Building a better work culture

The ideal corporate culture looks different to everyone. Some envision corporate culture as flexibility — allowing telecommuting or a hybrid office/home setup that facilitates work/life balance. Others conjure images of pool tables, onsite coffee bars and fun perks to spark creativity in the workplace.

There’s plenty of room for a variety of incentives in successful workplace cultures. But free dry-cleaning alone will never convince employees to stick with you through challenging times, or even give you their best effort day to day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided great perspective on what matters most to employees. The allure of icing-on-the-cake-style benefits diminishes when employees are suddenly worried about shutdowns, layoffs, basic security and faith in their employer and fellow employees. Will I still have a job next month as this pandemic impacts seemingly everything? Can I afford to take time off if my family contracts the virus? How am I going to juggle work commitments and online school for my kids? What if I run out of toilet paper? (Who would have thought this would become a very real concern?)

COVID-19 impacted everyone, everywhere, at every level, differently. No one person’s or company’s experience is more or less important than another. There were, and continue to be, unique challenges. At COE Distributing, COVID’s impact was extremely visual, provoking insecurities within all of us. We sell office furniture. When COVID closed offices across the United States, what would that mean for our business? How could we retain employees and calm their fears when we didn’t know when the rest of the world’s employees would return to the office and need to purchase our products? While we were facing more unknowns than knowns in March 2020, we knew right away we wanted to take steps to give our employees peace of mind.

I recorded a video message from home for employees to answer the most essential questions up front and promise continued transparent communication throughout the crisis. I laid out plainly our plan at the outset of the pandemic, pledging no layoffs or furloughs, no wage cuts and an additional 80 hours of COVID paid time off to help employees handle illness or family obligations arising from the pandemic.

Our primary goal in March 2020 was to reduce stress for team members. We had some intense operational challenges in front of us, and we knew people needed to feel secure in their jobs and their ability to meet their basic needs to be able to focus on the work ahead. Keeping our core values of safety, respect and transparency at the forefront, we took steps to alleviate fears and anxieties and show employees that management understood the upheaval each of them was facing within their families.

And it worked. We kept all our promises, kept all our staff and even awarded annual salary increases when they were scheduled in June. We maintained and even strengthened our core — our employees. Our team was focused and united. We pivoted our strategies and entered new realms, not only surviving office closures but rebounding to achieve our best sales months ever in August and September.

You can never achieve great results if your team feels unsafe or disrespected. You need to address those fundamentals before you can build a truly great workplace culture. It might seem obvious, but sometimes we get caught up in details or more flashy and exciting employee rewards programs and overlook the indisputably more important basics. ●

J.D. Ewing is Chairman and CEO of COE Distributing

J.D. Ewing

Chairman and CEO
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