How to Maintain a Company Culture During a Pandemic

Ah company culture- the buzzword was on everyone’s lips just months ago. In the midst of global panic, is culture something companies should or even can prioritize? My answer is: yes, now more than ever.

As we are settling into our fourth week of confinement and working from home, I’m reminded of how I felt on maternity leave. When I took my leave in 2017 for my fourth-born, while working at Namics, the first feeling I had was relief. I was thrilled that I had found a company that actually HAD paid maternity leave for expectant mothers, a luxury that most (at least where I come from) do not enjoy. But after I’d been home with my infant for several weeks, I also started to have feelings of unease. Would I be forgotten? Would my absence leave me out of the loop when I returned? Was I missing out on important context by not being around my colleagues that could damage my ability to contribute to the success of the company? What will it be like when I come back?

These emotions and many more are on the minds of millions of self-isolating or quarantined folks who are working from home around the world right now, and it’s why it’s so important for companies to do everything they can to maintain their company culture over the span of this unprecedented global health crisis. Because while the future is uncertain, we will get through this, and we will go back- but what will it look like when we return?

As head of company culture at Critizr, I have made it a top priority to maintain our culture for remote workers in order to ease the transition from this new normal, all the way through the time when we are once again able to sit around a conference room again or share pastries in the kitchen. It seems like a million years ago that I swiped my Navigo (the French version of the Metrocard) or started asking what everyone was having for lunch to coordinate food expeditions or lunch dates in the kitchen. It feels a little odd to be nostalgic for things like that, but let’s be honest; everything these days feels a little odd.

Lunchtime in the kitchen at Critizr

Thankfully, our company is a bit out front on some of these issues as, with dedicated offices in three countries, we are used to working remotely. But it is a much different thing to have a company culture that ALLOWS you to work remotely instead of being FORCED to work remotely. So in order to maintain our culture, we must think of ways to replicate the benefits that our office culture provides. The first of these is social. Obviously, we don’t have to be best friends with the people we work with, but having the opportunity for positive social interactions with coworkers is essential. But without conversations in the elevator, or happy hours with the team, we must take steps to re-insert this into the lives of our colleagues. One way we’ve done this is to have optional “Morning Coffees” lead by each team lead over Zoom. No (excessive) work chat, just catching up with our groups, comparing notes on how self-isolation is going, exchanging Netflix recommendations (and doing our best to not comment on how far each other’s roots and beards have grown out!)

It’s also essential to understand that with a diverse workforce, we also have diverse goals. To address these, I took a look at our team, and broke them down into three groups.

  1. The working parents

While self isolation and working from home is a challenge for everyone, parents working from home have several unique challenges. They must educate their children, make sure they get some exercise, won’t be fined for being outside too long, make sure they, you know, EAT, and on top of that, not actually get lost under piles of laundry and clutter. Either way, what these parents need from their company culture is support. Right off the bat, we created dedicated Slack channels for parents to share tips, tricks and exercise routines for the whole family. We also supported parents by providing fun activities for the kids with shareable results. We have hosted costume parties, with the caveat that each costume must begin with the letter C (For Critizr, of course!) and be constructed with nothing but items found around the house. Last week, this Criti’ cactus was the big winner.

First Prize Winner: the Criti’ Cactus

We’ve also done company sponsored craft ideas like bookbinding and other fun events, with the winners rewarded with something fun that is of use in these times, like an online entertainment subscription, a gift card that can be used to tip your favorite grocer or delivery person or even “when it’s over” prizes, like gift certificates to restaurants that might be struggling, tickets to autumn sporting events, cinema or theater.

2. The remote workers without children

Those who are housebound without children have challenges that include boredom, cabin fever, a need for exercise and potential conflict with spouses or roommates in sometimes-cramped urban apartments. Supporting these folks is often as easy as making sure that we can help them create a healthy routine and keep up appearances as best as possible. We have made online training sessions with workouts available, as well as encouraged managers to do daily scrums, the online equivalent of a 15 minute stand up meeting, where we go over the day’s goals, yesterday’s successes and challenges and engage our co workers on the broad strokes of the company. Keeping the overall goals of the company top of mind are crucial for these types of workers, as while their habits might be forced to change, if they are always aware of the big picture, they may be better equipped to tackle them.

3. The people who are on hiatus.

Here in Paris, we have the option of “temporary unemployment” which allows businesses to temporarily let employees stop working while in confinement without laying them off, while still receiving the majority of their paychecks from the government. We gave people the choice of taking this leave, some who couldn’t manage working from home while homeschooling their children, for example. These people are the most essential to reach out to, as, like me on my first maternity leave, they could very easily start to feel out of the loop. Though we’re fortunate to have the choice to take a break during this crazy time, if you’re not working, you’re likely equally or more scared and depressed about the future. For these folks, outreach is crucial. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the very real dangers of COVID 19, “Isolation Fatigue” is very much a concern of ours, as issues of substance abuse, domestic violence, and other very real societal problems have not gone away during this crisis, and can very likely be exacerbated by it. We reach out to the entire company by keeping up appearances, making sure that everyone can participate in meetups, games, contests, and letting them know that they are, even in this reduced capacity, absolutely essential to our community. To do this, we took our monthly employee newsletter and pushed it up to weekly. We fill it with company news, updates on how our platform is being used and helping people throughout this crisis, like our dedicated platform that has allowed customers to thank their favorite grocers and delivery people. We also keep it light, with funny memes, upcoming events, and company games like the Criti’ Quiz, an online pub trivia type quiz.

Criti’ Quiz Part I: the game is on

We do these things not just for the fun of them (although they ARE fun!) We do them because all our employees, but especially those on hiatus, need to know that our company is solvent, successful and functional. They see unemployment soaring across the world, and they aren’t stupid. Many of them have worked for enough startups to know that when money gets tight, the free drinks and team building events tend to be the first things to dry up, and after that happens, layoffs aren’t far behind. So we’re doing the best we can to ensure that the little things stay in place, not only for the social benefits, but to bolster a sense of security that says “We’ll be fine. We’re going to get through this, and we’ll all get back to work.” We realize that our company is more fortunate than many, because thankfully (and incredibly!) not only are we not laying people off, we’re still hiring. One amazing aspect of our business is our ability to provide direct support to the real life heroes who risk their own health to go out and battle daily for the comfort and benefit of the rest of us. It’s odd to build solidarity while staying apart, but we are doing it.

It turns out the best way to get through staying apart is to help ensure that we do it together.

About the Author

Catherine F. Simon is Head of Talent & Culture at Critizr and has more than a decade of experience in tech project management, operations, tech recruitment and people management behind her. She has helped multiple startups attract top talent, and fostered happy, diverse teams in tech. Her reverse headhunting approach prioritizes employer branding and corporate culture so that the best talent finds the right home. Her passion for employee happiness is infectious. She loves to design workshops and training sessions with the goals of boosting productivity and enthusiasm at work, and is happy to talk your ear off about it in several different languages.

Catherine is also a huge jazz fan, former drummer and serial concert goer, on top of being the mother of four small monsters. The concept of “free time” eludes her.

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