Culture in a Post-Covid World

A human-centered workplace will retain employees and spur success

By Ryan Hodgson January 16, 2023

Ryan Hodgson

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

In business, perhaps branding is the only term that can compete with culture as the most nebulous to define and elusive to measure. But in today’s post-Covid world, culture has become more critical than ever. The companies that crack the culture code attract and retain the best people and gain a growing segment of conscious consumers to their products or services.

Pre-Covid, we were starting to lean into concepts such as unlimited vacation and empathetic leadership, and we felt great if we could get a standing desk. Now the focus is on the employee’s humanity at an ever more profound level.

As an Australian who came to the United States 14 years ago, I instantly recognized the cultural difference between the two countries as it pertained to work. Americans embraced a culture of “live to work,” even celebrating those who worked long hours as people “going places.” In Australia, we “work to live.” We embrace the adage, “work hard, play hard.”

The pandemic has broken the American “live to work” philosophy by highlighting the uncertainty of life. The illusion that we sacrifice our current desires to live them later is a false narrative. Americans have realized that they want to live their best version of life now, and they have started designing their lives to realize that reality.

The main focus remains flexibility. With a recession looming, companies are questioning their hybrid and remote working policies. Their instincts tell them they want to see their employees at work so that they know they are getting maximum productivity. They also believe that having employees work physically together drives culture.

The data suggest otherwise. In a study by Microsoft of Office 365, productivity was up in 2021 when employees were largely remote. Yet, as companies have started to call their teams back to the office, the result is a slight decline in productivity. Pulling teams back into the office could be a great way to undo the trust established through the pandemic. And that leads to one of the most significant elements of a healthy culture: how to build trust.

Trust is critical. Author and Professor Brené Brown says, “Trust is not built in big sweeping moments. It’s built in tiny moments every day.” Trust is most evident in businesses that embrace consistency, transparency, empathy, equity, clarity and investment in its people.

Consistency is vital, from consistent communication to policies that apply to all employees. Favoritism is a potent killer of trust. Marketing specialist Perry Belcher said it best: “Nothing will kill a good employee faster than watching you tolerate a bad one.”

Transparency is a real issue in some businesses because of a fear of oversharing. Proactive and truthful communication is key to getting employees to buy into the mission. And leaders, please don’t delegate communication. No one will deliver it better than you, and your team will respect you for it.

There’s no silver bullet to building a great culture and developing trust, but if there were one in today’s workplace, empathy would be it. Create a place where your people can show up authentically as themselves. Listening to and hearing their needs, goals, challenges and ideas is critical to building a human-centered workplace where people want to work. Being flexible as to where they work fits right in here.

Equity, hard to believe, is still a significant issue. Equity of opportunity and pay across all sexual orientations, sexual preferences, race and even age are all closely monitored and discussed by employees. Leaders would be wise to realize this and ensure equity is a significant focus.

Clarity is clutch. Ambiguity is like cancer in your business. It eats away your productivity while creating challenging employee experiences, leading to confusion and even infighting. James Clear wrote one of the best quotes about this in his book “Atomic Habits.” “You do not rise to the lever of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” If your systems, processes and job descriptions aren’t clearly defined, you cannot reach your goals and keep talented employees.

Invest in people. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through this brief conversation. CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people, and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

Your job as a leader is to create a culture where all your employees can flourish in a positive environment. By tolerating less than that, you risk losing your best employees and your company not reaching its potential.

Ryan Hodgson is the founder of Seattle-based Rysing Tide, a company that delivers growth strategies for businesses and their people.

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