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Leadership, COVID and the new Corporate Culture Wars

By January 25, 2022No Comments

By now most of us have realized that the influence of COVID on corporate business practices has been a game changer. What was initially viewed as a difficult but temporary inconvenience is emerging as a force that is having a longer-term impact on corporate culture – and the prognosis at the moment isn’t good.

Too often the interaction relating to COVID between employees and management has been adversarial. This conflict has been disruptive to productivity as well as to employee engagement and morale.

If unresolved the risk is that this conflict can cause long term damage and become more systemic within organizational culture. Like the damage left by a tsunami on a seaside city the sun will shine again and life will resume – but things have changed and some rebuilding will be needed. How we rebuild the corporate culture after COVID is a new challenge for corporate leadership to manage and resolve.

COVID Conflict Points – What Has Changed in the Work Environment?

  1. Employee Expectations – In many organizations the expectations of employees have changed – the expectations of management have not. This lack of alignment is a rift in the employee/employer social contract that is leading to conflict in many areas. Some employees have to come to work to do their jobs physically while “office” and sales staff get to work from home.  Some people prefer working from home – some do not – who will have to adjust?
  2. Management Communication Effectiveness – Managers are increasingly dependent on virtual communication to reach, train, and interact with employees and there is a wide range in competency in this skill. How will this affect productivity?
  3. Employee Integrity – Many people (some of necessity) have found it possible to do more than one job when working from home. Without direct supervision people can control their time and activity more to their advantage. How will companies change how employees are monitored?
  4. Productivity and Performance – Emerging research is suggesting that having people work exclusively from home is having an impact on productivity. It might be more comfortable and convenient for employees so they naturally want it to continue but many people are not as productive working from home as they would be in a professional office environment. Research is starting to show that total work from home has an adverse effect on performance and team productivity. It turns out that those casual meetings in hallways and around the coffee machine were an important part of the social fabric that holds teams and a business together.
  5. Lifestyle Goals and Choices – Many people have realized that work has been taking up too much of their lives and that in terms of career aspirations the “bloom is off the rose”.  People want a better work/life balance going forward and this is likely to be a permanent shift in attitude. Corporate leaders need to rethink how to access and gain the value from competent people who no longer are willing to put the needs of employers ahead of their own.
  6. Inter-Group Conflict and Confrontation – Tensions over different approaches to dealing with COVID have created strong emotions and increasingly polarizing attitudes and positions between groups. When we create a world of “them or us” thinking it magnifies existing divisions and can damage long term relationships and trust in a working environment.
  7. Work Satisfaction and Employee Engagement – For people who want to work (and are willing to return to the office full-time) the bar has shifted on what they expect from their job commitment and work efforts. This was a problem long before COVID hit.  The COVID issue has further exacerbated the problem. We see this manifested in the fact that many people have just made the decision to not return to their former jobs, period. This has been one of the main reasons that re-opening business cannot find people for the jobs they have. The shift in employee standards and expectations is moving toward attitudes of entitlement (“I’m not going back and you can’t make me.”).  Putting personal preferences above corporate performance has never worked well in the past and with some validity. If an employer is paying an employee to work the employee cannot just dictate the terms that suit them. The simple truth is that many people were not happy with their jobs before COVID and are using this situation as an opportunity to voice that unhappiness.
  8. Social Issues – COVID has exposed a much larger and long-standing issue in our society which is the income disparity and inequitable distribution of corporate profit to all the people who help create that value. This isn’t just a business issue – it affects us all. When people who have jobs and are working hard cannot support themselves and their families and cannot get their fair share of the western democratic dream we see more poverty, government dependence, crime and social unrest which affects the environment in which we all live.
  9. Power Dynamic Between Employees and Management – We are already seeing that changing employee attitudes towards work (refusing to go back to old low-paying jobs) is shifting the power dynamic between employers and employees. Far from being a short term trend this is quite possibly a permanent re-alignment of the employee/employer social contract.

Leadership Strategies – Managing the New Reality 

The new COVID-influenced stress on corporate culture is a whole new leadership challenge. So how can we address this? We are so far seeing a disturbing trend to self-interest and silo thinking – managers clinging to previous norms and trying to enforce old standards, and employees increasingly militant about protecting themselves and advocating for change. The key to effectively dealing with the changes and the high emotions we are seeing is not confrontation – it is collaboration.  And the way to make collaboration work is somebody has to lead it.

Leaders need some specific skills and strategies that rely on high emotional intelligence, good communication, strategic thinking, and change management to guide their organizations out of these conditions and into a new reality of productivity, engagement and prosperity. More value is created through collaboration than confrontation.

The key is to see conflict as an opportunity.  Effective collaboration (not confrontation) will include the following actions:

  1. Be Proactive – Leaders need to let others see that as a leader they are actively monitoring the situation and prepared to respond, not react. Despite the negative attitude and comments that we often hear, people want leadership in a crisis. When leaders are accountable, model the behaviour they seek in others, and operate with integrity, they win the right to lead and can influence others to follow.
  2. Communicate – While our instinct at times when we are not sure what to do is to hunker down and try and avoid conflict, it is critically important as a leader to communicate. Employees, managers, customers, and other stakeholders want to know someone is guiding the ship. People can handle bad news; they cannot handle silence.
  3. Engage your team – Pay attention to your employees’ non-financial needs and you will find ways to empower them. A crisis will show you who your people are. Encourage employees who are willing and show competence in shared accountability for solutions. Good people will often step up in a crisis – even beyond their official capacity in your company. Let them – nobody is successful alone.
  4. Empathize – Good leaders also serve. Underneath the strong emotional reactions people are having is often fear and when fear is shared its impact is diffused. Empathizing and listening to the real concerns of others can inspire engagement and lead to better decisions.
  5. Strategize – A crisis is a good time to review your business strategy in light of changes you are seeing that are going to have a long-term impact. Refocus on the key priorities of your organization, and review how you create value for stakeholders.  Then decide how to leverage changing conditions to implement positive change to the processes, structure, and strategy of your firm. Be flexible, challenge assumptions, and get creative. Rising costs and staff shortages are serious threats but many organizations have been able to pivot to re-invent their business model and even prosper during the pandemic. Knowing your customer and understanding how you create value is critical. Get creative and develop a coping strategy for the crisis that can be aligned with your post crisis business plan. Collaboration is key – people support what they help create.
  6. Keep moving – While the tendency to protect ourselves in times of stress and changing business conditions is natural, avoiding action can be a mistake. Organizations that survive and prosper stay nimble and find opportunity in crisis. Sometimes to do nothing feels safer but disempowers us.  As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.”


Many successful leaders have honed or even discovered their abilities during a crisis. People and organizations can manage and survive through very difficult challenges when properly led. The key leadership tool here is collaboration, not confrontation.  When they feel respected, included, supported, and guided by someone they trust, they will understand and accept the tough choices and decisions that leaders have to make – even when they don’t agree. That is the power of leadership.

About the Author: William Smalley is a management consultant, facilitator, and keynote speaker who specializes in business development through his firm Route Five International Inc..  He teaches negotiation at the University of Toronto and is the author of Intelligent Selling™, a next generation sales training program that teaches sales people to think like leaders.  He can be reached at 416-917-7091 or