4 Surprisingly Positive Ways 2020's Chaos Impacted Workplace Culture Last year's triple whammy of disease, economic turmoil and social strife dealt most workplaces some heavy blows, but there were a few interesting positive changes as well according to a new survey.

By Janine Yancey

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the global pandemic raged, the U.S. political divide widened, and racial disparities became unbearably obvious, the workplace was not immune. The external stressors caused major disruptions to the workplace, particularly Covid-19, which sent the knowledge sector to work-from-home and impacted essential workers with new safety procedures. Surprisingly, 2020's chaos might have also sparked a few decidedly positive changes to workplace culture.

These are the top-line findings unveiled in my company Emtrain's 2021 Workplace Culture Insights Report on Respect, which analyzed 23 million data points on attitudes about workplace culture collected from 370,000 employees at more than 400 companies, comparing data insights from 2019 to those collected in 2020/21. What we found showed some bright spots that shone through a very dark, turbulent year, areas where the tough times seem to have brought about greater learning, compassion and proactivity among employees in corporate America.

We're more aware of unconscious bias than two years ago

In comparing data from 2019 to today, we found a 7% increase in the number of employees who understand their organizations' diversity, equity and inclusion goals, and the foundational component of reducing unconscious bias in the workplace.

In fact, a robust four out of five employees in 2020/21 said that they make assumptions about people based on their appearances. While this finding alone might sound discouraging, it does indicate — on the positive side — a strong acknowledgement of a human behavioral flaw. Judging people by their appearance — and relying on stereotypes based on race, age and gender — can obviously trigger unfair outcomes in hiring, opportunity allocation and promotions.

As one employee stated, "I am probably often the one at the end of unconscious bias. I am small in size, Asian and look younger than my actual age so a lot of customers or new colleagues may feel that I may not be qualified for my job. I could almost always feel it even via conference calls." As more employees recognize and filter out their biases, organizations will better activate the potential of their talent pool, which in turn improves retention and workforce diversity investments.

Related: How We Can Rise Above Unconscious Gender Bias

We're seeing significantly more empathy among our coworkers

As compared to measurements taken in 2019, across the 2020/21 data set 15% more employees saw an increase in empathy from their coworkers. Research shows that empathy — understanding how coworkers feel and being sensitive to their situations — makes people better managers and coworkers. It's a critical social skill that grows communication, connection and loyalty, enhancing individual productivity, team cohesion and employee alignment to organizational goals.

As the events of 2020 and early 2021 have shown, discrimination and harassment against Black and Asian communities has been increasing, and the workplace is not immune. Empathy is critical to fighting bias against Asians or understanding how life experiences shape perspectives — and deeply emotional responses — to Black Lives Matter. We heard from employees who understand why those deeper connections matter. "A Black team mate helped us understand why the death of George Floyd, so far away, was so impactful to her. A perspective many of us had no frame of reference to understand." And from another "[We can be] encouraging employees to educate themselves on social justice issues in the world and really listen to their marginalized coworkers."

In order for organizations to have their employee populations return to work at full capacity and productivity, teams will need to navigate those workplace challenges with empathy and self-awareness.

Related: 4 Signs Your Workplace Environment is Toxic

The number of proclaimed "upstanders" is on the rise

In 2020, more employees said they were committed to being "upstanders." These are people who intervene when they see inappropriate behavior, as opposed to remaining a passive bystander. In fact, research showed that employees are more willing than before to intervene even when they don't have a personal connection to the person being targeted, an 18% improvement from 2019.

This indicates that more employees recognize their role in preventing bias, discrimination and harassment. More individuals are contemplating what they would do if they witnessed a situation — a reckoning that could have been driven by the viral videos of 2020 (Chris Cooper's racist accuser in Central Park, the white truck hunting down Ahmaud Arbery, the police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck.)

Related: 3 Steps to Building the Workplace Culture You Want

We've raised our expectations in leadership

These behavioral trends at the employee level are also impacting overall workplace culture. There are greater expectations of companies, and of leadership, to foster a respectful environment. This is evident in company rankings on Emtrain's Workplace Culture Benchmark™ for Respect, where there is now a higher hurdle for companies to be ranked as "healthy" in two areas:

  • Organizations need increased social aptitude, the awareness and skills to adapt to the needs of others. Emotional intelligence and other "soft skills" have traditionally been undervalued by organizations, but they are now critically important as organizations adapt to societal change and grow diversity across their workforces. Being able to understand and relate to others, and adjust to their needs, improves collaboration and productivity and provides a better foundation to serve a broad array of customers. Social aptitude is a new measure for workplaces, and we find these scores to be some of the lowest on our benchmark. But even over the past year it shifted: Companies now need more than 40% of employees to agree that their coworkers understand the impact of their words and actions to avoid the lowest quartile, whereas in 2019 they only needed a score of 35%.

  • To rank in our top quartile on norms and practices, 53% of employees or more now must agree that "If someone does something inappropriate in the workplace people will let them know." This is a 13% increase over 2019. Prompt feedback is a highly efficient, low-cost mechanism to halt disrespectful behavior. Companies can think of it like an immune system: The body protects itself at all times and launches an immediate response when an infection occurs. For organizations, the immune system is the respectful environment in which all employees must operate, keeping the organization healthy. When someone does have bad behavior — derogatory remarks or actions — coworkers launch an immediate response with feedback ensuring that person knows that they have stepped out of line, and discouraging them from doing so again.

Related: The Antidote to a Toxic Culture Is a Culture of Trust -- Here's How to Build One

The chaos of 2020 impacted the workplace in major ways, but employee behaviors shifted to adapt to new realities. Employees expect their organizations to adapt too. Organizations can measure, score and benchmark their workplace culture to understand levels where they have leading indicators of risk, and where they can make investments to create a healthier, more respectful workplace.

Janine Yancey

CEO & Founder of Emtrain

Janine Yancey is an expert in healthy workplace culture, harassment, ethics, diversity and inclusion. A former employment attorney, she founded Emtrain to deliver engaging online sexual harassment and compliance training as well as data and analytics to identify toxic workplace issues in real-time.

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