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What does workplace culture look like during COVID-19

5-minute read

Suddenly having a scattered workforce can put a company’s cultural fabric to the test. We talk to an expert on inclusive work practices, to get his advice on maintaining a culture that considers everyone.

Key take-outs
  • You can help counter the fact that your employees are miles apart by increasing connection points
  • Having a triangle of support can help less forward communicators find their voice
  • Some shared in-person experiences can translate seamlessly to an online environment, or you may need to find a way to adapt them
  • It’s important to ask staff what they need in order to perform at their best in this new environment, and then check-in with them regularly

A remote workforce can put a company’s cultural fabric to the test, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over Australia many businesses will likely continue to operate remotely for a while yet. We spoke to Mike Tozer, expert on inclusive work practices and CEO of Xceptional, where he works with partners to facilitate skill-based employment for people with autism. Here is his advice on maintaining a culture that considers everyone.

How are you making sure you connect effectively with your employees during this time?

Over the past few months in particular we’ve learnt a lot from our team members with autism about how to connect and how to ensure people are not feeling isolated despite being separated physically.


One shift that has come out of this is we’ve upped the number of team connection points and made meetings shorter but more frequent. Our tech team is a good example. They meet daily for an agile scrum to ask questions like ‘What are you working on today?’ and ‘Anything blocking you?’. There are also three or four other meetings during the week where they’re planning out their work, reviewing whether they’ve met their goals, etc. 


The hardest thing to do remotely is to facilitate the creative interaction you have when you’re bouncing an idea off a colleague. But we find the breakout room function on Zoom works well for that. For instance, we had a really good innovation planning meeting where people could choose which breakout room they went into and then we all came back together as a team. 

Not everyone is good at speaking up for themselves in meetings – virtual or otherwise. What methods do you use to encourage people to self-advocate?

Obviously it’s important to have a supportive manager, but when placing autistic people into workplaces we make sure they have a triangle of support. 


In addition to a manager they tend to have an assigned buddy or peer, maybe someone they work with directly, and someone outside of that team. That could be a mentor or job coach who they can check in with every couple of weeks. This person can be a real advocate and can help facilitate difficult conversations.


We adopted this approach because we’re working with the long-term unemployed, but it’s amazing how many people benefit from having two other people in addition to their manager who they can go to on a regular basis.

A sudden shift to remote working is a tough transformation for some companies. If flexible working wasn’t part of their culture before COVID-19, how can they keep their teams on track?

One structure we find helpful is Objectives and Key Results (OKR). It’s a goal-setting framework that Google made popular. We set quarterly goals that the whole company is focused around and each team links into that.


Everyone contributes to these goals, they buy into them once they’ve been agreed, and we review them on a monthly or two-weekly basis. That way everyone’s locked into what we’re trying to achieve. I think for a lot of people, presence in the office was a kind of proxy for productivity but showing up at your desk from nine to five is not a performance indicator.


It takes time and you have to have the right communication tools as well, but by having these goals we gel everyone together and keep them moving forward.

How can businesses continue to create those shared experiences that underpin their culture and drive engagement?

There are some customs that will translate directly online. Before COVID-19, we were doing a weekly wins meeting loosely connected to our quarterly goals. The whole company would get together and share one goal they’ve achieved or, if it’s been a tough week, one challenge. We’d celebrate the wins and give each other ideas on how to overcome the challenges. We’ve moved it to a Zoom meeting and we’ve had almost 100% attendance.


With other activities it’s about how you can create a virtual space that facilitates the same kind of thing. We used to have pizza and Nintendo Switch sessions on Friday lunchtimes and it was a very relaxed end-of-week experience. Now one team member runs an online gaming channel instead and people can drop in and out over their lunch hour. Sometimes they’ll post pictures of what they’ve made for their lunch. It’s been a key part of keeping the team together and having fun.


It can be tough at first to get these things started but there are some great tools out there that can help make it happen.

With the blurring of boundaries between home and work how do you ensure you’re considering and supporting everyone’s needs?

Half the people in our team live with autism but almost exactly the other half are parents, and this has been a big issue for our company particularly with home-schooling. Whenever an autistic person starts a new job we ask them about their preferred ways of working to help set them up for success. We extended this to our parents and asked them to tell us what works best for them in terms of work hours. 


We realised that none of them could have meetings between about 3pm and 5pm. Blocking out this meeting-free time helped take the pressure off parents and meant others could get into a zone and flow of work during this period.


We also check in and ask how everyone’s doing at our weekly wins meeting. A lot of autistic people have mental health challenges aligned with their autism but with these changing times we’ve realised we need to check in with all our staff. To avoid responses like ‘Good thanks, how are you?’ we get them to rate how they feel from one to 10. If their score drops from one week to the next this may prompt one of their colleagues to call and ask whether there’s anything they can help with. 


This period of remote working has been challenging, but it’s also helped people open up a bit more about how they’re doing and what they need to help them thrive and be successful. Overall, I think that’s been a positive thing.

Read more

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Things you should know

This article is a general overview and should be used as a guide only. We recommend that you seek independent professional advice about your specific circumstances before acting.