While you’re battling workplace chaos caused by COVID-19, the last thing on your mind may be the state of your company’s virtual workplace culture. It may seem trivial when you are trying to keep folks on payroll, help those with sick family members or kids out of school, and manage a virtual workforce. However, if we don’t keep a close eye on how we’re applying our company’s values, beliefs, and behaviors in a virtual setting, we may miss negative influences on employee productivity, motivation, and morale. Leaders need to actively consider shifting company culture needs so that it doesn’t become a liability.

What is company culture?

A company’s culture encompasses the values, beliefs, and behaviors that contribute to the physical, social, and psychological environment of a business. You can also view culture as a business’s personality. Your business’s personality strongly influences how employees interact and perform their jobs.

Consider your pre-COVID-19 company culture and make changes where necessary.

Picture your office before the COVID-19 pandemic. When employees passed each other in the halls, did they smile and have a chat? Or did they hurry by and slam the door with a big sigh? How did it feel when HR came for a visit? Was there engagement, or did your employees avoid HR as much as possible? What about when you presented a challenging idea or a tough new initiative? Were there questions, push back, or just awkward-silence crickets? The latter of these examples describe symptoms of a culture that isn’t working – sometimes called a “toxic workplace” – where there is poor communication, little trust, and focus on negative thinking. Imagine these businesses thrust into a purely virtual world and you can immediately see their unraveling.

Now, this isn’t to say that businesses with positive company cultures haven’t faced challenges in how to express or maintain their culture in a virtual space. For example, company rituals like birthday celebrations or ringing a sales bell, are impossible. These rituals are about recognition. Therefore, if the company culture is to recognize achievements, then the expression needs to change. Note that the impulse to recognize is still there – that is the company’s culture at work through change and adversity.

What should business leaders look out for in virtual workplace culture?

How your team communicates with each other, interprets policies, and uses digital communication tools are huge drivers of company culture and potential risk.

Examine how you communicate.

How your team communicates with each other, interprets policies, and uses digital communication tools are huge drivers of company culture and potential risk.

Harassment and Discrimination can happen in virtual workplaces.

When an accuser discusses harassment or discrimination at work, the phrase “toxic culture” is often used. Unlawful discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, happen in remote work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pointed out that remote and decentralized workplaces are more at risk. This risk could be because employees don’t think that company policies apply to them outside of the physical office. Reporting such behavior can also be challenging as some employees don’t want to “put it in writing,” or they feel uncomfortable without a face-face-conversation. Another factor is that most employers (pre-pandemic included) have a host of communication platforms that can be accessed from anywhere at any time, resulting in employers expecting communication at a moment’s notice from employees (see below), even after a couple glasses of wine.

It is a good idea to remind employees that company policies against unlawful harassment and discrimination apply in a virtual work environment and to share the reporting procedure. Lead by example, practicing appropriateness in all conversations and emphasizing the importance of maintaining company policies. Many businesses have created virtual watercoolers where employees can share what’s on their mind and what they have been up to while separated from their team. Leaders should address any inappropriate content, including messages, photos, and video streams, that violate company policy. Be mindful of live video conferencing etiquette and make sure that your team is familiar with any dress code policies specific to the virtual workplace, as certain apparel (or lack thereof) can be considered harassment.

Revisit your communication tools and data security.

Part of this is also examining the tools you are using to communicate. Are additional tools needed for collaboration? Should you ditch email? What tools can replicate your office communication culture to your virtual workplace culture? Related to these questions are data security and confidentiality. Where and how a workforce is communicating and sharing information comes with a host of legal risks: network security, personal devices, and encryption of collaborative apps. Be vigilant with your business’s data now more than ever, especially with sensitive information.

Keep a good handle on who’s working, when.

A sticky issue for employers with a remote workforce is wage and hour compliance. Remote workers are entitled to the same legal protections as in-office staff under federal and state law. Non-exempt employees must be paid for all time worked. Clear policies addressing the keeping of accurate timesheets, expectations of work hours (and when folks shouldn’t be working), and requesting and reporting overtime are key.

Expectations are a huge part of company culture. So, if you are a manager that messages employees at all hours, it is likely that you are setting an expectation of a response. This can make time-tracking difficult and lead to allegations of off the clock work. Also, don’t forget about those meal and rest breaks! Yes, they are required for non-exempt employees even when working from home. Are there other expectations that have shifted by going remote? Punctuality? Dress-code? If so, think about what that has done for your company’s culture.

Continue to emphasize your business’s values, mission, and beliefs.

Positive, robust virtual workplace culture can get you through hard times. As we look around the world at each country’s response to COVID-19, it is easy to see how a country’s distinct culture influences its response. Whether it’s the balcony opera singers in France or the recommendation to hug a tree in Iceland, the pandemic has laid bare our values and beliefs about the world. Your company’s mission, values, and beliefs are a core foundation of its culture. Now is not the time to shy away from leaning on them, but to embrace them as a rallying point and guide for making tough decisions.

Enlist Help

You are not alone – Speak with an attorney to document remote work policies & procedures, Harassment and Discrimination policies, data security policies, and more. Contact us at 425-250-0205 or contact@equinoxbusinesslaw.com.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general information and should not be viewed as legal advice. You should talk with counsel familiar with your unique business needs before taking or refraining from any action.

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