How To Advance Organizational Culture In The “New Normal” World Of Work


Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

COVID-19 has challenged us all in myriad ways, both professionally and personally. But there have been positives as well; many of us have learned new skills and ways of collaborating.

Keeping employees and customers safe has required organizations to revise their business models and rapidly advance their digital transformation, achieving in a few months what might otherwise have taken years.

Leaders at all levels have been put to the test, and have risen to the occasion. Research shows that the vast majority of employees feel their leaders have taken a genuine interest in their well-being. Likewise, HR leaders have had to adopt new or adjust existing people practices, dramatically altering the employee experience and organizational culture.

Culture is simply defined as “the way things are done around here.” It’s an aggregation of attitudes, beliefs, rituals, behaviours, processes and practices, such as how and where we work. Culture is always evolving. Many aspects of culture have changed permanently as a result of the pandemic, and there is no going back to the way things were.

Typically, culture change is slow; but the COVID-19 crisis has given us a solid foundation and the tools we need to strengthen our organizational culture far beyond what we could do in “business as usual” circumstances.

As we move out of crisis management mode and transition to the “new normal” world of work, organizations have an opportunity to create a legacy, to put people at the core of their business strategy by curating a culture characterized by inclusion, empathy and connection, concern for employee well-being, and deeply meaningful work, which naturally contribute to higher engagement, effectiveness and results.

Establish Accountability for Inclusion

One of the biggest changes has been the massive shift to remote working. Prior to the pandemic, most organizations had only a small percentage of employees working remotely. During the height of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of businesses had more than half of their workforce working remotely.

Employees have learned they can work productively from home and enjoy greater work-life balance. Employers benefit through reduced costs and greater employee engagement and productivity. It is likely that remote work is here to stay; organizations that do not offer this flexibility on a permanent basis will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Adopting a learning mindset will be critical for leaders that have resisted remote work arrangements for their employees. Focusing on and rewarding results delivered, regardless of work location, will signal that remote workers’ contributions are valued equally with their in-office counterparts.

As more employees return to the office and resume in-person interactions, efforts must be made to ensure that remote workers are fully engaged with the team. Otherwise, there is a risk that your culture may become fractured into two subcultures; remote workers may experience FOMO (fear of missing out) and become marginalized. As a result, they may become disengaged and less productive.

Physically being in the office creates a sense of community.

Leaders must become adept at facilitating hybrid in-person/virtual meetings to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute and feel heard, and that there is adequate opportunity for all employees to engage in the social aspects that create team cohesiveness.

It’s critical to establish mutual accountability for regular, proactive connection between remote workers and their leaders and teammates. In my workplace, BlueShore Financial, teams are encouraged to have regular group check-ins that have both a business and a social component.

Lead with Empathy

Over the past few months, leaders have shown unprecedented levels of empathy and concern for employees’ welfare, gaining a new appreciation for employees’ commitments and challenges as they struggled to adapt to the pandemic and deliver on their business objectives.

Demonstrating empathy is particularly important during a crisis, but it remains a key leadership behaviour regardless of the circumstances. Empathy doesn’t come naturally to all—really leaning in to our own and others’ emotions can make us feel vulnerable or weak. But that vulnerability and humanness is essential to developing strong, trusting relationships that are critical to business recovery. We learn the most when we are operating outside our comfort zone. Continuing to exercise empathy and prioritizing meaningful connections with employees will go a long way to creating a culture of trust.

At BlueShore, we facilitate virtual “open mic” sessions with employees, which include leaders sharing their own concerns and personal challenges and staff having a forum to ask their questions directly to the executives. These sessions have been very well received and will be carried into the future.

Focus on Total Well-being

During the pandemic, many organizations have placed increased focus on employee well-being across several dimensions: physical, mental, financial and social. There have been far more discussions on mental health than ever before. We are in uncertain times and likely will be for some time. The impact of the crisis on employees may be long-lasting. Employees may feel disillusioned or depressed for months following a crisis and may require ongoing support.

Organizations that wish to strengthen their culture will continue to offer resources and programs to support total well-being. This can take many forms, and doesn’t necessarily require a large budget.

For example, BlueShore has implemented a weekly intranet feature called Wellness Wednesdays that covers various topics, such as in-house videos on proper ergonomic set-up for a home office, numerous external mental health resources and ways to connect with colleagues and friends while maintaining physical distancing.

Help All Employees to Find Meaning in Their Work

One hallmark of a strong organizational culture is alignment between employees’ personal values and organizational values.

When this happens, employees are able to bring their full selves to work, and instinctively know the right thing to do without full reliance on company rules and policies to direct their actions.

Many of us have taken the opportunity recently to reflect on what really matters to us. We have performed acts of kindness, or been deeply affected by stories of others’ actions.

The Barrett Values Centre undertook a Global COVID-19 Culture Assessment and saw several new values emerging in top priority. Not surprisingly, one of these new values is “making a difference.” This suggests that employees are looking to see this more strongly reflected in their organization’s culture.

Organizations can accomplish this by ensuring that every employee understands how their role connects to the mission and purpose of the organization, and how the organization serves its communities. This is especially important for remote workers lacking the in-person connection with their workplace and colleagues.

One way BlueShore connected employees to our community impact work was by launching a Pay it Forward program. Every employee was given funds to complete an act of kindness for an individual or organization in the community. This resonated with our employees and strengthened the alignment between their values and BlueShore’s.

Consider how your organization’s purpose and values may have changed over the past few months; involve your employees in co-creating the future. What activities have you stopped doing that you are happy to leave in the past? What did you start doing during the pandemic that has served your clients, employees and business well and that you want to continue doing? What do you need to start doing to truly fulfill your core purpose?

This is an ideal time for a refresh and inspire your employees with a renewed sense of purpose.

Our actions during this time of great uncertainty will be judged in the rear-view mirror. Going forward, prospective employees will gravitate to organizations that not only treated their employees well during the crisis, but leveraged the lessons learned to enhance the employee experience and culture and improve their business results for years to come. Will your organization be one of them?



Marni Johnson, CPHR, is the senior vice president, human resources and corporate affairs at BlueShore Financial.

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