The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive to business in ways we have never had to deal with before. Company culture, which can thrive in an office setting, suddenly had to be maintained over the internet. 

Some companies held town hall Zoom meetings, scheduled outdoor group exercise classes, and reconsidered whether new employees had to relocate for a job. The pandemic tested executives’ assumptions about the “right” way to work, forcing them to transform what worked in the past in order to make it relevant and productive now. 

A recent Inc. 5000 webinar discussed the shift in workplace culture resulting from the pandemic. In spite of the obstacles, some companies grew employee count while adding new lines of business based on global changes. This webinar featured a panel discussion with Rachel Roff, founder and CEO of Urban Skin Rx, a clinical skincare brand for diverse skin tones, and Jason McCann, co-founder and CEO of Vari, a workspace innovation company. Here are five takeaways from that conversation.

 

1. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for flexibility

Like all organizations, Vari, a provider of flexible workspace solutions, had to pivot at the onset of the pandemic, with leaders transitioning employees over to remote work. Pivoting meant ensuring that employees who were working from home had the necessary ergonomic desks, chairs, technology, and tools they need. “Whether you're working from home, and you need the same tools you have in the office, or in team and huddle areas where teams need to gather, you need to think about what the workspace will look like today or over the next few years. That pendulum is going to continue to swing,” McCann says.

While the Vari headquarters was empty, McCann decided to completely redesign the workspace in preparation for bringing employees back to the office. Distance-based design and movable walls helped to create a socially distanced environment. Once the workspace was redesigned, leaders brought employees back into the office in phases, allowing them to acclimate to the new safety procedures. Roff, who was always inspired by seeing her staff members hard at work in the office, had to adjust her mentality and perspective when the staff became remote. Seeing how productive and engaged her remote workers have been, she now embraces her hybrid workforce. “Being more flexible than ever before is going to be key in terms of retention,” she says.

2. Disaster planning pays off, as does learning from others

Even before the pandemic, Vari employees worked on laptops in order to be ready for unexpected events. “We had actually done fire-drill practices on working from home because we would have occasional power outages in the area,” McCann says. When McCann realized the pandemic would keep staff home longer than a few weeks, he looked to his teams in Asia that were about 12 weeks ahead for guidance. He studied their office modifications and safety protocols to prepare for an eventual return.

“We always believed in flexibility and change from a product standpoint,” McCann says. Vari workspace products were designed to help companies easily create new offices and conference room configurations, and its movable walls are flexible too. As the pandemic evolves, Vari is helping other companies adapt their workspace environment.

3. Hold onto company values when growing during uncertainty

While some businesses struggled during the pandemic, others thrived. Urban Skin Rx was one that truly thrived, as people globally spent quality and productive time on Zoom calls, Roff says.

“It was all about investing in skincare,” she says. That emphasis led Urban Skin Rx to double its staff. It initially added some office square footage but outgrew it. While Roff evaluates hybrid schedules and the future of work, she is holding off on adding to the real estate footprint.

Due to the shift to remote work, Vari experienced a surge in e-commerce growth as people suddenly needed desks or chairs in order to work from home. The company has even onboarded more than 50 new employees to date during the pandemic. McCann says they hired based on the company’s set of core values. “When you hire people that embody your values, they really add to the DNA and fabric of the organization, all marching towards a common mission and vision.” Vari also leaned into its community giving program, donating furniture to nonprofit organizations like Make A Wish, the American Heart Association, and Minnie’s Food Pantry in Texas.

4. Pay attention to lessons around failure

Regardless of the hurdle, McCann’s philosophy is “innovate or die.” Entrepreneurs must innovate, continually raising the bar and challenging themselves to innovate their business model. That means listening to customers and employees and recognizing their pain points, which can be converted into areas of opportunity, which can ultimately increase their impact. Roff also keeps her mind on the prize instead of getting tripped up by hurdles. Her daily mentality is that failure is not an option. “I think it has allowed me to continue to make further investments into my company,” she says.

5. Working from home? Try overcommunicating

When McCann found himself wide awake in the middle of the night during the early days of the pandemic, he realized his employees were probably experiencing similar stress and anxiety. He started sending daily emails and holding all-hands weekly Zoom calls. Overcommunicating, in his words, allowed him to take this moment of crisis and focus on where the company could make an impact. In emails he wrote what was on his mind, sharing his feelings. He also shared updates about the health of the business. “I recognized that by talking about it, it allowed our relationship to get even stronger,” he says.

As McCann notes, transparent communication with employees, customers, and fellow entrepreneurs can be the difference between success and failure in the most challenging times.