Positive Workplace Culture in a COVID-19 World

There’s a reason why companies who are named as one of the ‘Best Places to Work’ see so much success. These organisations have strong, positive company cultures that help employees feel and perform their best at work. Company culture is an integral part of business. It affects nearly every aspect of an organisation. From selecting top talent to improving employee satisfaction, it’s the backbone of a happy workforce. Without a positive workplace culture, many employees struggle to find the real value in their work, and this leads to a variety of negative consequences for the bottom line.

Creating a positive workplace culture is often considered expensive, time consuming, and a drain on company resources. But, it doesn’t have to be. It is a myth that all organisational cultures change slowly. Cultures change slowly when initiatives are ineffective, introduced slowly, or when staff lose trust and confidence in their leaders.

Cultural change can happen quickly when the opposite is true. Effective initiatives and leaders that instill trust and confidence in their staff can bring about fast change. The speed of cultural change is directly related to the speed at which the organisation’s leadership demonstrably get on board and support the change in their own daily behaviours and that of their team members.

What Happens When you Don’t Play Well with Others?

If everywhere you go, there’s a conflict or a problem, we have news for you. If you can do your job well but you can’t seem to maintain good working relationships with your co-workers, that is a huge red flag that you need to address if you want future success. A good performer shouldn’t leave blood on the floor. At some point the cost of your disconnection begins to outweigh your value to the organisation.

6 Red Flags Bad Behaviour is Costing Your Organisation

  1. Several hours each week are spent coaching employees on how to tip-toe around Timmy Temper, so he doesn’t have an outburst.
  1. There is a growing line of employees who are upset about how they have been treated by Patronising Penny, and they want something done about it.
  1. External customers love Miss Hissy-Fit (so you know she can turn on the charm when she wants to) but internal customers are bossed around, insulted and treated like her personal slaves.
  1. Harry Hotshot thinks he is irreplaceable. He is overheard making comments such as, “Without me, this place would collapse!”
  1. Special-case Stanley goes around the organisation’s rules and policies to get what he wants. This upsets the entire system and makes any standardised processes a joke.
  1. Egocentric Eric undermines the authority and effectiveness of his manager. He knows when to pull the “results card” as soon as he’s confronted with his behaviour.

You know it’s really bad when good employees start to quit, or external customers start to get wind of the problem. Building positive workplace relationships is vital for career success. Relationships can positively or negatively affect your satisfaction with the job, your ability to advance and gain recognition for your achievements.

“This crisis is going to introduce some brand-new challenges, but it will also be the catalyst for change that was already bubbling and threatening to surface.” 
— William Johnston

Two Sides of the Same Coin

A company is doing something right if both their employees and customers are happy. Delivering a positive customer experience is crucial to your business. When we give customers a great experience, they are more loyal, buy more, and share their experience with their friends. A recent PwC study found that “73% of all people point to customer experience as an important factor in their purchasing decisions.” An important – and often overlooked – way to ensure positive customer experiences is to build a culture that keeps employees motivated and engaged.

It’s not just speculation: customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction are deeply connected. A recent Harvard Business Review article cites a Glassdoor study which found that “a happier workforce is clearly associated with companies’ ability to deliver better customer satisfaction,” and cautioned businesses that “our research reminds business leaders that becoming more customer-oriented while allowing workplace morale to suffer is a poor and short-sighted strategy. Instead, customer and employee satisfaction should be seen as two sides of the same coin.”

The link between employee and customer satisfaction shows that culture affects your bottom line. Successful organisations invest in empowering their employees and provide them with the right tools and culture to succeed.

“What we shouldn’t do is go back to how everything was. We’ve been handed a really unique, once-in-a-decade or maybe even once-in-a-career opportunity to think about what we really want the office to be, and about how we create spaces that are human-centric. If we end up going backward, we’ll be doing everyone a disservice.”

Kay Sargent

From the Top

Every employee plays a part in the process of changing organisational culture, but at the end of the day, leaders are the ones who can make or break it. The choices they make cause a ripple effect on employee selection, engagement, and performance that powerfully impacts organisational performance. One of the main reasons cultural change programs fail or are slow to take effect in some organisations is that leaders are not consistently demonstrating the new behaviours. This leads to some staff adopting the attitude of “why should I do it if they’re not doing it?”

Great leadership is the key to sustained positive cultural change. Leaders who build trusting environments, communicate effectively, are consistent in their behaviours, and role-model desired behaviours, create sustained positive cultural change.

“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost.”

— David Cummings

What Do Positive Workplace Cultures Involve?

Leaders who meet the identified needs of their staff can bring about huge changes very quickly, building a trusted and sustainable positive workplace culture. One of the most effective ways of creating positive culture change is through fulfilling human needs. Like any relationship when our needs are met by those around us, we feel comfortable, confident, and motivated to stay in the relationship, and do what we can for our relational counterparts.

Culture is made up of three layers

  1. What We See – Behaviours, systems, policies and processes around the way things get done
  2. What We Say – Ideals, goals, values, and aspirations set by the leadership team
  3. What We Believe – Underlying assumptions that guide behaviour

“Talent is the multiplier. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield.”

— Marcus Buckingham

When it comes to driving organisational change, leaders play a critical role in demonstrating their behaviour by setting the tone for what’s acceptable within the organisation. The moment the company is founded, culture enters the conversation. In the early stages, the focus is on building a core team, taking what you value and applying that to your hiring strategies. As the organisation grows, leaders have a responsibility to help define, teach, live, measure, and reward the culture they want to build.

Leading organisational change also comes down to how you reward employees. For example, if you say you value teamwork but choose to give bonuses for individual performance, what behaviour are you really reinforcing? If you say you want to treat your team with respect and support innovation, but there’s a really long process for anyone to start something new, what message are you really sending?

Your leadership decides whether or not what your company believes, what it says, and what employees see align. And it’s up to leaders to implement different strategies that match the organisational culture change you’re trying to make.

“The way that an organisation behaves now will have an impact on whether that organisation is thriving in a year or two’s time. Those that come out strongest will be the ones who truly listen to the needs, preferences, and experiences of individuals, and work to meet them.” 
— Petrina Carmody

8 Eye-opening Stats About Culture, COVID and Work

The pandemic is still far from over, and so are the concerns of HR leaders and working people over getting what they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Here are 8 eye-opening statistics from recent polls and research that point to an urgent need to build better organisational culture:

1. One-third of survey respondents said they don’t trust businesses to do the right thing during the pandemic.

Even though this means that two-thirds do trust businesses, a sizeable number of the 3500 people polled by Salesforce Research are wary of business actions. The global survey was conducted in July 2020 of 3500 mostly full-time workers.

2. More people (80%) are more concerned with their financial well-being than their physical health (78%).

The gap widens considerably among those saying they are extremely concerned with financial well-being (22%) vs. those extremely concerned with physical health (15%). This information was taken from the same Salesforce Research survey cited above.

3. A slight majority of employees (51%) feel less connected when working from home.

This survey, conducted by TELUS International, polled 1000 Americans listed as working during the pandemic. The results were released on July 28.

4. When asked what they missed most about working in the office, employees cited small-talk and interacting with colleagues the most (57%) followed by in-person collaboration with a team (53%) and having a separation between work and home (50%),

These results are also from the TELUS International survey on culture and working remotely.

5. Just 8% of HR professionals say they can get the right data and insights to make smart decisions from their tools.

Global mobility solutions provider Topia released results in mid-July from its survey of 1000 employees in the US and UK, which showed that flawed technology is getting in the way of getting work done.

6. At least 2/3 of employees feel COVID will bring more work-life balance and control over schedules.

The Catalyst survey found that business leaders believed the most that these changes will come about.

7. During the pandemic peak, mothers with young children reduced work hours 4-5 times more than fathers. As a result, the gender gap in work hours has grown by 20–50%

This research paper, published in July by sociology faculty in the US and Australia, examined changes in working hours among Americans from February-April 2020. The paper’s authors said their “findings indicate yet another negative consequence of the COVID pandemic, highlighting the challenges it poses to women’s work hours and employment.”

8. More than 75% of employed US adults are satisfied with employers’ return-to-work plans.

Although the mid-June Harris Poll survey did find most workers were satisfied with these plans, there were gaps among different groups. “8/10 men (83%) compared to 7/10 women (74%) are satisfied with such plans, while generations also differ in their satisfaction levels—with Baby Boomers (85%), Millennials (82%), and Gen X (77%) all more satisfied, and Gen Z (62%) less content.”

“When we can work anywhere, we go to work for social interaction with others.” 
— Jeremy Myerson

Culture Trumps Strategy

When we say businesses must adapt quickly to thrive in changing times – what we mean is people must adapt. And that means that a company’s culture is key to driving growth in any organisation, no matter how much the landscape shifts beneath our feet.

COVID has created a moment of truth for every company. Leaders are rightly asking themselves: Are our choices and actions right now reflecting our culture and the purpose and values that define us?

“Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organisation’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organisation is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

— Louis V. Gerstner Jr.


As leaders and their employees continue to navigate a remote workplace, there are some exercises they can employ virtually, designed to spark real conversation, learning, sharing, and more importantly, the strengthening of shared values and purpose. Creating these cultural conversations, from sharing family recipes to telling the story behind how you got your name, can have a deep unifying effect and offer insight into each team member’s unique personal experience.

Culture is not static; it’s not simply a set of values or a singular mission statement. To treat it as such diminishes work culture and the role it plays in how people come together to get work done. As many workers do their best to collectively come together, while distant, there is a challenge to nurture the shared values and sense of purpose that differentiate an organisation. Through genuine communication and a commitment to finding shared connections, organisations now have the opportunity to emerge from this moment of crisis more unified than ever.

The biggest challenge was to restore a dying organisation, which was losing money, growth and profitability. The first steps were not cutting costs, developing new products and services, inventing clever new marketing concepts, or clever advertising! Instead, the first steps were: rebuilding a culture where all employees were a family, striving for “shared” success! The basis for this success turned out to be winning major races again. 

— Peter Schutz


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Suzanne Cunningham

(HBIC) Creative Director
Pure Element 5