While the world places bets on when social distancing will end, one thing is becoming certain: the workplace experience that employees return to will not be the same. The pandemic will change workplace culture in permanent ways; not necessarily negative ways, but “normal” is gone and won’t be coming back. Restarting the engine of any organization post-COVID-19 will requires a major shift in operations, protocols, and more importantly, attitudes.

We are dealing with two contagions — the virus itself and the emotions it generates. Negative emotions are every bit as contagious as the virus, and they’re also toxic. Anxiety, fear, and panic undermine our ability to think and communicate clearly, manage our relationships effectively, focus our attention on the right priorities, and make smart, informed choices. Most importantly, they can affect any organization’s work culture.

What is work culture and why is it so important, now more and ever? Culture is the operating system of our organization. It is the social glue that holds everyone together and gives us a sense of identity and engagement. The pandemic has the potential to impact the strength of this culture, for better or worst. We need to increasingly acknowledge the importance of culture and focus on monitoring and managing it by design— rather by default.

We need muscles to restart the engine. These are the physical, mental, and emotional muscles coming from our employees, staff, team members, and the people we interact with on the daily basis.

What factors can contribute to any organization’s work culture?

1- Leadership: When crisis hits, true character is revealed. In the toughest times, the leaders who excel are those who communicate clearly, stay calm and strong, think long-term, and take appropriate decisive action — and perhaps more importantly, demonstrate empathy. Effective leadership transcends physical boundaries and has a direct impact on employee engagement and motivation. This is a time to encourage conversations, be vulnerable, double down on empathy and recognize the individual needs of employees. When people feel that somebody actually cares about them as a human being, they will be inspired and motivated.

2 – Mental Health: Isolation is a primary factor in depression, anxiety and other significant mental health issues— and the need for physical and social distancing has only exacerbated this struggle. The wellness support and routines that may have been set up during the pandemic will need to continue. We can still feel alone even if everyone else is going through the same change. Previously, mental health may not have received the necessary attention it deserved. Now, there is a greater appreciation for its importance and for the ways organizations can provide solutions to help their staff. The lack of mental health support leads to loss of productivity and occupational burnout, and people just aren’t as passionate about their jobs as they used to be.

3 – Team Dynamics:  Nothing is more significant in creating bonds between teammates than a common enemy, and the pandemic struggle is a perfect example of what can strengthen relationships. Having gone through this together, we may have new levels of connection with our teammates. At the same time, we need to anticipate a period of conflict and set backs as our team may go through a “storming session” to work out the kinks. Uncertainty, extended remote connection and fear can create confusion and dampen the teams’ morale. Roles may not be clear and more than ever, effective leadership and communication is needed to establish a more effective norm. Being able to effectively communicate our current reality and articulate a vision fosters compassion and alignment. It allows us to understand the “why” behind the “how” of our organization.

4 – Resilience: There will be a grieving period. We may initially focus on what we lost and what we have to to give up. It will be stressful to come out of our comfort zone and adapt to new systems. This is where cultivating resilience is key. Resilience is built by attitudes, behaviors and social supports. It’s a collective effort. There is a need to reframe stress and realize that not all stress is created equal and some types of stress, “good stress”,  have positive effects on our growth, creativity, and productivity. Realistic optimism, agility and a strong social support system can all foster our resilience.

5 – Power of Rituals: Rituals can be powerful drivers of workplace culture. They engage us around the things that matter most to our organization, instilling a sense of shared purpose and experience. They spark behaviors that make the work more successful. We can start by asking ourselves:  how we want to to evolve our work culture—and what kind of rituals might help? What is our organizations unique purpose and set of values? What mindset and behaviors will help our staff to be inspired and perform their best? What unique rituals can we implement in the daily, weekly, or monthly experiences of our organization? It start with specific intentions that are unique to our work, and are followed up with consistency.

Culture is an ecosystem and the elements of this culture reinforce each other. At the moment, it may be tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel or hold a sense of optimism for the future, but there will be post-traumatic growth, in which we will realize our inner strength and a deeper sense of gratitude. The current crisis will eventually pass and a new normal, and a new sense of resilience will emerge—and there is plenty of reason to believe that future can be bright.

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