Reopening offices in the era of COVID-19 is fraught for employers. The world has changed since the last time things felt normal in your workplace. Lots will be different when you bring your team back together, including your company culture.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your culture sets the tone for how people in your workplace behave; it communicates your values and shapes the environment in your office. If your culture needed work before quarantine began, now’s the perfect time for a little healthy reinvention. But be patient. Both you and your employees are navigating a new world, and it’s going to take some getting used to.
Company Culture Won’t Look the Same
Your company culture is determined by a lot of things, but many of them are social in nature. How much do people collaborate on projects? How casual vs. formal are your communications? Is it common for coworkers to form warm, friendly relationships? How would a visitor describe the “vibe” in your workplace? Essentially: What’s it like to work in your office?
Because the pandemic has changed the ways we interact with one another socially, when you return to the office it’s natural that things might feel… off. You might notice that it’s quieter without the hum of small talk and laughter, as people steer clear of one another.
Groups that used to eat lunch together might be dispersed because people feel more comfortable eating alone. Some workers will be more inclined to stay in their seats instead of moving around the office or having spontaneous stand-up meetings at one another’s desks. If you’re staggering shifts, coworkers who are used to seeing each other every day—even just on Zoom—might not see each other at all. This adjustment period is happening in offices everywhere, and it will pass eventually.
Tensions May Run High
Living through the pandemic has spiked everyone’s stress levels. Your employees have spent months worried about their health, the health of their loved ones, their own financial reality and the future of the economy. All on top of their regular stress about work and their personal lives.
Complicating matters is the fact that not everyone is on the same page about COVID and appropriate precautions. If one employee is diligent about masks and hand washing and another suggests they’re overreacting, there’s potential there for a major conflict. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, nationwide protests against police brutality and continuing political tension may also contribute to conflict between coworkers. And if employees push back against your new company policies, there could also be tension between employees and management.
Employees’ Habits Have Changed
Everyone had to make adjustments when the pandemic began. People who were used to working from the office learned how to do their jobs from home. Some employees had more autonomy than they were used to, and proved they could work productively without constant employer oversight.
After months of working this way, going back to the office represents another big adjustment. Commuting becomes an issue again. Some employees will be thrilled to get out of their homes each day, but others could be resentful. Instead of managing their own schedules and using lunchtime to walk their dogs or take quick naps, they’ll have to conform to office conventions again. Those employees with young children may be especially stressed by yet another change in their daily schedules. Kids who are used to having their parents home all day may be a little needy now, contacting Mom or Dad more often than they did before.
All of which is to say—this experience may have changed the ways your employees work, and that will naturally affect your company culture.
Your Physical Setup May Play a Role
Most workplaces have had to make changes to their physical spaces before letting employees return. A lot of these changes, such as closing off every other cubicle or installing partitions between desks, put distance between coworkers. That’s ideal for keeping the workforce healthy but detrimental to your sense of camaraderie. It’s harder to feel like you’re all part of one team, working toward a shared goal, when employees can’t even see one another.
Other necessary changes, like banishing personal items from desks to facilitate nightly cleaning, may also make your office feel a lot more sterile and cold than it used to. Just because employees understand the need for these adjustments doesn’t mean they won’t be negatively affected by them.
Employers Still Set the Tone
One thing that’s unchanged about office life post-COVID is that the employer still shapes its company culture. There’s a lot that’s outside your control as a business owner, but clarifying the company’s values—and holding employees accountable to those values—is always your purview. Even as you strive to support your team during these trying and uncertain times, the final word on your business and its culture is yours.