Before Covid-19, watercooler talk was an integral part of office culture. Groups of workers would gather in the breakroom for coffee and chat about their day, or the latest Netflix binge, or what they planned to do over the weekend. But today, with so many now working remotely and the rest encouraged to socially distance themselves from their coworkers, office culture has temporarily — and perhaps permanently — changed. For many, the big looming question is whether we return to that environment at all, given the potential for cost savings and the possibility of a second and third wave of the coronavirus later in the year.
But employees still need to interact with one another to foster relationships and collaborate. They also need to connect with managers, and create and maintain bonds with mentors.
The technology to enable this existed before the coronavirus struck the U.S., but many companies are only now shifting their practices to take advantage of it. These tools include video conferencing, and scheduling and productivity applications offered by providers like Microsoft Corp., Slack Technologies, Zoom Video Communications and Alphabet, the holding company for Google.
The savviest companies are finding ways to be more effective in the transition. One of these is State Street Corp. Christy Strawbridge, senior vice president and transformation director, shares the Boston-based bank’s experience in a discussion that took place as part of Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services.
Most of State Street’s employees are working from home and returning to the office isn’t a top priority, says Strawbridge. “We are not going to be rushing people back into the office; we’re going to help [them] work from home effectively,” she says.
It’s a stressful time, so the company is keeping communication lines open.
“Senior leaders are communicating formally and informally on a regular basis,” Strawbridge says. Employees can dial in to live, virtual forums hosted by senior executives — even CEO Ronald O’Hanley — to get answers on everything from technology needs to mental burnout. “It keeps us all connected,” she says. “It keeps us up to date on what’s going on.”
A number of companies now host virtual employee happy hours and other events using video communications technology. These intentional social interactions are vital to maintaining corporate culture, says Strawbridge. “We’re not running into each other in the elevator, so we need to be more deliberate on those social interactions,” she says, “because they’re not happening ad hoc.”
“It’s really important, now more than ever, that we stay connected,” she adds.
Employees are also encouraged to take time off. Maybe they can’t take the cruise they planned or visit Disney World with their family but taking time to do simple things — a day off for a hike, for example — can help prevent burnout.
Agility has grown increasingly important as the banking industry responds to the shifts and changes the coronavirus crisis has brought to bear on the U.S. economy. Financial institutions are rapidly deploying new technologies and practices to better serve customers and enable employees to work safely. Strawbridge points out that for State Street, their strategic goals remain the same but the path to achieve those aims is being adjusted.
“[Some] priorities have shifted in this environment, so we need to pivot work to other people on the team who might be more freed up,” says Strawbridge. “We have really uncovered the art of the possible here. We are realizing that there were things that we thought maybe we couldn’t do, or would be hugely challenging, or would take us three years to do — and we’ve done them in two months.” She credits more effective communication and collaboration — along with employee initiative — with these achievements. “We have a laser focus on prioritization in this environment that we can’t lose when we go back.”
The company is empowering and engaging employees to solve problems — something Strawbridge believes will help State Street weather, and emerge stronger, from the crisis.
The foundation for a strong culture was built before the pandemic, but smart companies will foster and strengthen it during this crisis.