In this two-part blog series, we’re examining company culture erosion: what it is; how it can affect your business; subtle signs to help you spot it; and small, yet powerful, changes to reverse the damage before it's too late. 

Culture erosion: It sounds like a geological concept, describing a section of land separating from its whole. While it’s more of an anthropological term, the description actually isn’t too far off. Culture erosion describes the process of a civilization, group or organization losing its core elements — often because of new elements taking their place.

This phenomenon occurs in the world of work when new procedures, processes, values and goals are introduced, which may either replace or enhance existing ones. In 2020, every company has had to deviate from its plan as a result of the pandemic. That meant implementing new strategies and tactics and changing company culture along the way — and many of these changes have had negative consequences.

In our recently published Culture First Aid Kit, we discuss the defining components of culture erosion, how to identify when there’s trouble and big-picture solutions for how to improve it. But what about the less obvious changes that impact your employees, whether all at once or over time?

In this two-part series, we’ll share how to spot the subtle signs of a crumbling culture as a result of COVID-19’s impact on the workplace, as well as strategies to patch it up before it’s too late. Here are some indicators that your culture might be eroding instead of evolving.

1. Reduced productivity 

Be empathetic and curious to uncover what motivates each employee.

While some are thriving in this new world of work, others may be struggling for a multitude of reasons: isolation, lack of a formal schedule and distractions at home, to name a few. Unproductive employees can not only cost the company money, but affect the morale and attitudes of colleagues, too.

Subtle signs: Have you noticed missed deadlines, poor work quality, lower output or a loss of interest in assigned tasks among one or more of your team members? Perhaps a previously high-performing employee’s drive is beginning to dwindle, or they’re finding it challenging to decipher priorities.

Slight adjustments: You’ll need to have honest, and sometimes tough, conversations with individuals to uncover the causes of diminishing returns before they affect the whole team’s performance. For workers who are struggling with productivity, implement frequent, formal reviews as well as informal feedback procedures, such as weekly one-on-ones. These sessions allow for an open dialogue while also reinforcing non-negotiable objectives.

Be empathetic and curious to uncover what motivates each employee: Is it career advancement? A flexible work schedule? Once you’ve determined their motivations, align their projects to specific goals to ensure everyone is driven to be productive and succeed.

2. Burnout

Reassure your staff that taking time off is helpful for the team’s long-term success.

While productivity may be something employees can turn on and off, burnout is more serious: It results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Operating at crisis levels for months, as many have been during the pandemic, can easily lead to this phenomenon.

Subtle signs: Between the stress of worrying about worldwide layoffs, juggling work and virtual school, and having to set up an “office” in the living room (or even a closet, in some cases), it’s no surprise that more people than ever are experiencing burnout with work. According to the World Health Organization, burnout has three telltale signs: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Slight adjustments: Encourage employees to take breaks, both daily and days off, to unplug and refresh. Reassure your staff that taking time off is helpful for the team’s long-term success, and spend a few days offline yourself to lead by example. Speak with company leaders about the possibility of implementing organization-wide holidays, such as one Monday per quarter or half-day Fridays once a month.

3. Declining social capital amongst team members

Encourage employees to schedule virtual meetings or social gatherings with one another.

People are more considerate and compassionate when they understand one another — both personally and professionally. Social capital is defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as “the shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other” and, therefore, to work together.

Traditionally, social capital in the workplace has been built through regular, in-person interactions between team members — think watercooler conversations and snack breaks. But when offices go fully remote, social capital may decline.

Subtle signs: Since colleagues have lost the opportunity for in-person check-ins over coffee or lunch, previously strong relationships can start to fade. Keep an eye out for teammates becoming distant or even combative with one another, which may happen if workers don’t understand what others on their team are going through. When individual colleagues begin to lose their emotional attachments, team morale can take a hit.

Slight adjustments: It’s important to communicate to employees that socializing isn’t a waste of time — on the contrary, the connections it forms are vital to sustaining a successful team dynamic and protecting morale when challenges arise. Encourage employees to schedule virtual meetings or social gatherings with one another during the workday. You can even set the precedent yourself by creating optional, virtual team lunches where no “work talk” is allowed.

It’s easy to spot the potential for a domino effect between just these three causes of culture erosion, so it’s important to take action swiftly. We’ll delve into three more symptoms — and prescribed treatments — in part two of our series on culture erosion.