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October 14, 2022 7:05 AM EDT

Martha Rivas had never met the CEO of JBS USA, the food processing giant she worked for in Grand Island, Neb. So, she had good reason to be nervous when CEO Tim Schellpeper requested to speak with her earlier this year about a new, college tuition payment program at the company’s largest plant, which employs 3,800 workers.

Instead of kissing up to the Big Boss, however, she rattled off ways to make the program more effective. She suggested that each plant appoint an ambassador to work directly with local colleges and even devote time to working with the non-English speaking parents of some employees who might want to be part of the free-tuition program. The CEO’s response was immediate: he named her ambassador at the plant and she’s since been promoted from the plant’s health and safety coordinator to its human resources supervisor.

“He caught me by surprise,” says Rivas. “Now, I’m growing with the company.”

A company’s culture—often dependent on CEO actions—is arguably in the DNA of how its workers are treated. When the pandemic came along, it acted much like a stress test, in part, because so many companies were suddenly faced with the difficult task of sharing, creating, or even changing their culture with employees working from home. But change doesn’t always come easily. In fact, only 30% of companies ultimately figure out how to successfully change their culture, according to a McKinsey & Co. study.

So, what exactly is a company’s culture It’s not simply a set of values written down on a piece of paper or posted on a website. Rather, it’s a collective view of how to behave, what norms are followed and what rights, rituals, language, and, yes, behavior is accepted, says Bill Schaninger, senior partner at McKinsey. Even more important, he says, is how critical it is for the company to be both thoughtful and consistent “in calling out behavior that’s inconsistent with that culture.”

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TIME reached out to three companies of varied sizes—JBS USA, LinkedIn, and Jones Soda—to find out how their company cultures were tested by the pandemic, and how they responded.

At JBS, the world’s largest global poultry producer and second biggest pork producer, it was less about completely changing the company culture and more about taking specific steps to better engage with employees and create additional opportunities for them to succeed.

“When I travel to plants, I sit in on listening sessions with team members,” says CEO Tim Schellpeper. Some of these sessions took place before the pandemic, but since then, he says, the company has greatly increased the frequency and the pace of these sessions.

Consulting giant Deloitte has even created a term for this workplace cultural shift: work as fashion. “Employers are trying to figure out what employees want and then give them that,” says Jonathan Pearce, workforce strategies practice leader at Deloitte. Much like fashion, employee preferences change over time and companies have to keep surveying workers to discover what they want, he says.

The most successful companies tend to lean into their own values and cultures instead of simply trying to keep up with what other companies are doing, Pearce says. An effective way to do this is to decentralize decision-making by empowering team leaders with the tools and technologies they need to succeed.

“Company cultures can change, do change, and are changing all the time,” says Pearce. “To survive through all the changing values, you need to find ways to have transparent and inclusive dialogue that includes the voices of employees.”

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JBS’s Rivas is a perfect example. She wasn’t just listened to but actually rewarded for helping to tweak the culture at JBS during the pandemic.

At LinkedIn, the company’s cultural vibe also has stood firm during the pandemic.

Perhaps the single most important thing that LinkedIn did, was to add this critical question to its quarterly employee survey: How are you?

“We just wanted to know how our employees were faring?” says Teuila Hanson, chief people officer. It was the honest responses that employees gave to that question, in particular, that resulted in the company taking action to roll out several new employee-focused initiatives, she says.

The many emotionally penetrating responses enlightened management to the extent of serious issues like employee burnout and deep feelings of isolation. It gave employees the opportunity to explain their serious struggles to balance work life and family life. And it gave them a chance to discuss how greatly they missed employee interaction.

As a result, LinkedIn took a hard look at what steps it could take to not only help employees move forward but how to reassert what the company’s culture really is all about. It launched a program called “Lift Up” that gave almost all employees a week off in April, 2021, to fight burnout and help them deal with personal matters. More recently, as most employees adopt a hybrid work schedule, it launched another program called “Reconnect,” which encourages gatherings with company-provided music and food and will culminate with a celebration of LinkedIn’s 20th anniversary next May.

“We want to continue to surprise and delight employees and ensure we’re having fun along the way,” says Hanson.

Teuila Hanson, chief people officer at LinkedIn (Courtesy Teuila Hanson)
Teuila Hanson, chief people officer at LinkedIn
Courtesy Teuila Hanson

One of those new LinkedIn employees is Alison Crawford, senior manager of employee resource group enterprise strategy, who started working for LinkedIn in last May. Onboarding remotely is never simple and newbies can have a particularly tough time getting a grasp on the culture at any company. So Crawford appreciated it when her manager shared a slide presentation that detailed an overview of her team and listed precisely who to contact for what. The slides even advised her what to focus on during her first few weeks.

Then, just two months after she started at LinkedIn, Crawford got the nicest gift of all: one week of paid time off. It was LinkedIn’s annual summer “shutdown,” which typically takes place the first week of July. That’s when the company gives most employees a full week off (with pay). She spent the time off in Lake Tahoe with family and friends, kayaking and attending yoga classes. “I am grateful to be at a company that prioritizes wellness,” she says.

The pandemic has tested the endurance of company cultures nationwide like nothing before it. When most folks were still working in the office, companies could get away with not being as clear and intentional about their culture because employees could generally pick up on the vibe simply by working together in the office, says David J. Friedman, CEO of the consulting firm High Performing Culture and author of Culture by Design.

The pandemic changed all that. Those companies that remain fully reliant on the close proximity of workers to spread their cultural message will mostly fail, he says. When workers aren’t regularly going to lunch together or no longer playing together on the company softball team, it’s easy for the cultural aura to quickly fade, says Friedman.

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That’s why companies need to be very intentional about showing and even spreading the cultural message, says Friedman. At his company, for example, whenever there is a group meeting that’s scheduled online, several minutes are set aside to discuss one of the company’s cultural fundamentals. For example, in his most recent meeting they took five minutes to discuss ways to “practice the human touch” at work, he says. They discussed everything from how to celebrate employee birthdays from a distance to when it’s appropriate to handwrite notes of appreciation to employees.

Nothing is more critical to the success of any company’s cultural initiative than CEO buy-in, says Friedman. “If the CEO doesn’t see culture as one of the most important things, it doesn’t go anywhere,” he says. “Culture is a leadership function—not an HR or PR function,” he says.

Eric Chastain totally gets this. He’s president of the beverage division of Jones Soda, the quirky craft beverage company that has been raising eyebrows in the industry for years with flavors like turkey and gravy, and its recent introduction of Mary Jones, a cannabis-infused soda.

Before the pandemic, the Seattle-based company, regularly hosted employee get-togethers at a craft beer restaurant that’s literally next door, which set a tone for camaraderie. Since the pandemic, it has instead organized online Friday afternoon happy hours where the majority of the company’s 20 employees typically show up and shoot the breeze, he says.

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“We continue to maintain and initiate these relationships with each other, and that’s what makes our company special,” says Chastain.

To get folks together in person, he also organizes occasional meet-and-greets at the same nearby craft beer joint.

“Our culture is far and away the number one reason this place is so special,” says Chastain.

Two years ago, Erin Moriarty joined Jones Soda as social media manager and quickly became digital marketing manager. Six days after she was hired, the pandemic came along and the office was shut down. She has had to fully learn the Jones Soda culture while working from home.

Moriarty says the company has made it easier by regularly reaching out to ask for her input. This, despite the fact that there has been plenty of turnover at the top and serious belt-tightening at the company over the past two years.

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She actually felt empowered by working from home. No more 45-minute commutes to and from the office. “I roll out of bed and just start working, and that’s so nice,” she says. Moriarty is thinking of moving to Arizona or Texas for job opportunities for her husband. And when she told the top brass, they commended her work and said she could keep her job if she moved.

Moriarty says by working at Jones Soda she has become a part of something much bigger than herself. It’s a cultural vibe of fun and outside-the-box thinking. What’s more, with just 20 employees at Jones, she says, “Each of us is 5% of the company.”

“I get to make a difference,” she says. “I get to have an opinion at the table.”

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