Culture in the Time of Covid

Oct 25, 2020
Culture in the Age of Covid

Show me a leader who ignores her company culture, and I will show you a leader who is about to get a big wakeup call. An overwhelming amount of research over the last years have proven the effect strong and engaged cultures have on employee retention, productivity, innovation, bottom line results and shareholder value.

Studies from Gallup show that highly engaged teams are 18 percent more productive and 23 percent more profitable than the less engaged. McKinsey reports that companies with strong and healthy cultures in average create 3 times return to their shareholders. And research from Center for Neuroeconomic Studies shows that companies with high-trust cultures have 74 percent less stress, 106 percent higher energy at work, 50 percent higher productivity, 13 percent fewer sick days,  76 percent higher engagement, 40 percent less burnout– and people are 29 percent more satisfied with their lives!

The Brutal Reality

The brutal reality, however, is that highly engaged, high-trust cultures are rare.

Gallup’s 2021 State of the Global Workplace report show that only 20 percent of the global workforce are feeling engaged in their jobs. Considering the financial benefits of highly engaged employees, the universally disengaged workforce costs the global economy a staggering $7 trillion USD per year!

And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t exactly helped.

Mental Health Pandemic

United Nations has defined COVID-19’s impact on people’s mental health a “parallel pandemic.”

With 41 percent of Americans struggling with mental health-issues stemming from the pandemic, 33 percent in the Asia Pacific region reporting symptoms of burnout, and 3 times as many Europeans rating their mental health as “very poor” than before the crisis, many organizations say they take employee’s mental health seriously. (McKinsey, 2021)

But clearly not enough.

Deloitte’s Global 2021 Millennial and GenZ Survey shows that 4 out of 10 workers say that their employers have not taken any actions to support their mental well-being during the pandemic. Nearly 50 percent of the Millennials and Gen Z (basically all workers born after 1981) say they are stressed some or most of the time.

While many workers enjoyed the extra time and sense of freedom that at first came with working remotely, many have reported that healthy boundaries between work and life have been harder to defend and that “always-on” cultures and leaders who show little empathy for their home situation have increased their stress and negatively influenced their mental health.

Culture in the Age of Covid

Studies show a clear correlation between people’s mental wellbeing and organizational culture and leadership. It’s not enough for a company to say they support people’s mental health or offer them a “mental health class”. It needs to be demonstrated through consistent and supportive leadership behaviors and a mental health support system embedded into the culture.

“We should allow sad days not only sick days” Adam Grant says in this episode of his excellent WorkLife with Adam Grant TED podcast. Creating high-trust, psychologically safe cultures will be key to remove stigma and acknowledge that it’s OK to not be OK, also at work.

Whether they embrace the importance of mental health or not, culture is clearly a topic on many executives’ minds.

In a pre-covid PwC study, 71 percent of the surveyed executives said culture was an important topic. 66 percent of the employees agreed.

In PwC’s newly released study, 2021 Global Culture Survey, 67 percent of the executives said culture was important. However, this time around only 46 percent of the employees agreed.

What happened?

One possible explanation came in a message from one of my newsletter readers:

“In my company, culture has just become another empty word in the corporate bullsh*t lingo. Executives and managers throw the word around like confetti, but I don’t think they even know what they are talking about. And it certainly doesn’t show up in how they act or what they prioritize. It’s the same old sh*t with a different wrapping. It just happens to be called culture this time.”

The PwC study agrees with the frustrated writer’s viewpoint. “At the heart of this mismatch is the issue of authenticity; business leaders believe they are a walking embodiment of the organization’s culture, values, and purpose, but their employees disagree. Closing these gaps in perception and authenticity is essential, because authenticity is correlated with not just good feelings but also measurable business outcomes.”

The PwC survey also revealed that while 63 percent of the executives considered their own company culture being great, only 41 percent of their employees agreed. The mismatch was particularly strong on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Data shows that workers don’t feel fully seen and heard, and that workplaces aren’t as tolerant and inclusive as leaders like to think they are.

Mind the Gap

As I mentioned in my last newsletter: forty percent of the global workforce say they’re thinking about leaving their employer this year (Microsoft Work Trend Index Report, 2021).  What was first named the “Great Resignation” is now being called the “Great Discontent.” People are leaving their jobs because they are discontent with leadership, culture and the overall employee experience.

This is particularly true for Millennials and Gen Zs, who by the way will make up 75 percent of the working population in 2025!

In other words: companies that want to keep their talents, and attract new ones, will be wise to pay attention to what this generation wants.

According to Deloitte’s Global 2021 Millennials and Gen Z survey purposeful jobs, work-life balance, and freedom to work from where they want, are high on the list. They also want to work for companies that care about the environment, who emphasize inclusion, equity, and diversity, and focus on employee wellbeing and mental health.

Glassdor survey shows that 77 percent of workers say they will consider the company culture before they apply for a new job and 79 percent said the company’s mission and purpose would be important to them.

And it’s not only the Millennials and Gen Zs who care about culture.

“Across the countries we surveyed, it’s clear that job seekers are seeking more meaningful workplace experiences,” said Christian Sutherland-Wong, Glassdoor President and COO. “Job seekers want to be paid fairly but they too want to work for a company whose values align with their own and whose mission they can fully get behind.”

Will COVID-19 turn out to be an accelerator for more purposeful, inclusive, healthy, and human work cultures? I hope it will. And believe it can. But only if organizations and leaders decide to use this opportunity to do, be and change things for the better.

What should I do?

“What am I doing wrong?” an executive asked me, let’s call him John. John told me he had come to realize that they needed a culture change in the company he was leading. But even though he had talked about it for over a year, both to his leadership team and to the employees, nothing seemed to change. People just continued the way they always had, and he said it frustrated the living daylight out of him.

“So, what should I do,” he finally asked.

I asked if he could answer 3 simple questions for me:

  1. Had he talked about why he felt so passionately about the need for a culture change?
  2. Had he talked to or withhis leadership team and the employees?
  3. Had he started doing things differently himself?

John went quiet for a while, then replied: No. To. No. Not yet.

This turned out to be the beginning of a hugely successful culture transformation journey. Witnessing John, and his leadership team’s personal and professional growth and ability to inspire for change and performance in ways they didn’t even know they were capable of, was nothing short of an extraordinary experience.

I will probably not be so lucky to see yours, but if you follow John’s example and invite your team members into the same kind of process that he took his team through, I hope to hear about it one day.

The Corporate Spring Model 

The Corporate Spring model was developed to give our clients a holistic and meaningful framework to have the kind of discussions that John was able to have with his team and that ended up transforming their culture, relationships, ways of working – and improved their performance with 30 percent the following year.

Grounded in science and many years of practical and strategic culture work, the model has been tested on hundreds of teams around the world with significant improvements on employee engagement, organizational health and team productivity. The Corporate Spring model is a powerful tool and roadmap in how to shape thriving, future-ready cultures.

Are you ready to shape yours?

The model is made up by 5 building blocks: purpose, identity, trust, growth mindsets, and passion and joy. 3 behavioral drivers make them come alive: leadership, communication, and collaboration. You can read more about the model here, and in the next blogs I will go a bit wider and deeper on each of the building blocks and behavioral drivers.

I will start with the first building block: purpose; what it means, the science behind it, why it matters and how you can work with it in practice.

So stay tuned. I look forward to going on this journey with you.


Annicken R. Day, founder and CEO of Corporate Spring, is on a mission to make the corporate world a better and happier place. After 12 years as Chief Culture Officer and Culture Strategist in Tandberg and Cisco, she founded Corporate Spring in 2012 and has since then, together with her team, helped hundreds of teams around the world build thriving, joyful, high-performing cultures.

Annicken is also a keynote speaker, business writer, co-author of the book “Creative Superpowers” and author of the bestselling novel Fly, Butterfly. Fly, Buttterfly is a personal and professional metamorphosis story about life and business – and some sweet romance too…:-)

You can get the book here