Workplace Culture Meets COVID-19: Lessons from cross-industry leaders


This is the second in a series of three articles around Chicago’s response to the pandemic focused on how work has changed, and what we’ve learned in terms of culture, and mental health. The first, found here, focused on returning to the workplace safely; the third will be a summary of the collected innovation resources and how to best leverage. 

Authors: Betsy Ziegler, Steven Collens, and Haven Allen 



Before COVID, ~4M Americans worked remotely, with only a few organizations (e.g., GitHub, Basecamp) being “remote first”. Most organizations had a culture of physically proximate, in real life interaction — the magic that happens when everyone is in the office — and treated work from home as a perk. Now that more than half of Americans are working from home, the grand, scaled experiment is resulting in a question: will we ever go back to the office full-time? 

Recognizing there is no single answer, the teams of mHUB, MATTER and 1871 convened 50 executives representing 40 organizations (ranging from healthcare, to manufacturing, to office-based employers) to discuss how their internal worlds of work have shifted and how they have invested in and adjusted their internal cultures to support the massive change in where and how work happens. 

 While the businesses we talked with varied widely, there was significant communication alignment on what organizational culture means. Our collective working definition includes, the type of people hired; the behaviors that are rewarded; an organization’s mission, values and leadership practices; and, of course, the type of workplace. 

Three major benefits were emphasized and broadly recognized as a result of everyone shifting to remote: 

  1. Productivity has increased and work may in fact happen faster, meaning less time is required to get the same amount of output. According to a Harris Poll (linked here) 65 percent of respondents feel their productivity has increased now that they work from home and 80 percent say they can better manage interruptions from coworkers now that they work from home. However, we also heard from several leaders, their teams are working longer days and hours, more meetings are on the calendars to compensate for the lack of spontaneity. This is a balancing act: an opportunity for the re-evaluation of what productivity in each role really is to allow individuals to refocus. 
  2. Across the board, teams are benefiting from the reduction in formality and the increase in acceptance. Individuals have been able to share their “whole” lives with their colleagues, as evidenced by dogs barking and children participating on screen. We heard great examples including hosting Happy Hours with the whole family or others in the same household. 
  3. Re-balancing from professional life being the center to which personal responsibilities are fit, to personal choice taking priority and fitting in the work life. 

 While these benefits have delivered significant impact, five major challenges also emerged from our cross-industry conversation with a synthesized perspective on key best practices: 

1. How do you keep your teams “in the know,” what are the best practices on transparency and frequency of communication? 


 The conversation ranged from scheduling regular check-ins, to launching open slack channels, to encouraging everyone to share what is working well and not-so-well. Almost all participants said they are communicating more than ever, spending more time bringing people along and delivering with as much transparency as possible. We heard examples that comprised of weekly team all hands, scheduling time with employees, including those who are furloughed, and using portals or wormholes to keep teams together while apart. 

2. How do you create true collaboration and serendipity during the day? 


The new distributed work environment has resulted in at least one sacrifice which is the decline in natural collaboration and spontaneous interactions, or unplanned meetings. We miss the figurative water cooler. Many teams have embraced tools like Slack, Tandem, and the like to signal when they are available to connect with teammates to work on problems, and make decisions and to problem solve asynchronously to support new idea generation done outside of a meeting. However, we heard from many that an open challenge remains to enable and maintain the culture of innovation, to stay focused on adapting the business model, while navigating the disruptions in our daily lives. 

3. How do you best support your teams with respect to supporting their mental and physical health? 


Work has become all-encompassing. The edges of the day are blurred. The spaces many are working in are the same in which they are eating and spending time with their family. Pre-Covid, the old adage was “when I’m at work I pretend I don’t have a family and when I’m at home, I pretend I don’t have a job” - that is gone, we are living through the ultimate mass mash-up. Being the caregiver, the supplemental educator, the partner or roommate, and the leader at work coupled with fear and uncertainty with respect to personal and family health and job security has perhaps never been higher and certainly never at this scale before. 

The majority of participants have doubled down in support of providing mental and physical health resources and access. They’ve led with empathy and made it okay to discuss these challenges out loud. 

Elif Oker, MD Clinical Officer, Exponential Technologies from Anthem Inc. shared “we implemented or enhanced many initiatives aimed at helping our associates do their work in this evolving environment while encouraging them to take care of themselves. We developed our #MeMinutes initiative which encouraged associates to take time for themselves – be it walk, do yoga, or listen to a podcast. We also reminded employees about our free, confidential Employee Assistance Program. In addition, we encouraged managers to hold more team meetings using video conferencing to strengthen relationships in this virtual setting and announced up to 80 hours of paid emergency leave for qualifying needs related to COVID. On my team, we reinvented happy hour and launched virtual family social hours, where our kids lead us in team building activities like origami or musical concerts, our significant others get to meet one another and our teammates----we’ve even had our pets join in on the fun. By sharing hobbies, recipes and pandemic coping strategies, we’ve come to appreciate and understand each other in a new and better way as well as let off a little steam.” 

4. How do you ensure equity in experience when some of your team is back in the workplace and others are still at home? 


Many leaders we spoke to had teams operating in multiple formats today (WFH and in the workplace) with likely ongoing flux as the context around us continues to change. The risk of disparity of information access and attention is high without specific intent and clear communication expectations, roles and responsibilities across the team. The most salient best practice is the ongoing intentional awareness that those working from home and in the workplace have different experiences and therefore require an active leveling of the playing field to ensure equity. 

5. How are your expectations shifting in terms of where people live and how they engage in-person going forward? 


 “Will we ever return to normal?”, is a question many leaders hear a lot. The truth is that expectations have changed. Most organizations will never go back to where they were in mid-March. The talent pipeline for many roles has become national, if not global, as top-performers are picking up and moving to places that best represent their personal interests. Handbooks are being re-written and benefits policies reconsidered as leaders evaluate, as Accenture describes, a more elastic digital workplace. The new normal is a redefined set of expectations on how and where work happens, an approach that can more dynamically react and adapt to the changing business environment. 

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of the world works in a matter of months. While plenty of companies included flexible work environments in their workplace toolbox, very few incorporated a fully remote workforce 100 percent of the time.”, said Todd Heiser, Managing Director and Principal at Gensler. 

“The new way that we approach flexible work is likely here to stay, and it could completely alter the way workers view companies that don’t support this level of fluidity and choice. One thing is for certain: flexible work will change the purpose of the physical office. The workplace will be a hub for collaboration and community. 

This shift is particularly exciting because it will allow for talent to live where they want, and it will allow companies to source talent globally — not only in major cities.” 

So what does all this mean for you, a leader and member of a team? The key is adaptability: being able to shape-shift as an individual, a team and an organization in response to macro trends. The organizations that are going to win - talent, impact, results - are those that cultivate and encourage a culture that is change-ready, that finds opportunity in the ambiguity, that empowers through empathy of an individual employee's experience, and that ensures understanding of the path forward. 

As Chicagoland continues to re-open and every day brings new learnings and insights, we encourage you to consider joining these conversations and partnering with us as you continue on your journey. You can access this information and more at CPRCOVID19.com. Our organizations support more than 1000 early-stage companies and we are in the unique position of seeing the latest technology as it comes online. We can connect you and your teams easily to novel solutions and, in situations where you have challenges that do not have clear solutions, we can support you in guiding and developing new technology. 

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For more information: 

About Chicago Proactive Response (CPR) COVID-19 
The Chicago Proactive Response (CPR) is a joint effort by three of the top national innovation groups, all centered in Chicago: mHUB, MATTER and 1871. Representing innovators in manufacturing, healthcare and technology respectively, they have unified to support and advance solutions for COVID-19. 

mHUB 
 mHUB is the nation’s largest and fastest growing innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing. mHUB is a community of product designers and developers, entrepreneurs, engineers and manufacturers, a network of manufacturing mentors, industry experts and investors and a source of intellectual and economic capital. Launched in 2017, mHUB’s community has grown 30 to more than 270 member companies that have generated more than $100M in revenue, launched more than 930 products, hired more than 1,300 employees, and raised nearly $148M in lifetime capital. Learn more at mHUBChicago.com 

MATTER 
 MATTER, the premier healthcare incubator and innovation hub, includes hundreds of cutting-edge startups from around the world, working together with dozens of hospitals and health systems, universities and industry-leading companies to build the future of healthcare. Together, the MATTER community is accelerating innovation, advancing care and improving lives. Since its inception in 2015, MATTER has supported more than 500 cutting-edge healthcare technology startups from around the world that have created more than 6,000 jobs, raised more than $1.3 billion in capital, and generated more than $441 million in revenue. Their products have been used by more than 980,000 clinicians and have benefitted more than 117 million patients. For more information, visit matter.health and follow @MATTERhealth. 

1871 
 1871 is Chicago’s digital technology hub and the #1 ranked private business incubator in the world. It exists to inspire, equip, and support founders building extraordinary businesses. Located in the historic Merchandise Mart, 1871 is home to ~400 technology startups and ~1,500 members supported by an entire ecosystem focused on accelerating their growth and creating jobs in the Chicagoland area. The nonprofit organization has 350 mentors available to its founders, alongside access to more than 100 partner corporations, universities, education programs, accelerators, venture funds and others. Since its inception in 2012, more than 650 alumni companies are currently still active, have created over 11,000 jobs, and have raised more than $1.65 billion in follow-on capital. 




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