while at least this is our (overused phrase alert) “new normal.” Or perhaps our next normal.


Many of us are still reeling from the shakeup. From practicing social distancing, to consuming a deluge of unending scary news, to completely rewriting our routines and daily norms, the world looks very different. And work is no exception.


We moved as much as possible over to the virtual realm. Zoom plays the role of conference room, watercooler, and new favorite meme subject. As many challenges as all this change has brought up, there’s one that feels particularly steep: how do you maintain a functioning culture in the wake of this crisis?


We’re glad this question is top of mind, because anyone who knows anything about corporate culture can tell you this: culture is not static. It’s an ever moving, ever growing, morphing thing that needs constant tending. You can’t afford to stop thinking about it while you figure everything else out. But this also isn’t the time to audit your core values or roll out any new policies. Now is the time to keep it simple.


With that in mind, here are three relatively straightforward ways to maintain a healthy workplace culture during these unprecedented times:



COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE


You know the old saying, “no news is good news?” Pay it no heed. Right now, communication is a lifeline, and any vacuum in communication will become a black hole of darkness. Literally. Thoughts like, “Am I going to be let go? Did I drop the ball? Have I not been responsive enough? Are we going under? What are they not telling me?” are playing on loop in employees’ minds. They need clarity (and reassurance, if you can give it) whenever possible. At the very least, they need thoughtful transparency. Err on the side of overcommunicating. Keep your messaging frequent, earnest, and simple. If it makes sense, send an update every day at the same time. And don’t skimp on video. So much gets lost in translation over email, text, and yes, even Slack. Seeing the whites of each others’ eyes, even in a video chat or on FaceTime, makes all the difference!



DON'T LET VIRTUAL = TRANSACTIONAL


One thing that happens when work shifts to the virtual realm is that everything becomes super transactional. Being behind a screen robs people of opportunities for the casual watercooler exchanges that are common in the workplace. On top of that, right now everyone is hyper-focused on figuring out how to get their work done while juggling some combination of new routines, homeschooling, and their partner’s work schedule. Crossing things off the To-Do list can (sometimes unintentionally) become more important than the people you’re working with.


But the relational aspect of work is a huge motivational factor. It’s what gels teams together. It’s what makes for a thriving, people-first culture (instead of a collection of productive robots). When working virtually, it’s so important to find ways to add relational elements to day-to-day interactions. Open up meetings with short icebreakers. Make time for checking in, personally as well as professionally, during one-on-ones. Host virtual happy hours so people can chat about the latest hit show on Netflix (currently, the very bizarre Tiger King). The virtual space can absolutely be one for nurturing culture, connection, and team building. It just requires intentionality.



EMBRACE A GENEROSITY (NOT SCARCITY) MINDSET


This one might be the hardest of the three. In times of fear and panic, people can freeze up. They try to protect themselves and their livelihoods, and it leads them to operate from a scarcity mindset. This can turn into all kinds of potentially toxic behaviors… thinking the worst of coworkers, leaders, employees. Being tight-lipped with important information. Keeping your head down and focusing on yourself. Not offering help for fear of standing out (in a bad way). Making decisions strictly based on “what’s best for the company's bottom line” without considering what’s best for your people. These behaviors are counterproductive and will actively hack away at your company’s culture. Ditch the scarcity mentality, and embrace generosity instead. Assume positive intent. Offer to help when and where you can. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you’re stuck (even and perhaps especially if you're a leader). And most of all, be generously, radically kind and compassionate. In times like these, even a little bit of care and understanding can go a long, long way.