5 Ways to Strengthen Workplace Culture When Times Are Tough


SVP of people and culture at Workfront, Laura Butler, shares some low-cost ideas any organization can use to build a more robust culture, even when times are tough and the future looks uncertain.

During the current global health and economic crisis, we are facing a lot of unknowns. COVID-19 has changed the world of work – and some of those changes are likely permanent, such as an increase in the number of people who may prefer working remotely.

In times of uncertainty, it can be reassuring to focus on things we know for sure and to return to core values and basic principles. One thing I’m sure of is that culture matters. We have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen learning and build resiliency, right when our people and teams need it most. They’ll be watching what their leaders say and do in these critical moments, more than they ever have.

If you’ve already been focusing on people and culture, this is a great time to keep building on the foundation you’ve already established. If your culture has been put on the backburner in recent years, there’s still much you can do in the weeks ahead to help turn that around.

It has been wonderful to see some companies respond to this crisis with incredible generosity, such as WorkdayOpens a new window offering generous one-time bonuses for employees to offset unexpected expenses related to the coronavirus outbreak, school closures, and other stresses. But not every company is in the position to do that, especially those with a connection to the hospitality industry, which has experienced a significant downturn in business.

5 Simple Ways to Create a Robust Workplace Culture

Fortunately, money isn’t the only thing that helps build culture and resiliency during this time. I’d like to share a few low-cost ideas any organization can use to create a more robust culture, even when times are tough and the future looks uncertain.

1. Show sincere gratitude

Showing authentic appreciation for team members is a beautiful way to boost culture, and it costs nothing.

According to a study by glassdoor.com, 81%Opens a new window of employees say they’re motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work. And it tends to trickle down. People who feel appreciated are more likely to show appreciation to others. It’s the epitome of a win-win situation, because the person expressing gratitude is happier, as is the recipient. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been provenOpens a new window to both ease stress and boost happiness. And who wouldn’t benefit from a bit less stress and an extra dose of joy right about now?

During times like this, it’s easy to notice what’s missing. But that can harm your culture, and it won’t facilitate resiliency or bring out the best people. Tom Rath, the author of StrengthsFinder 2.0Opens a new window , said, “people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.” Noticing the excellence around you not only helps others excel, but also gives you a greater appreciation for what is versus what isn’t, and that will generate feelings of happiness.

At Workfront, we’ve been using a recognition platform, Motivosity, for years to empower our people to recognize and reward not just their direct reports, but their peers as well. Since it all happens virtually, we can easily continue these practices with a more remote workforce. We’re boosting our efforts by adding charities, such as food banks, to which team members can donate the money they’ve earned on the platform.

2. Promote volunteerism

Barack Obama saidOpens a new window , “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope; you will fill yourself with hope.”

People like to believe they’re working for a cause. They want to see the organizations they devote their lives to being good global citizens and making a difference in people’s lives. On average, 78% of knowledge workers globally say that their work represents more than just a paycheck to them, according to Workfront’s State of WorkOpens a new window survey.

Offer virtual service daysOpens a new window , so team members feel like they’re contributing to the greater good. These can be organized around a particular cause or left up to team members.

3. Embrace greater flexibility

As I write this, we’re still amidst an escalating crisis, and every single one of us is scrambling to adapt to abruptly changed circumstances. For some, this looks like two working adults competing for internet bandwidth, taking turns keeping their young children occupied and entertained. For others, it seems like balancing job duties while figuring out how to homeschool teenagers. Some are doing all of the above while also caring for at-risk parents or other relatives. Others are feeling isolated and lonely, with work now being their primary lifeline to the outside world.

As leaders, it’s important to acknowledge these new realities and offer our team members all the compassion and flexibility we can muster. Let your people know you do see them, and that you value and support them. Allow even greater flexibility with work hours than you typically do. At Workfront, we sent email communication explicitly acknowledging all of the above, concluding with this paragraph

“Whatever your new normal looks like, we ask that you prioritize your family and your wellbeing. If anything in your life has to give right now, let it be work. Find a balance that works for you, and communicate regularly with your manager and teammates.”

A little bit of empathy goes a long way.

4. Cultivate social connections

Look for ways to socialize virtually (via Zoom, WebEx, etc.) around shared interests not directly related to work duties. We’ve been holding virtual yoga classes, boot camps, and drop-in lunches. I’ve particularly enjoyed the #peloton Slack channel, where over 30 of us ride together and hold one another accountable for staying healthy.

Look for other remote team-building opportunities as well, like book clubs, online Scrabble tournaments, virtual lunches, and happy hours, or playing Heads Up over a video conference call. Life is pretty severe right now. Encourage some lighthearted playfulness, and do your best to lead by example.

5. Level up the transparency and visibility

In physical workspaces, you can do walk-bys and in-person check-ins to keep visibility high, but that’s currently not an option. So think about ways to translate that practice into the virtual world. You might encourage your CEO or other leaders to open up some hours in their schedule that anyone in the company can personally reserve for some (virtual) face-to-face conversation and connection. Send out regular video messages from leadership. Communicate even more frequently, openly, and honestly than you usually do, via every available channel.

People deserve visibility into how their day-to-day work aligns with their company’s goals. Helping individuals understand how their accomplishments influence the mission of the company by transparently connecting their work to strategic goals can boost their sense of pride and purpose.

It’s also important to remember that every dip or downturn is followed by a period of growth and acceleration. This moment won’t last forever. Before the coronavirus had us all sequestered in our homes, nearly 71% of respondents to the State of Work survey said they wished they had a single online destination to help them understand and manage work, with 69% saying they don’t have that type of solution in place. As high as those numbers were before, I expect them both to rise significantly when this is all over, as people realize the importance of centralized work management solutions that are accessible at any time of day, from anywhere in the world.

Culture Matters More Than Ever

Southwest AirlinesOpens a new window is one example of a company that crushes the competition when it comes to culture. They built so much internal goodwill and loyalty that after the devastating economic downturn following 9/11, Southwest’s leadership team took voluntary pay cuts, and employees offered to bring their lawnmowers in to cut the corporate grass so that the company could discontinue lawn services. In those dark moments, they had no way to predict what the future would bring – whether more terrorist attacks were imminent, or how quickly the economy would recover. But a unique culture helped them weather the storm, to the point that they were profitable in the fourth quarter of 2001, without grounding any aircraft or furloughing any employees.

We humans are resilient creatures. This can be difficult to remember during a pandemic, but it has been true throughout history. Our most significant challenges have brought about our greatest innovations, creative works of staggering genius, and opportunities to reconnect to ourselves, to each other, and to what’s most important in work and life.

Our people are watching how we respond to the events unfolding all around us, and they’re going to remember what we said, what we did, and how it made them feel. So please remember this: in both good times and bad, if we take care of our people, they’ll, in turn, take care of our customers and the business – enabling us to collectively build the organizational resilience we need to face whatever the future may hold.