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The COVID-19 Crucible

Tough times reveal a company's true workplace culture—and provide opportunity for growth.

​The first Barry-Wehmiller Cos. sites to be affected by COVID-19 were in China and Taiwan. That was back in January.

“We unfortunately pioneered through this around the entire world,” says Rhonda Spencer, the company’s chief people officer. “By the time the coronavirus became widespread in the United States, we were getting more confident in the safety processes.”

Through it all, leaders at Barry-Wehmiller, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services based in St. Louis, were sharing and learning from one another. So when an employee became sick in Washington state in the early days of the pandemic in the U.S., the company used what it had learned from other locations to develop its own contact tracing procedure and quarantine protocols.

It’s a prime example of the organization’s culture at work. The company champions what it calls “responsible freedom”: taking initiative to make things better with the understanding of how any actions you take affect other people.

“It’s people and performance in harmony. They each amplify the other,” says Spencer, who has been with the company for almost 30 years. She started out as an engineer, then made the switch to people operations when CEO Bob Chapman asked her to help develop a “people-first” culture. The transformation has been so successful that the company has developed a leadership institute to help other organizations improve their cultures.

Early on, Chapman wrote up his vision for how people would act and what the organizational culture at Barry-Wehmiller should look like. The plan “is an articulation of who we are when we’re at our best,” Spencer says. “It’s aspirational.” But it serves a practical purpose as well. “It forces leaders to think ‘Where are the gaps between who we say we want to be and who we are?’ ”

‘If we’re going to say our people and culture are what really matter in a company, then let’s draw up a plan. You have to be intentional with your culture.’
Melanie Booher

In thinking strategically about company culture, Barry-Wehmiller is part of a small minority. Melanie Booher, culture coach and founder of MB Consulting Solutions in Cincinnati, estimates that only 10 percent of companies have a formal plan for their people and culture.

“If we’re going to say our people and culture are what really matter in a company, then let’s draw up a plan,” Booher says. “You have to be intentional with your culture.” 

Culture is often informally defined as “how things get done around here” or “what employees do when no one’s watching.” If an organization’s leaders don’t work to create the culture they want, one will develop in the ensuing vacuum—and it might not be a positive one. Employees need to know what behaviors are expected of them, and they should see leaders modeling these behaviors.

A positive organizational culture is a competitive edge that makes people want to work for one company and not another, Booher says.

“Do you have people who actually want to be there every day? It’s so important in business today because turnover is so costly,” she says.

A desirable workplace culture can help companies attract the best talent and boost productivity, morale and retention of current employees, Booher and other experts say.

Caring for Employees

Anxiety and uncertainty have prevailed for months, negatively affecting essential workers as well as employees who are able to work remotely. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in July that 53 percent of U.S. adults said their mental health had worsened as a result of worry about the pandemic and the resulting recession. And a May survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that more than one-third of employers said they were facing challenges maintaining their company’s culture, while two-thirds said maintaining employee morale had been difficult given the pandemic.

The stress was felt by workers at Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Ga., a city that was a COVID-19 hot spot back in April with the fourth-worst per-capita rate in the U.S.

“No one knew what was going on,” says Alex Willson, chief operating officer of the family-owned farm and manufacturing facility, known for its pecans and homemade candies. “People were freaked out about going in to work. Early on, we tried to create a completely judgment-free environment.”

What Workers Want in a Virtual Office Culture

The company, which employs about 60 workers for most of the year, operates like the well-known small-town employer it is: It has a high level of employee retention, and, at times, its workforce has included multiple generations from a family. So, when the pandemic hit, employees could call in absent and still be paid if they felt unsafe coming to work, Willson says.

“We wanted to minimize the risk of exposure to everyone onsite” and to ease workers’ worries, he says. 

With 600 employees, Northwest Federal Credit Union, based in Herndon, Va., is a much larger organization, but it shares the philosophy that employees are a part of the community that the business serves. The credit union’s branches have remained open throughout the pandemic. About one-third of its employees handle in-person transactions and thus haven’t been able to work from home. Take the Quiz

“We immediately put in all the protective barriers,” and employees wore masks and gloves from the beginning, says Jean Cain, senior vice president of human resources. As the number of mortgages and loans has increased, hiring has continued, though some open positions have been put on hold and certain employees have been deployed to other areas.

For example, some in HR have been trained to work in the mortgage department. Employees are learning new skills while keeping their jobs. 

Despite the safety measures put into place, a small group of employees said they didn’t feel comfortable coming to work. So Northwest Federal talked with each of them about taking an extended leave. Although they’re not receiving a paycheck, these employees have been able to keep their benefits by paying the premiums, and their jobs will be available when they feel ready to return.

“Everybody responds to these crises differently,” Cain says. “Some people think it’s silly; others are afraid to leave their homes. We see the whole range. We listen and don’t judge because everyone has a right to their own view.”

Guiding the Way

In difficult times, company leaders need to meet employees with empathy, generosity and flexibility.

“Companies are paying more attention to their employees because they have to, or they’re not going to get performance out of people,” says Walt Rakowich, former CEO at Prologis, a real estate company in San Francisco.

Leaders trying to cultivate a strong workplace culture during a crisis have one advantage, though—people listen.

When anxiety and uncertainty are high, “they listen to every single word you say and watch every single thing you do,” Rakowich says. His advice: “Don’t waste the crisis.”

Rakowich became CEO during the Great Recession of 2007-09. By the time the board of directors asked him to take on the role, the company’s stock had dropped from $75 to $2 a share, making it the third-worst performing company in the S&P 500.

“I was scared to death,” he says, “but I wasn’t afraid to tell people that. It’s important to be vulnerable, at the appropriate times.”

When leaders admit to being afraid or not knowing something, employees can relate. It builds trust, says Rakowich, author of Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change (Post Hill Press, 2020).

“If people trust each other and trust their leaders, they can accomplish a ton,” Rakowich says. “Leaders are really influential in a downturn, if you want to be. Even if you don’t want to be, know that you are.”

Ultimately, it’s not only about maintaining a strong company culture in times of trouble, according to Booher. “Leaders should be asking themselves ‘Are we using our culture as a basis for making decisions during COVID-19?’ If company leaders haven’t been making decisions that align with the company’s values and culture, employees will feel it”—and ultimately resent it, she says.

Staying Connected

When game development studio Iron Galaxy moved to working from home in March, Chief Operating Officer Chelsea Blasko immediately committed to finding activities that could be shifted from in-person to virtual delivery. Blasko describes Iron Galaxy as having a laid-back, family atmosphere and as being a workplace where “we really care about each other and we spend a lot of time together.”

The company’s values include making sure employees are able to be their authentic selves, aiming for continuous improvement and accepting all challenges. While many of the organization’s efforts to keep the workplace culture thriving are simple, participation levels among the 165 employees are high.

The Iron Galaxy Question of the Day (What’s your favorite dessert? What are you reading?), once a daily talking point in the office, is now a favorite topic on chat platforms. The morning fitness challenges, for those who wish to partake, have moved online. Blasko hosts pizza lunches with small groups of employees—the meetings are virtual but the pizza is real, delivered hot to each employee’s home beforehand. Friday happy hours, long a traditional end to the week, have gone virtual, and, of course, there’s still lots of game-playing.

As a side effect, the geographical barriers that previously acted to divide employees have crumbled. When events were livestreamed between the company’s studios in Chicago and Orlando before the pandemic, employees at both locations would largely ignore whatever was happening at the other office, Blasko says.

“We used to think we were doing everything we could” to bring people together, she says. Since the pandemic, however, “we’ve discovered there’s a lot more that we could have been doing.”

Workplace Culture Remains Strong

Such efforts are critical in light of a June survey by TELUS International in which 51 percent of U.S. workers reported that they don’t feel as connected to the work culture when working remotely.

At KnowBe4, a security awareness training company based in Clearwater, Fla., the company mantra is “Do it right the first time, do it fast, and have fun doing it.” That hasn’t changed just because its 1,000 employees are now working from home.

Employees can no longer partake in perks such as Berry Tuesdays, where fresh berries and whipped cream livened up the workday; Iced Tea Afternoons, with a variety of flavors to try; or the free food that magically appeared in the company’s 12 break rooms. But employees receive a stipend each month for snacks and other comforts while working from home.

Erika Lance, senior vice president of people operations, still dresses up each month for the themed trivia game she leads, which has moved online along with fitness classes like yoga, Zumba and cycling. There’s a photo competition (winners are typically canines and kids), and a constant stream of recipes and craft ideas are posted. 

Communicating Often

Despite the many challenges that arose this year, employees had a higher opinion of their company’s culture and values in August than they did prior to the pandemic, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study found.

The top two contributing factors were good manager communication and transparent leadership, says Donald Sull, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of CultureX, a culture measurement tool.

“The first rule of communication: the frequency really matters,” Sull says. “People recognize that difficult decisions may have to be made.”

Any kind of communication that comes from leadership is particularly appreciated by employees, he says. “They want to know what decisions they’re making and why they’re making these choices.”

At KnowBe4, the daily morning meeting is part of the culture; now the meeting is held online. Also, managers check in daily with individual team members.

“Our whole goal is to keep people connected,” Lance says. The company’s employee relations team conducts frequent surveys to track how employees are feeling. But the process doesn’t stop there.

‘Leaders are really influential in a downturn, if you want to be. Even if you don’t want to be, know that you are.’
Walt Rakowich

“We acknowledge everything they say,” Lance says. “People will stop talking if you don’t respond. I want them to feel safe communicating with me.”

Leaders at Northwest Federal Credit Union are still setting professional goals and having coaching conversations to help employees develop in their roles. A new set of management training tools was launched in August.

“We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible,” Cain says. But she acknowledges that it was challenging to make the virtual training interesting.

The Barry-Wehmiller leadership team has hosted listening sessions with employees to find out what is going well and what could be better. Small gestures such as providing an occasional lunch, a genuine “thank you” and public recognition for a job well done are well-received.

“It’s important to focus people’s attention on what’s going right and celebrate that,” Spencer says. 

An organization’s leaders should be talking about the future, too. In tough times, companies may focus only on the immediate threat and toss aside long-term plans.

“That’s a mistake,” Sull says. If goals set prior to the pandemic were considered important to the company’s survival then, they’re going to be even more important post-COVID-19, he explains. 

On the other hand, there’s a certain freedom in that everyone recognizes this time as an anomaly.

“The crisis has kind of given us license to experiment,” Sull says. “What we’ve done in the past isn’t feasible or possible at the moment, so there are literally millions of experiments being run right now. Like with all experiments, some will work, many won’t. Keep the ones that work; ditch those that don’t.”

Natalie Kroc is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.

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