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UNEXPECTED TWIST

Company culture is holding up surprisingly well in the pandemic

REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Still plugged in.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Reporter

When companies suddenly moved to remote working, with no timeline as to when—or if—they’d be going back to the office, a likely casualty appeared to be corporate culture. How could companies hope to maintain that intangible but powerful aspect of their businesses, predicated as it seemed to be on so many real-world things: colleagues meeting and socializing face to face, perks ranging from free coffee to onsite gyms, the design of the office environment itself?

But a new study from Quartz and Qualtrics, a firm that helps companies manage employee experience, suggests the impact on culture in workplaces around the world hasn’t been all that detrimental. In fact, more people said their workplace culture had gotten better in the pandemic than said it had deteriorated—though there are some interesting wrinkles in who felt most positive.

Among the 2,100 people who took part in the study, 37% said their workplace culture had improved since the start of the pandemic, compared to 15% who said it had deteriorated. The rest reported little change. Respondents were all employed adults in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, and the US.

The idea of company culture is both powerful and hard to pin down. Thinking about our own workplace, we might land on a specific word—generous, say, or cut-throat—or on an image of colleagues drinking cocktails together, or arguing, or sitting in silence in a big, hushed office. All of us would likely have expressed our pre-pandemic culture as complex, based not on a specific place or a handful of individuals, but somehow a product of those things and more: people, place, values, activities, and a hundred other influences.

To try and get more insight into what people thought had changed since the pandemic began, the Quartz/Qualtrics study gave respondents a list of attributes they might ascribe to their company and asked them to rate whether they had increased, decreased, or remained unchanged during the pandemic. Many more people reported that positive attributes like supportiveness and kindness had increased than said they had decreased. When it came to negative attributes, those who reported an increase still outnumbered those who thought there had been a decrease, but not by as wide a margin.

Is culture really improving?

From a set of mainly quantitative results, it’s not possible to draw a conclusion about why people thought their cultures had improved. But there are plenty of indicators out there of what might be going better.

Potentially, we’re wasting less time. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, although we’re attending more meetings in the Zoom era, the average meeting length is shorter and we’re collectively spending less time in them. Most firms report having upped communication, meaning that employees might be feeling more connected. There’s also been a huge shift in flexibility, with firms having to acknowledge, some for the first time, that their employees have complex lives, which sometimes incorporate children, aging parents, health concerns, and poor housing, to name just a few of the challenges the pandemic has pushed to the fore.

Even though we’re not seeing our co-workers so much, we’re often seeing more intimately into their lives: Pets and babies appear on video calls, messy or neat rooms can be observed in meetings. Our decisions about whether to don loungewear or suits, and what to do about our hair at a time when salons are closed, all produce new information and—it’s to be hoped—encourage empathy.

A gender divide

Not everyone is feeling the positive changes equally, however. Men were about 40% more likely than women to say their company culture had improved since Covid-19 struck. More than half of all male workers also said they felt more connected to their company since the crisis began, compared to just 28% of female workers. And men were more likely to say that loyalty and support at their companies had increased.

Again, the study itself doesn’t answer the question of what exactly prompted this split. But other evidence can provide some pointers. Women’s jobs have been harder hit by Covid-19 than have men’s, both because the industries they tend to work in have been hard-hit, and because they have lost their jobs at a higher rate. More than one UK study has found that women were also more likely to be furloughed. Still-employed women (such as those in the Quartz/Qualtrics study) may well be feeling less secure as a result.

Perhaps even more saliently, women overall have been much harder hit by the problems associated with providing care while also being expected to work. Several studies have found that women, even if they are employed full-time, have taken on more of the childcare and homeschooling than men, with the likely result that they are more tired, less able to work efficiently, and more torn between conflicting loyalties—and their mental health is suffering as a result.

Interestingly, the gender divide was one of the only imbalances that showed up when it came to perceptions of cultural change. Cutting the data by geography revealed that North Americans were somewhat more likely to have noticed a positive cultural change than those in other regions, but otherwise there were no significant regional variations. Nor were there any employees from minority groups that felt significantly differently about culture, though there were differences when it came to minorities’ perceptions of diversity initiatives by their employers.

The best get better

Living through Covid-19 can often feel messy and confusing: We all struggle to work out what we can or should do, and plan for a future that’s much more uncertain than usual.  But when it comes to our relationships with work, it seems that in many cases the pandemic has been clarifying, reinforcing what people already thought and felt about their employer.

The 70% of people who said their company had a good culture before the crisis were more likely to say that it had improved. Those who said their culture was already bad were more likely to say it had deteriorated. The split suggests that having a robust culture sees companies through the bad times, while adversity further destabilizes shaky foundations.

Not rocket science perhaps, but a useful lesson for companies as to why avoiding toxicity and sponsoring values like fairness and kindness are worth while.

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