Just as canaries were once used to check the gas levels in coalmines (dead canary = no go zone), so COVID has proven to be an indicator of the health, or otherwise, of workplace cultures.

We’ve directly see it play out in the workplaces of our clients and others we’ve engaged with over the course of this year. Some have been especially challenged by business downturns and closures, internal stresses and redundancies, which have negatively impacted previously close-knit and stable teams. We’ve had exceptional job candidates seeking to move on because they resent the way they and their colleagues have been treated by their current employer over the course of the pandemic. Conversely, some clients have turned challenge into opportunity through the innovative use of technologies and reconfiguring and improving systems and processes that had been in place for years. A client we were working with just last week, who had previously held fairly conservative views about workplace flexibility and work-from-home arrangements, remarked upon how his team had “banded together to just make it work”.

There’s no doubt that COVID has impacted us, our teams and our businesses, in multiple ways. So as we emerge (slowly, cautiously, hopefully) from the grip of COVID, let’s spend a moment reflecting on what it’s taught us about workplace culture and how we can use that knowledge to our future advantage.

Let’s start with a few key learnings:

​1. Culture is impactful​ – Culture (which, for the purpose of this exercise we’ll simply define as “the way we do things around here: the collection of shared values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all members of the team/workplace“), makes a difference and directly impacts the bottom line of a business/organisation. We can see this in a couple pf the examples already referenced above. 

Those businesses whose employees are feeling aggrieved will in time likely lose their knowledge and experience and ultimately incur the costs associated with recruiting and bringing their replacements up to speed. In the case of others who’ve been able to adapt to new ways of working, engagement levels and productivity have increased, and in a couple of instances we’ve seen them tap into new markets and also save costs (cheap office space for rent, anyone?).

​2. Leadership is critically important​ – As Dr Marc Stigter, honorary senior fellow Uni of Melbourne, recently said: “Culture is revealed when you have a crisis, because you see the true qualities of leaders.” 

To a considerable extent, leadership drives culture and culture drives performance. Empathy, clarity, authenticity and transparency are particularly important attributes of effective leaders in times of crisis. How have leaders in your business been performing over the course of 2020? Sadly, most leaders in our experience rarely provide the opportunity for their teams to provide meaningful feedback, so aren’t aware of how they are perceived by others and the impact they might be having. Even if they do have a level of self-awareness, a recent AHRI study of over 230 HR leaders indicated that less than half (42%) think their leaders would have the courage to address their own shortcomings.

​3. Cultivating trust and belonging is essential​ – With the incredible rise of remote working and other flexible work practices, and every indication that such practices will continue to feature more prominently beyond COVID (compared to pre-COVID levels), those workplaces that successfully cultivate a sense of trust and belonging will retain a clear competitive advantage.

Most of us have an innate need to be part of something – be part of a team, work toward a common, worthwhile goal – and be recognised, trusted and valued while doing it. 

​How effectively have you and other leaders been communicating with your team over this time? What feedback are you providing? Are they clear on where you are heading as a team/business, and are they clear about how they and their work fits into those plans? Is your trust in your team apparent in your actions as a leader?

While these and other learnings have emerged over the course of this (hopefully!) once-in-a-lifetime event, the extent that we’re able to take them on board will better position our team/businesses for future success… and we may well save a few of those canaries along the way.


​This article was prompted by the article “Rise or Fall” by Susan Muldowney in the October 2020 edition of HR Monthly.