Jenny Baker
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Overcoming Crisis: Building a Resilient Work Culture in the Era of COVID-19

Dominic Fedele, Charles Blomstrom-Johnson, Sarah Jensen, Robert Miller, Kauyer Lor, and Jessica Wildman, Florida Institute of Technology

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted organizations to rapidly transition to remote or virtual work environments. This environmental jolt placed extreme demands and stressors onto organizational cultures, and its lingering effects are still not completely understood. In an attempt to summarize strategies for managing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on organizational culture, we distill recent research to provide evidence-based practices for organizations and practitioners to consider as they navigate current and future crises. Organizations are not likely to return to normal anytime soon, with some changes (e.g., remote or virtual work) becoming permanent fixtures in the workplace. We provide a list of recommendations such as effective leadership, supportive work environments, successful innovation, and knowledge management to help organizations build a more resilient work culture.

There is no question that organizational cultures, referred to as the shared perceptions of beliefs, ideologies, and values among employees, have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, the widespread concern for employee health and safety forced organizations to transition from brick-and-mortar to virtual workspaces overnight. In 2017, a Gallup survey estimated that only 37% of workers in the US worked remotely. This estimate nearly doubled within 3 years, with growing estimates now suggesting that over 60% of all U.S. workers work in a remote or virtual setting (Kantar, 2020). Although companies hoped the “transition to virtual” would be temporary, new variants and occupational challenges such as vaccine and mask mandates turned weeks into months, and months into years. Despite a call for research to examine the effects of these changes on organizational culture, the impacts on organizational culture remain relatively uncertain. In this article, we summarize recent empirical research and practitioner literature regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and inform evidence-based practices for organizations and practitioners to consider as they navigate current and future crises. Specifically, we answer the following questions: (a) What are the impacts of COVID-19 on organizational culture? (b) How do these challenges impact organizational outcomes? (c) What can organizations do?

What Are the Impacts of COVID-19 on Organizational Culture?

A new pneumonia-like virus first appeared in Wuhan, China in December of 2019 (Katella, 2021). This virus, later named COVID-19, spread across the globe through human-to-human contact. In March of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 disease a pandemic (Katella, 2021). This declaration forced organizations to react swiftly in compliance with government policies (e.g., shutdowns, social distancing, and mask mandates) to stop the spread of the disease. Although the effects of COVID-19 are felt globally, three challenges that U.S. organizations are still faced with today include (a) maintaining organization connectedness after shifting to virtual work environments, (b) increased stressors and work demands, and (c) and increased work–life conflict. These challenges and related outcomes are discussed in the following sections.

Shifting to Virtual Work Environments

The most apparent impact to organizations and work cultures has been the necessity for greater reliance on virtual work. Organizations have long viewed virtual work, or telecommuting, as a viable alternative to the traditional work environment (e.g., Golden, 2012; Nilles, 1998). Employees in virtual work environments rely on tools such as video conferencing and instant messaging to keep in touch with colleagues (Parker et al., 2020). The lack of face-to-face interaction has resulted in less spontaneous communication, which has long been considered a symbolic or natural phenomenon in workplace settings. Symbolic work is tangible, ritualistic workplace behaviors such as a coffee and hallway conversation or “watercooler talk.” Through symbolic work, employees have been able to solicit quick reactions or suggestions, stay informed about workplace news, or interact with individuals outside of their typical routine. These behaviors reinforce group norms that influence organizational culture, and the shift to virtual work has left employees feeling less connected to their coworkers, supervisors, and the organization.

Organizational connectedness, or the extent to which individuals perceive they are part of the organizational community (Raghuram et al., 2001), is a prevalent issue resulting from the transition to virtual work. Employees who work virtually will have less informal and spontaneous contact with coworkers, supervisors, and other members of leadership (Cascio, 2000). The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality promotes isolation and a lack of attachment, which detracts from the benefits of organizational membership (Raghuram et al., 2001). Because of the forced shift to a greater dependency on virtual work, organizations must find a way to keep this connectedness with their employees intact. Practices such as relaxing social interaction and communication through instant messaging, phone calls, or emails are essential to preserving the symbolic work culture in organizations. This informality can range from planned or impromptu conversations over a virtual cup of coffee to using “emoticons” or “gifs.” Leaders can utilize these “incidental conversations” to check in on organization members or identify current obstacles (Ratković et al., 2021). Initially, mandatory videoconferencing exchanges masquerading as recreation might seem draining to employees; however, the repetition and creation of new rituals will eventually result in stronger connections, greater interest, and better results in the organization (Kim et al., 2021). Strong interpersonal relationships can act as a catalyst to help transfer existing traditions and corporate ideology throughout groups within an organization. Informal communication and workplace “gossip” are often viewed as effective behaviors for organizational storytelling (Martinescu et al., 2019; Ratković et al., 2021). However, the stressors of shifting to a virtual work environment are only part of the story as other demands and stressors are exacerbated by an event such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Increased Stressors and Work Demands

The pandemic has had several negative impacts on individual and organizational well-being. The stress experienced by employees in this type of environment comes from multiple avenues, leaving them trying to adapt to work demands that look entirely different than they did 3 years ago or address burnout that has slowly crept into their lives. This new landscape so many find themselves in is uncertain and ever-changing, resulting in increased role strain, health issues, and declining mental health (Green et al., 2021).

Although people from all backgrounds have been impacted differently, some demographics have faced more challenges than others. Racial and ethnic minorities, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and women have all experienced disproportionate inequalities in the workplace (Kantamneni, 2020). A typical workday has drastically changed, with working parents trying to juggle their virtual environment while homeschooling or caring for small children simultaneously. Women have taken some of the most significant steps backward in the last several decades in terms of career equality during the pandemic, with research suggesting that the gender gap has grown by 20–50% (Collins et al., 2021). Racial inequalities have also been magnified, with Black, Latino, and Native American communities facing higher levels of contagion and fatalities, followed by reduced access to quality physical and mental health services (Fortuna et al., 2020). Many individuals have also lost jobs or have been affected by financial strain due to illness, caretaking, or health concerns. These increased demands put added stress on individuals’ available cognitive, emotional, physical, and financial resources, which deplete over time, and lead to higher levels of work–life conflict. Finding an individual not personally impacted by various stressors related to the pandemic is now exceedingly rare.

One of the most salient considerations when looking at COVID-19’s impact on employee mental and physical health is the transition to focus less on acute stressors and more on chronic stressors (Cuellar et al., 2020). An individual may have the internal resources to manage an increase in stressors for a short period; however, ongoing stressors can lead to more severe concerns (e.g., burnout, trauma and stress-related disorders, or physical conditions). Adjusting to the new demands of work–life obligations has left many employees and organizations worried about the adverse effects of these stressors on performance and well-being in the long run. Organizations must be aware of and empathetic toward employees’ attitudes to critically assess organizational support. Minimizing these effects requires action from the organization, which must originate from a place of openness and understanding. Failure to address these issues will lead to additional stressors such as increased employee work–life conflict and adverse outcomes such as lower employee engagement and job performance among impacted employees.

Increased WorkLife Conflict

Organizations who fail to adjust their culture to the virtual and hybrid realities of work through COVID-19 are likely to see an increase in work–life conflict among their employees. Some employees, especially those who have embedded themselves in their workplace role, may prefer virtual or remote work. For others, these work-from-home (WFH) models are likely to increase interrole conflict, especially those with young children and those embedded within their communities outside of work (Rubenstein et al., 2020; Schieman et al., 2021). As employees resume their prepandemic nonwork activities, the blurred lines created between work and personal domains by WFH models are likely to cause issues. These blurred lines occur in employees who can no longer detach from work to focus on personal activities or attend to familial responsibilities (Rubenstein et al., 2020). Organizations that fail to integrate cornerstones of resilience into their culture, like flexible scheduling, employee assistance resources, and open communication, will likely see much higher instances of employee interrole conflict, leading to increased stress, decreased engagement, and withdrawal (Phillips, 2020). 

How Do These Challenges Impact Organizational Outcomes?

Employee Engagement

Declining employee engagement is an unfortunate outcome that organizations may experience due to pandemic-driven changes. Understanding the components of engagement, including vigor, absorption, and dedication, is key to developing strategies to mitigate this decline (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007). Vigor alludes to employees feeling energized by their work, whereas absorption occurs when employees are so focused on work that they lose all sense of time. Dedication refers to an employee’s commitment to the work and the feeling that their work is essential. External stressors brought on by events such as a pandemic can impact each facet of engagement. Facing a persistent threat to their health and the health of loved ones will likely draw cognitive and emotional resources away from an employee’s focus on their job. Being energized by their job and focusing on their work while remaining committed to the job will only become more complex as external stressors draw upon more and more of these resources. Lower cognitive and emotional resources will likely result in less available energy necessary for employees to feel vigor. Concerns for self and family health will redirect feelings of commitment and job importance. Often, these concerns are prioritized lower than existential fears associated with drastic changes in the home and community. All of these can hurt employee engagement, which can negatively influence employee job performance (Christian et al., 2011).

Job Performance

As engagement and work–life balance are impacted, employee job performance suffers accordingly (Christian et al., 2011; Wayne et al., 2017). Specifically, low engagement will likely impact task and contextual performance (Christian et al., 2011). Employees with low engagement will be less motivated to perform job tasks to the best of their ability. They will be more likely to aim for the minimum standards to conserve their cognitive and emotional resources for external threats. Contextual performance will likely suffer as the effort required for extra-role behaviors will be reduced considering their perceived lower priority. Likewise, the added external strain caused by inadequate work–life balance is likely to impact employee performance significantly. Work–life conflict leads to a reduction of resources for home life, a poor mood when at work, and emotional exhaustion from being unable to balance the required roles in both domains (Johari et al., 2018; Wayne et al., 2017). Left unchecked, these reductions in performance and increased strains are likely to culminate in withdrawal behaviors at work and an increased likelihood of turnover (Rubenstein et al., 2020).

What Can Organizations Do? Build a Culture of Resiliency

One way organizations can lessen the impacts caused by COVID-19 is to build a work culture around resiliency. We define resiliency as the ability for organizational members to respond positively to disruptive and challenging events, recover from setbacks, and thrive (Kennedy et al., 2016). A culture of resiliency allows for flexibility across processes and functions so people can anticipate changes, adapt quickly, and innovate (Lengnick-Hall et al., 2011) during times of crisis. Research points to several drivers that can foster a resilient work culture (Aldianto et al., 2021, Marco-Lajara et al., 2021). These include providing effective leadership, supportive work environments, successful innovation, and knowledge management to help organizations build a more resilient work culture.

  1. Effective leaders. Having a leader who frequently thinks outside the box to align the organizational goals with internal and external environments is vital toward building a resilient culture. These leaders are quick, adaptable, and flexible in responding to unforeseen events in unfamiliar circumstances (Aldianto et al., 2021). They also foster trust at all levels of the organization through transparent communication, and they empower employees to participate in decision making and information sharing (Amis & Janz, 2020). For example, leaders can host virtual “town hall” meetings or release recorded videos that explain how the organization has adjusted to the effects of COVID-19 (Woodward, 2018). Leaders must continually examine customer and employee needs to identify where process and service improvements are needed. Effective leaders can accomplish this by relaxing rigid policies, such as inflexible vacation time or work schedules. The trust between leaders and employees is paramount to creating a resilient work culture.
  2. Supportive work environments. The needs of employees will differ by organization. Therefore, establishing a clear channel for communication and feedback will allow employees to voice their concerns and allow for incremental improvements. A study conducted by Gigauri (2020) examined initiatives that HR managers used to support their employees during the pandemic. Quantitative data collected from 48 organizations suggested that employees felt most supported when HR helped them update virtual-work-environment skills, established flexible working hours, and adopted less strict policies regarding performance management (Gigauri, 2020). The company Square quickly distributed tips on homeschooling children and mental health resources during their transition to a virtual work environment (Liu, 2020). In addition, establishing flexible working hours and adopting more lenient performance management systems may help to increase trust and compassion between employees and their employers. Other companies, like Google and Target, are reallocating money budgeted for in-office usage to the pockets of their employees (Liu, 2020). For example, monthly allowances are given to employees to expense at-home office equipment or food purchases to ensure that employees are taken care of holistically. Leveraging organizational culture to create a supportive work environment may strengthen individual resilience and allow employees to adapt to future challenges.
    Another way to support work environments is to conduct regular engagement surveys, including open-forum options to give employees the ability to convey their unique experiences and possible threats to well-being. Hammer (2021) offers HRD interventions such as competency mapping as tools that organizations can use to enhance an employee’s abilities and mitigate adverse effects. Bilotta and colleagues (2021) further underscore the importance of adopting these tools to meet organizations’ specific needs.
  3. Innovation and knowledge management. The pandemic has catapulted organizations toward adopting innovative solutions. For example, to protect employees and serve customers facing mobility restrictions, grocery stores have now shifted their primary business model to supporting online ordering and delivery (Baig et al., 2020). Healthcare providers now offer the delivery of telemedicine and teletherapy to accommodate their patients. Brick-and-mortar schools pivoted to entirely online or distance learning. As businesses eventually return to in-person or hybrid environments, organizations can utilize technology to maintain and enhance knowledge management through media platforms (e.g., SharePoint, Yammer, Slack, LinkedIn). If used properly, organizations can use these forms of communication to maintain and preserve their culture as part of an effective strategy to communicate transparently, collaborate across functions, and update knowledge management systems as necessary.

Conclusion

 The lasting effects of COVID-19 on organizational culture are difficult to predict. However, impacts from prior crises have often produced enduring changes that eventually make their way into the everyday operations of organizations (Hurley-Hanson et al., 2011). Therefore, we should expect that the changes (forced or voluntary) that organizations have experienced during the pandemic are not likely to disappear completely. Modifications, such as the rise of remote or virtual work environments, are likely to become permanent fixtures within organizational structures.

 

Best Practices and Recommendations

Impacts due to COVID-19

Recommendations

1. Job demands and stressors

  • Provide adequate training and resources to help employees feel supported through the transition of working remotely
  • Reallocate in-office funds (e.g., catered lunches, work equipment) directly to employee pockets with monthly allowances or stipends to encourage a productive work environment at home

2. Employee engagement

  • Allow employees to focus primarily on the job by making employee assistance resources convenient for employees to access and utilize
  • Facilitate virtual communication options (e.g., open forums) that allow and encourage employees to support one another quickly and easily

3. Work–life conflict

  • Provide flexible hours to accommodate working parents
  • Offer additional benefits such as more sick and vacation days
  • Provide mental health and physical wellness interventions to support those who feel isolated

4. Job performance

  • Be understanding of employees during difficult times; consider modifying performance management systems to be more lenient
  • Identify performance and skills gaps and develop them with existing employees

5. Organizational
connectedness

  • Facilitate engagement surveys including open forum options to give employees the ability to convey their unique experience and possible threats to well-being
  • Relax social interactions and create new traditions to take the place of impromptu meetings such as lunch conversations or coffee breaks

 

It may be necessary to incorporate aspects of resiliency into organizational cultures. Above all else, resilient work cultures allow for dynamic changes in strategic planning that are essential to minimizing the harmful effects of future crises. Below, we have created a list of actionable items for creating a more resilient culture, broken down by the impacts of COVID-19 discussed in this article.

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