Culture After COVID-19: What is the future of corporate culture and the employer-employee social contract?

The assumptions, strategies, goals and visions leaders held for their companies’ futures profoundly changed in the second quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19. An ability to pivot held some companies together, while thousands of others have shuttered. As the virus lingers, its economic wake will have an impact on corporate culture for years to come. How will things change—and by how much? What must leaders do now and in the months and years to come to best adapt?

Prior to COVID-19, the U.S. economy was at near-capacity employment. Healthy corporate culture was increasingly viewed by boards and C-suites as essential to growth. Over the past three months, new norms and habits were forged as major shifts occurred throughout the world. Employee safety took priority over productivity in many cases, and friction began to build around consequences for brands, customer experiences, and long-term company reputations. While it is too early to tell what the mid- and long-term changes to organizational culture will be, we can be certain that the way organizations work will never return to the previous “normal.”

“A lot of employees could have not imagined anything like this [pandemic] happening to their careers. They thought they would be calling all the shots with a surplus of jobs and not enough people. The tables might turn with COVID-19.” –Dee Ann Turner, former vice president talent and human resources for Chick-Fil-A, CEO of Dee Ann Turner & Associates

THRUUE, Inc., a strategy and culture consultancy based in Washington, DC, surveyed a global panel of leadership and culture experts to examine the uncertain future of corporate culture and gather insights about what’s in store. Survey insights, a list of panel members, and recommendations for leaders are available in the full report on THRUUE’s website and outlined below.

You Enter the Pandemic with the Culture you Have

Responses from leadership panelists revealed that culture change will likely be slow, even in the midst of a global pandemic, and perhaps because of it. Cultural norms, values, assumptions, and behaviors are often deeply entrenched within organizations and not easily changed.

Analysis revealed panelists perceived three distinct cultural pathways emerging as organizations respond and recover. Every pathway requires that leaders assess where an organization is before planning and acting decisively to drive positive cultural change and restart growth.

Right now, organizations are likely to be on one of the three paths:

  1. Strengthened and Enhanced: Companies that entered the pandemic with a strong, managed, constructive culture will discover a new resiliency that will help them recover faster than others. The crisis can be an opportunity for these organizations to further disrupt or differentiate to grow.
  2. Adaptive and Recalibrating: Company cultures that were already in transformation prior to the pandemic can be seeded with new possibility and develop adaptive leadership mindsets in the current disruption. For these organizations, the crisis can be a catalyst for evolution and growth.
  3. Arrived and Deprived: Companies that entered the pandemic with a weak or poorly managed culture will find that the level of improvisation and resetting required is beyond their capacity for change, creating potentially existential risks and lowering the likelihood of future growth.

culture pathways

“CEOs must consider how their culture will help them navigate the new reality and then take advantage of the strengths of their culture to develop new ways to win in the marketplace.” –James Rodgers, founder of The Diversity Coach, leading strategist in the field of diversity management

Panelists noted two major risks for leaders interpreting pandemic-related changes to their organizational culture. The first is the tendency to assume the nature of culture changes rather than working to truly understand them in context. This is where an assessment is key. The second is failure to bring the full voice of the collective (employees) forward through measurement, which can and will affect performance. Human Synergistics’ Director of Culture and Organization Development, Tim Kuppler reminds rigor is necessary when assessing and changing culture, “Culture is not something you ‘fix’ like a car or toaster. Leaders must have a disciplined approach to assess and measure the culture at defined periods. This process should inform [leaders’] strategic plan and supporting priorities.” Rapid feedback and measurement processes like the Culture Mirror™ from Human Synergistics provide a quick and reliable source of data to baseline the current culture pathway and include process steps to hear employees’ views and experiences. (see overview and brief video). 

A Social Contract Under Disruption

In the context of the abrupt and extreme changes to work environments and employee routines as a result of the pandemic, the survey revealed that a fundamental reset within the social contract is expected. The social contract, or the spoken and unspoken agreement between employees and employers, helps dictate the actions and behaviors that make up corporate cultures.

Many workplace policies and practices have been rewired into a new, employer-centric social contract because time and precedent were unavailable to guide negotiation of shifts to policies and practices in the midst of COVID-19. Unnegotiated social contracts create friction and fear, and a wide range of employee protests have emerged in recent weeks. On a small scale, employees who refuse to use video in remote conferencing are attempting to preserve sacred boundaries between personal and professional life. On a grander public scale, we’ve seen organized protests of employees, such as workers of a meat-packing plant staging a mock funeral procession to highlight safety risks. Friction continues to grow as primal needs for health, safety, economic stability, and personal privacy are met with both requests and demands to “return to work” or adapt to a “new normal.”

“This [pandemic] experience has raised the level of importance of having trust in each other to be successful in whatever is the mission of the company. It has also emphasized our interconnectedness as well as our responsibilities to each other.” –Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health

The social contract renegotiation between employees and employers during this crisis is broad, leaving much open for discussion and negotiation. Panel member responses pointed to employee health (first and foremost), commuting, teleworking, traveling, office space, training, onboarding, communications, leadership development, technology adoption, corporate social responsibility agendas, market surveillance, and intelligence gathering as important areas for reevaluation.

Corporate culture leaders who act decisively on this opportunity to reinvent the workplace social contract can create significant strategic, cultural, talent, and operational advantages for their organizations in a post-COVID-19 market. But it will take time, leadership commitment, and transparency if employers are to find balance and engender trust.


social contract


“The most important question that CEOs must ask is to their employees: What needs to change to help you be successful in your work? Only when employees feel safe and heard can they begin to make customers feel the same way.” –Ginger Hardage, former senior VP of Culture and Communications at Southwest Airlines, founder of Unstoppable Cultures

A Pathway Emerges

Humble Leadership author Edgar Schein, a renowned expert in culture change and organizational design, sagely advised, “Leaders must show that with complex, messy, systemic, interconnected problems like responding to COVID-19 or the next pandemic, collaboration must escalate as a central value in producing new, better and innovative adaptations.”

Founders and leaders will choose different paths moving forward in the weeks, months, and years to come. Regardless of how they move forward, survey insights suggest leaders:

  1. Listen with empathy: Create a safe space for people to share their stories and reveal their truths -without consequence of judgment- to engender trust with actions that exemplify credibility, reliability, low self-orientation, and compassion.
  2. Measure and gather the voice of the collective: Choose a way to gauge your organization’s culture (using a Human Synergistics or similar measurement tool) to ensure it aligns with what you have heard from employees. This will give confidence and clarity about where your organization stands and where it must go.
  3. Renegotiate together: Plan and generate the conditions under which culture data insights underpin renegotiations and cross-functional conversations in order to produce imaginative and innovative agreements that work for all.

Are you interested in learning more about how COVID-19 is having an impact on organizational culture? Download the full report at:

About the Author

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Daniel Forrester

Daniel Forrester, THRUUE founder and CEO, is an author, speaker, strategist, and expert in corporate culture with more than 20 years of experience who helps leaders drive transformative change. He has interviewed hundreds of top leaders in organizations, learning about the gaps that leaders confront head-on. Daniel is also a contributing writer for multiple publications, including FastCompany, Monster, BusinessWeek, WashingtonPost, and Entrepreneur, and he just launched his first podcast series, “The Culture Gap,” where he sits down with leaders across industries—both commercial and nonprofit—to learn how they are closing the gaps between their business visions and the culture of their organizations.