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Research: Employees Rely on Employer Culture to Navigate Pandemic

Two business people looking at a yellow folder in an office.

​LAS VEGAS — How well your workforce is handling the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to do with its culture, according to a new report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released Sept. 9 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021 (SHRM21).

The coronavirus pandemic sent many organizations into a tailspin, plunging employees into what felt like a suddenly darkened room, scrambling to find the light switch. For some, a strong workplace culture became the beacon they needed, helping guide them through the pandemic. 

Culture is manifested in how an employer approaches the business it conducts—the behavior of its leaders, how the organization treats employees, how it communicates, and whether it promotes leadership training and professional development. Some cultures are family-friendly, some have a casual vibe, while others are more formal and hierarchical. Creating and sustaining a culture where employees thrive even in trying circumstances is no walk in the park, though.

Among people managers, 52 percent spend an average of one to 10 hours weekly managing their employer's culture. Others devote 21 hours or more per week doing this. It's been difficult creating and sustaining workplace culture during the COVID-19 pandemic, 62 percent of HR professionals said, and 24 percent indicated their overall workplace culture has worsened since the pandemic began. Employees, HR professionals and people managers cited a lack of communication and changes to their workload as top reasons for a deteriorating culture.

Working Americans who rated their culture as good or very good were more likely to indicate they frequently engage in candid or honest conversations about work topics with their manager (83 percent), as compared to workers who rated culture as average (62 percent) and those who rated culture as poor or very poor (41 percent).

Some organizations have taken this time to strengthen their values, with nearly three-fourths of HR professionals saying their organization's overall culture has improved. A majority of HR professionals and workers (58 percent and 59 percent, respectively) credited communication and transparency for their improved workplace cultures. People managers (49 percent) and executives (48 percent) agreed with those sentiments.

"Our data points to the pivotal role communication plays in sustaining an organizational culture," said Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, SHRM chief knowledge officer. "Organizations that experienced erosion in their culture did not focus on transparent communication with their workers during a period of extreme uncertainty." 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture]

SHRM's report, The Culture Effect: Why a Positive Workplace Culture Is the New Currency, is based on a survey conducted in May and June of 1,000 people managers; 875 SHRM members, including those laid off or furloughed during the pandemic; and 305 people with C-suite titles. Additionally, 1,324 adults were surveyed, with some questions being asked to a subset of 771 adults who either were working as paid employees or had been laid off or furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

People Are Tired 

Workers who rated their culture as poor or very poor were more likely to say they leave work feeling exhausted. Putting in long hours, carrying a heavy workload and struggling to find some hint of a work/life balance contribute to burnout, according to Mayo Clinic, along with having little or no control over their work.

It's no wonder that 54 percent of people managers said they are exhausted when they leave work. Leadership training would potentially help them manage their responsibilities and therefore lessen exhaustion, but 26 percent of people managers said their organization doesn't provide them that training.

Different employee populations have struggled more than others during the COVID-19 pandemic, SHRM learned: 51 percent of Black workers, 36 percent of Hispanic workers and 26 percent of white workers said their workplace culture makes it difficult for them to balance their work and personal responsibilities. Workers who rated their culture as poor or very poor said they were more likely to postpone important things in their personal lives because of work demands.

Feeling exhausted at the end of the workday transcends race, ethnicity and gender:  

SHRM Culture Report graphic Sept 9.jpg

Workers who rated their culture as poor or very poor also were more likely to indicate they dread going into work. There is a residual effect of all this work-related bone-tiredness: 36 percent of female workers and 25 percent of male workers said that irritability carries over into their home life.

"Organizations must move past 'just getting the work done' and begin thinking long term, with their employees' concerns top of mind," SHRM researchers said in the report. "Crisis breeds opportunity for improvement within an organization and the way it embraces the needs of its employees."

Creating a Resilient Team 

The good news from SHRM's research: 74 percent of workers surveyed said their employer's organizational values helped them navigate the pandemic, and 94 percent of people managers said a positive workplace culture creates a resilient team.

"In the past year, we saw major shifts in organizational structures as employers sought to accommodate and support employees who were suddenly working in remote, hybrid or vastly different in-person environments," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's president and chief executive officer.

"The pandemic has certainly changed where and how we work, leaving it up to business leaders and HR professionals to create more seamless threads of positive culture that boost employee satisfaction and productivity," he said.

Strategies some employers have used during the pandemic include increasing mental health benefits; allowing workers to use sick leave or vacation days to tend to child care needs; and permitting employees to alter their work schedules, such as by starting work earlier or taking a longer midday break.

Nike closed down its headquarters for a full week in August to send a message to employees to "take the time to unwind, destress and spend time with your loved ones. Do not work," said Matt Marrazzo, senior manager of global marketing science at Nike, in a LinkedIn post, noting "We can prioritize mental health and still get work done."

Bert Jacobs, Life is Good co-founder and chief executive optimist, acknowledged the tremendous challenges people faced this year.

"But we can't forget the silver lining: Businesses, with professionals, can pivot, adapt and innovate while strengthening company culture—creating optimism in the face of adversity," he said. He made his remarks in an announcement of his keynote address he will make at the Sept. 12 closing session of SHRM21.

"This is a message," he added, "that rings true for HR professionals who have truly been on the front lines of the workplace." 

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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