Creating a Winning New Work Culture Amidst COVID-19

Creating a Winning Work Culture Amidst COVID-19

Published 2nd July 2020
EDB Insights
Published 2nd July 2020

COVID-19 has accelerated the transformation of workplace practices. We now live and work around masks, safe distancing and telecommuting — and this is here to stay until a vaccine is found, predicts the WHO.

The time is now for businesses to create a workplace culture that thrives in this new reality.

This topic anchors a recent webinar jointly held by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI). Moderated by HCLI Chief Executive Officer Doris Sohmen-Pao, panellists included:


EDB HCLI Webinar Panelists

From left: Ms Doris Sohmen-Pao, Ms Low Peck Kem, Ms Stephanie Nash, and Ms Anika Grant


Working from home… forever?

Where the workplace is in the new normal is clearly up for debate. In a poll of 550 participants during the EDB-HCLI webinar, close to 70 per cent indicated that they would not like to return to the office full-time. This echoes a recent survey where 90 per cent of employees prefer to continue working from home in the future.

One participant asks, “With remote work being touted as the future way of work, how do we find ways to replace the 'water cooler conversations' that happen via face-to-face interactions? How can we make sure employees reach out to communicate with managers while working from home?

Indeed, traditional ways of building strong work culture will need to adapt to an increasingly home-based workforce. So, how can we do it?

Empathy bridges the (remote) distance

Empathy is a defining part of the future of work culture, especially since the pandemic has led to uncertainty in both our personal and professional lives.

“It is imperative to demonstrate empathy, at a human, family, team and organisational level,” says Ms Nash.

On an organisational level, she shares the example of Airbnb Chief Executive Officer Mr Brian Chesky’s empathetic approach, which has been lauded by HR experts. In a recent round of layoffs, Chesky wrote a heartfelt letter to provide clarity on the leadership team’s decision-making processes, and mobilise resources to help departing employees find new jobs. Chesky’s empathy and effort increased trust in and loyalty to Airbnb’s leaders and its brand.

At the team level, empathy is crucial in better supporting your colleagues’ well-being, an urgent need amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel shares a few tips:

  1. Go back to basics and get to know your teammates again. Take time for one-to-one conversations on motivations, circumstances and well-being. Simply listening and offering moral support remind them they are not alone.
  2. Next, be creative and intentional in finding ways to connect. As Ms Low points out, “we cannot assume that we simply can’t do certain things anymore!” Ms Low has leveraged technology to host a virtual farewell lunch with her team, and intentionally sets up check-in Skype meetings for employees to share updates, ask for support or simply have a quick catch-up.
  3. Be vulnerable. Do not be afraid to share your “unglamorous” side. As we work from home, showing colleagues how we look like when out of the office sets people at ease. Sharing struggles and learnings allows your team to provide mutual support and promote trust.

For a summary of the 3 steps you can take to create a new work culture for COVID-19 and beyond, check out the at-a-glance infographic here!

Trust, trust and more trust 

“The culture that is going to win is people-centred, with a high level of trust. When you trust your employees, they will grant you the same level of trust,” says Ms Low. “We should adopt a trust-by-default stance, and trust that employees will do a good job and deliver.” This is especially important with a remote workforce.

Ms Nash shares her past experience as the Chief People Officer at e-commerce company RedMart. During a challenging business pivot, company leaders fostered trust by communicating information as quickly and transparently as possible. “We had to make difficult decisions, but the key was to treat people with respect, so people would weather the storm with us. As a result, we lost a minimal number of people, and the loyalty that came out of it was greater than ever,” she says.

Trust is fostered through human-centred leadership. HCLI explains that this involves being compassionate towards your teammates by giving honest feedback and genuinely trying to improve their well-being. This empowers everyone to trust each other in pursuing shared goals.

That said, the flipside of trust is accountability. One participant says, “When trust is given, employees must at the same time be held accountable.”

Ms Nash agrees. When employees’ commitments change due to circumstances at home, “they and their managers need to have accountability conversations about performance and development.” Without the ability to conduct face-to-face reviews, adds Ms Grant, we need to become outcome-focused in assessing productivity and performance.

This, of course, requires managers to be open and transparent even when they don’t have all the answers.

“What is important is to emphasise that the situation is always evolving, and we need to be open to revising our answers and admitting that we were wrong,” affirms Ms Sohmen-Pao.

Employees seek change — help them get there

“Companies have a responsibility to help people reskill,” says Ms Grant. For example, amidst COVID-19 closures, Dyson’s 3,000 retail workers were redeployed to create digital content, driving consumers to Dyson’s online platforms.

In adapting to changing realities, companies must practise flexibility and resilience, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

To build flexibility, help your staff adapt to new roles and deliverables better suited to changing needs. Even as some jobs disappear, empower your workers to pivot. Now is the time to “protect workers and not jobs,” advises Ms Low.

To build resilience, grow your team’s capabilities for innovation.

“In areas where work is going to change, invest in upskilling your workers in adjacent skills,” adds Ms Low.

Upskilling creates a more well-rounded, cross-trained workforce, and boosts your company’s morale and effectiveness in bouncing back from challenges. Ms Low also encourages employers to tap on government programmes such as the SGUnited Jobs and Traineeship programmes that includes training support and traineeship positions.

Graphic Summary
Snapshot of webinar highlights: How to seed a successful work culture


The teamwork formula – building culture together

In crafting a positive work culture, leaders must first define the attributes they want to see. Then, they must walk the talk “a hundred per cent of the time,” shares Ms Nash. Leaders must consistently demonstrate their company’s key values, so that this culture can cascade downwards.

Leaders must also ensure that policies are underpinned by these cultural attributes. Company processes — including management, hiring and performance — have to reflect your culture for coherence and buy-in.

With an increasingly global and diverse workforce, culture must be relevant to employees at a personal level.

“Think about how to tailor your culture and make it relevant to your people,” urges Ms Grant.

Of course, employees are crucial to a successful work culture. While building culture starts at the top, it needs to be translated vertically and horizontally across the organisation. Encourage questioning and feedback. In particular, HR practitioners are uniquely positioned to support leaders and staff on ways to apply and exhibit company values.

Find opportunity in and beyond crisis

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about great uncertainty, it is also an excellent opportunity for leaders to create a strong and sustainable workplace culture.

Building a culture of trust, empathy and flexibility can tide us through the current crisis, while fostering deeper resilience to weather challenges ahead and thrive. Creating such a culture requires the effort of everyone across the board. As Ms Sohmen-Pao shares, “Crisis brings out superstars at all levels.”

This article first appeared on Insights, the content hub of the Singapore Economic Development Board. To receive regular updates on what’s shaping the Asian business landscape, exclusive business guides and event invites, please subscribe here.

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