The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on in some form for almost two years now. But there is a silver lining. Circumstances have forced businesses to take a hard look at the state of workplace culture during a pandemic. As a manager, it’s imperative that you understand how COVID-19 is changing work.

The sentiments of managers and HR are massively diverging from those of employees. So, are business leaders being too quick to pat themselves on the back? Let’s look at the findings and break down the best ways to support workplace culture in such unpredictable times.

Managers and employees disagree about the state of our work cultures

The Society for Human Resource Management recently released new findings. These show that 99% of HR professionals report the belief that they ‘encourage a culture of open and transparent communication.’

Additionally, almost three-quarters of executives, vice presidents and senior managers believe that their business’s culture had improved since the beginning of the pandemic.

In other circumstances, these might be quite reassuring stats to know. Unfortunately, only 21% of employees and 14% of Americans actually agreed with these assessments. In fact, more than a third of working Americans reported that their manager doesn’t know how to lead a team. On top of that, over a quarter stated that their employer doesn’t provide any management training. So, why the discrepancy?

Well, on the one hand, the pandemic has dragged ideas like employee wellbeing and greater job flexibility into the limelight. On the other, 44% of all surveyed employees who had worked remotely reported feelings of isolation and disconnection.

To make matters worse, over half of employees who left a job in the last five years did so due to their relationship with their manager. By comparison, only 22% of employees reporting staying in a job because of their manager.

So, maybe we’ve found the problem. HR and management are thinking too much about the future improvements to be made by learning from lockdown. And that’s a problem that even progressive businesses have to watch out for. On the other hand, employees are more worried about current problems. They care more about issues that in many cases have been present long before COVID reared its ugly head.

How important is workplace culture?

Even if you don’t think you have one, rest assured that workplace culture permeates literally every aspect of your business. Everyone contributes to it, from your CEO, right down to your most junior intern. It doesn’t just affect nebulous-seeming things like the office vibe. In fact, it can also make or break your ability to be financially productive.

This is because workplace culture ties in very closely to employee engagement. You want employees to be truly productive (for example, via discretionary effort, which is engagement-exclusive). But it’s not enough for you to just engage people in their role. They have to engage with the organisation and their colleagues within it too.

It might seem like there are more important things than workplace culture during a pandemic. But it’s like a strong wind knocking down a rotten shack. The stress of lockdown has just made pre-existing flaws more obvious and much worse.

Improving workplace culture during a pandemic (and after one, too!)

There’s a sole benefit of all this strain being put on workplace culture during a pandemic. It’s forcing employers to reckon with the fact that they need to do better. The impact of COVID-19 can teach us a lot about our workplace cultures. And those lessons will still be useful long after the pandemic is just a distant memory.

Good communication is absolutely essential

How well people in your business communicate with each other can determine whether you succeed or fail. Yes, we know, that’s a very obvious thing to say. But if it’s so obvious, then why is it such a common problem?

Lack of communication leads to (sometimes expensive) mistakes, and just generally cost you time-efficiency. But beyond simple productivity, communication keeps employees in the loop, gives them a voice, and reduces the likelihood of turnover.

Job flexibility is here to stay

Over the years, job flexibility has become less of a niche perk, and more or a basic expectation. Of course, the final push came from the proliferation of remote work during the pandemic. Telecommuting is continuing to prove popular with the vast majority of its participants.

But employers shouldn’t overlook other forms of job flexibility to appeal to a wider range of employees. Even if you don’t go for a full-blown 4-day work week, there are plenty of other options. Reduced hours and a pay bump, arrangements like core hours, compressed hours or job sharing. Providing access to these kinds of flexibility can help make your workplace more accessible to a deeper pool of talent.

Managers and HR must be transparent

One of the biggest impacts on workplace culture during the pandemic is how a lack of communication creates with problems with the perception of transparency. Hiding the facts from your employees is a quick way to burn their trust in you.

But, even if you’re not hiding anything, sloppy communication habits can give the impression that you are. Whether it’s through OKRs, announcements in group meetings, mass emails or any other method, taking the time to keep your employees up-to-date is essential if you want any kind of loyalty.

Employees need a good work/life balance

When managers are over-zealous, employee work/life balance is usually the first thing to go. But let’s be clear, this kind of approach is inherently unsustainable. Everyone has things they need to get done outside of work, and that’s not even accounting for rest and recuperation. The State of the Global Workplace report revealed that 2020 saw record-breaking levels of job stress. That means it’s more important than ever that your employees’ time out of work should be their own.

But most importantly, follow through

If you only take one piece of advice from this article, let it be this: Follow through. Don’t just bounce from one trendy solution to the next.

It doesn’t matter how many wonderful, progressive ideas you have to improve workplace culture during a pandemic (or just in general) if you don’t follow through with them.

If our hunch from the beginning of this piece is true, employers are spending too much time patting themselves on the back. And all for having vaguely progressive trains of thought, and too little time actually putting them into practice. So, buckle up, get your employees involved in the discussion, and start making better workplace cultures a reality today.