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Organizational culture in flux: How COVID-19 may change workplaces forever

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work, perhaps forever.

That’s the assessment of Jeff Miller, Ph.D., senior vice president and director of ORAU Government Services.

“Like thousands of organizations, we’re having discussions about that at ORAU. How are we going to work in the future? Are there going to be more people working from home? Fewer people working in the offices? What does that mean in terms of facilities and all of those types of things,” he said.

Those decisions and the changes that result have an impact on organizational culture, and those of us in the workforce will have to adapt. Actually, we’ll have to continue to adapt.

“There’s a saying that culture is slow to develop and slow to change except in the presence of a catalytic event. I would submit that we’re living in and have been living in a catalytic event for the last year and we’re not done with it yet,” Miller said.

Adaptation occurs in nature all the time, he added. Typically, animals adapt their behavior because of human disturbance. In the case of the coronavirus, humans are adapting their behavior to a pathogenic disturbance.

Human adaptation has dramatically impacted industries. Airlines, hotels, restaurants and the performing arts have suffered because of the precautions necessary to avoid viral spread, while video conferencing, online grocery shopping, home remodeling and telehealth have thrived. All of these organizations and others have been under extraordinary economic stress.

Miller leans on his industrial hygiene background to explain the stress that organizations are experiencing. He says it’s similar to a common ventilation equation: total pressure equals static pressure plus velocity pressure.

“If you convert that to stress equation, the total organizational stress is equal to the workforce stress plus economic stress,” he said. “In other words, take the stress that the individual people in your workforce are experiencing then add to that the economic stress that your entire organization is experiencing. That’s why this is an important topic because we really have to understand the total stress that our organizations are experiencing and then adapt in order to survive that.”

Miller gave a presentation about the impact of COVID-19 on organizational culture at the annual Waste Management Symposium in March. He compiled his data from a literature review that included surveys conducted by other organizations, and he looked at survey, focus group, individual interview and observation data he and his team have collected while doing organizational culture evaluations for other organizations. Over the last few years, Miller and his team have surveyed more than 40,000 people.

The data show that people have long memories about both positive and negative events that impact them in the workplace.

“It is quite common for people to tell stories about events that occurred 5, 10 or 15 years ago, and they will talk about the event like it happened yesterday,” Miller said. “That supports my thesis that how we respond to COVID is going to impact our organizational cultures for at least five years. People will remember the pandemic and how it impacted their workplace for a long time.”

Miller has other observations about the pandemics impact on organizational culture, including:

  • Thousands of employees hired during the pandemic haven’t had the opportunity to be completely assimilated into their organization because they have been working from home. Everything they know about their organization they’ve learned from a distance.

    “It’s remarkable that we have so many people going through that experience,” Miller said.
  • The work from home model that many organizations have relied on since the beginning of the pandemic is going to change the dynamics of how we work in the future, and how those dynamics work varies by industry.

    “A manufacturing or a construction site is very different from an organization like ORAU,” he said. “We’re knowledge workers and that makes it easier for us to work from home. If you’re in the construction industry or you work in an analytical laboratory, you probably don’t have that option. So the needs are different depending on the industry.”
  • Employees now have definite preferences about where they want to work in the future or what is referred to as “the next normal.” Miller says employee preferences divide roughly into thirds: those who want to return to the office full time, those who would rather work from home full time, and those who prefer a hybrid of the two.

    “From an organizational standpoint, if you suddenly have a third of your workforce that is never coming into the office you probably don’t need as much office space as you once had,” Miller said.

Miller believes organization leaders will need to be careful not to create separate cultures based on whether employees work in the office or at home. Subcultures within organizations are normal, and often exist based on location, department, skillsets, customer being served, etc.

“People in the office are going to be able to congregate and have sidebar conversations that those working from home won’t be privy to. Effective leaders will have to navigate the next normal and not inadvertently create subcultures that didn’t exist before,” he said.

One of the roles of organization leaders is to create a cohesive environment where these subcultures can exist as part of a larger culture.

“As leaders, it’s our responsibility to keep all employees focused on the overarching mission of the organization, no matter where they work,” Miller said. “That’s imperative.”

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Media Contacts

Pam BoneeDirector, CommunicationsCell: (865) 603-5142
Wendy WestManager, CommunicationsCell: (865) 207-7953