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The pandemic has had a huge impact on the workplace – who would have thought at the start of 2020 that a few months later, large sections of the UK workforce would be working from home and zoom meetings would be commonplace? In fact, 57 percent of companies anticipate major changes to their culture as a result of the pandemic. So how has workplace culture changed in the last year and what can we expect moving forward? Robert Ordever, MD of workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner Europe, delivers his insights.

COVID has greatly impacted workplace culture

The pandemic has significantly affected workplace culture, with an 11 percent drop in employee engagement levels, increasing to a 52 percent drop in ‘non-thriving’ cultures. There has also been a 15 percent increase in burnout, up to a massive 81 per cent in ‘non-thriving’ cultures.

Furloughs and layoffs over the past 12 months have been commonplace, impacting engagement and mental health and ultimately taking a wrecking ball through many workplace cultures. In fact, O.C. Tanner’s research found that when an organisation conducted a layoff or furlough there was a 20 per cent increase in fearfulness and an 80 per cent increase in feeling isolated.

When workers have felt pressurised to return to work during the pandemic, this has also impacted health, wellbeing and trust in leaders, especially if the employees felt their employers were ill-prepared for their return. In such cases, there was a 46 percent increase in fearfulness, a 23 percent increase in employees reporting a tense atmosphere at work and 23 percent less trust in leaders.

And at a time when employees needed to feel more appreciated than ever, recognition was reduced across many organisations in an effort to cut costs. Such a decision has damaged engagement, mental health and staff retention with almost half of employees (49 per cent) reporting decreased engagement within organisations that cut their recognition programmes.

Positive impacts and opportunities

COVID has been devastating in so many ways, however there have been unexpected positive impacts and it’s important that these are harnessed to accelerate change, particularly in the following key areas:

Leadership – More ‘modern leaders’ have evolved over the past 12 months, driven by employee needs. Traditional leaders who focus on power, control and authority have been less able to engage and motivate employees during the pandemic. Instead, modern leadership has evolved in which being compassionate, collaborative and nurturing is key. In fact, the foundation of a modern leader is their ability to connect employees to the company’s purpose, accomplishment and each other and when this is achieved, the company is ten times’ more likely to thrive.

Technology – Over the past 12 months there has been significant technological innovations driven by homeworking and this isn’t expected to slow down any time soon. Organisations have been forced to prioritise technologies that connect people and enable working from home, accelerating the uptake of solutions for communication and collaboration. The success of these new technologies will drive further advancements which will positively impact workplace culture. In fact, when technologies are effectively integrated there is a 644 percent higher likelihood that employees with be successful and a 424 percent higher likelihood that employees will be engaged. 

Wellbeing – The pandemic has catapulted mental health into the public eye, with it intensifying fearfulness, loneliness and burnout. This has meant that many organisations have had to prioritise staff wellbeing, perhaps for the first time. Moving forward, staff will demand more and more from their companies, from meaningful interactions with their leaders through to ongoing recognition and greater connections with their peers. 

A word to the wise

The pandemic has forever altered the employee experience and expectations of how organisations should behave, and what workers may have turned a blind eye to pre-pandemic will no longer be tolerated. Organisations must recognise that there has been a seismic shift in workplace culture, and so reverting back to a pre-pandemic mindset will lead to disengagement and high staff turnover. Now’s the time to learn from the pandemic, to address its negative impacts and push forward positive change.

* Research insights taken from O.C. Tanner’s 2021 Global Culture Report