What Have You Learned About Your Culture During the Covid Crisis?

What have you learned about your organization’s culture over the last few months that may not have been obvious before? What policies or behaviors have shined a light on the values and beliefs of your leadership team? How do employees feel about working for your organization today, compared to the time before Covid? These are just some of the questions I’ve been asking organizations as they ponder how, when and if they can start to bring people back to the office safely.

As I began to gather responses, I turned to my colleague and frequent co-author Karen Eber, CEO of the Eber Leadership GroupChief Storyteller and culture expert, for her insights about how an organization’s culture has influenced its response to employees living through a widespread pandemic.

NSM: Companies have been forced to go through a real pressure test over the last few months. What are some of the things you’ve seen them realize?

KE: This time has forced the distance and perspective for people to rethink how they were doing things pre-Covid. Companies have had two stages of realizations. In the first stage, we saw companies pivoting to suddenly support an all-virtual work environment. In the second stage, we have seen them reflecting on what was working and what was not. Culture doesn’t only exist in the physical office. It manifests itself in the daily interactions between people, even when working virtually. Policies and processes previously viewed as “We could never do this a different way” have been shattered. Some organizations have found things working really well. Others have recognized this time is an opportunity to re-imagine the way they work, communicate and collaborate. We’ve been seeing companies supporting their employees in new ways:

  • Weekly communications from the day-to-day leader responding to employee questions
  • Leaders leveraging storytelling to connect with employees, give them hope and help them see the forward path
  • Agendas with fewer topics and status updates and more space for needed discussions
  • Video cameras saved for meetings with decision making and constructive challenges
  • Team hours: Two-hour windows agreed to in advance where team members are expected to connect/respond, with other working hours flexible
  • Discussions about which activities or tasks to stop (This seems obvious, but most of us are terrible about letting go of things!)
Employee wellness:
  • Complimentary subscriptions to apps like Headspace or Calm
  • Free yoga and meditation classes streamed over company intranet
  • Employees receiving additional two-weeks of PTO to use however needed
  • Shortened Fridays to give people a mental break

KE: What have you been hearing in your interviews?

NSM: The need to create a level playing field regardless of where people live, their function, title, or tenure, has been the central theme. Organizations I have been talking to are really walking the talk. Here are some examples, some of which go above and beyond what others are doing:

  • Investing in more bandwidth for company servers, and subsidizing the cost of additional bandwidth and speed for employees who need it, especially as video becomes the norm
  • Setting up an internal Covid website that has up-to-the minute, science-based information, including current rate of spread in all locations, and needed precautions
  • Frequent town halls with the CEO and senior leaders, and with managers and their work teams, where people can openly share what they’re going though within each region or nation
  • Training and support to help people convert in-person events to engaging virtual experiences, including guidance for making the most out of collaboration and communication tools
  • An Emergency Time-Off fund, making it possible for anyone who needs it due to Covid to take up to 10 days of time off, in addition to the days they get for personal time off
  • Creation of care packages containing “SWAG,” like food, mugs, books and other fun stuff sent to peoples’ homes to be opened all together on team calls
  • Expanded resources for people who may be struggling with difficult issues such as need for childcare, unemployment, domestic abuse, coping with online schools, aging parents, illness, and other challenges

NSM: So as organizations reshape, reaffirm or in some cases, completely rethink their cultures, what should they be thinking about?

KE: An organization’s culture is constantly evolving. It can’t be “fixed,” and you won’t ever be done shaping it. It is easy to get overwhelmed about where to focus first, and who to involve in the conversation. There are four places to focus, as a start:

  • Listen: Be curious, ask questions and don’t assume you will know the response. A great way to start is to ask the question of any employee: “How would your friends and family describe the culture here?” After these months of social distancing, our families have had a front-row seat to our work experiences. This will spotlight the good and the bad.
  • Design: What problems do you need to solve? For whom? Create problem statements that allow you to brainstorm possible experiments and solutions. Design thinking can help you create some quick wins and broader solutions.
  • Align: Most culture change is experienced at the project level each day. However, you do want your senior leadership team role-modeling the desired culture on their respective teams and actively discussing what kinds of behaviors do or don’t embody the organization’s culture. Aligning with the senior leadership team accelerates culture change and defines what you will measure to track progress.
  • Equip people leaders: Equip your leaders with examples, prompts, tools and data to help them discuss, define, and cultivate culture on their teams. For example, “Meetings-in-a-box” can guide leaders through how to have discussions about defining the team norms which demonstrate their cultures.

NSM: These are great points. Many organizations are re-examining their team norms like never before. They’re asking themselves questions like: Must some communication channels be used consistently by everyone? How do we allocate work fairly to prevent people from having to work extended hours? How quickly are people expected to respond to requests? What purpose will team meetings serve? This is a great time for organizations to re-assess which norms still make sense, which don’t, and where new ones need to be created.

As I concluded my interview with Karen, I thought of Dwight L. Moody’s quote: “Character is what you are in the dark.” Today, as so many organizations, employees, family members and communities face an uncertain future during these increasingly unsettling times, an organization’s culture — the values, beliefs and behaviors it demonstrates — is standing out like never before.

Not sure where to start when it comes to re-examining team norms during the time of Covid? Hit reply with your question and we can follow up to schedule a quick call.


Karen Eber’s website

Karen’s TedX Talk – Why storytelling is more trustworthy than presenting data

Past Communiques:

Responding to the Covid crisis with fast learning, decisive action and targeted communications

Create the right questions to inspire candor and trust – downloadable PDF checklist

Team charter checklist for your virtual team – downloadable PDF checklist

12 tips for building trusting relationships across your virtual team

From Jaded to Jazzed: Quick Tips for Sustaining Happy, Healthy Virtual Teams

Related articles from Harvard Business Review:

Leaders, do you have a clear vision for the post-crisis future?


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