Managing culture through a global pandemic

Managing culture through a global pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has created many unforeseen and unprecedented business challenges in 2020 and looks sets to continue deep into 2021. Focus, understandably, has been on the hard and soft extremes of economic impact and colleague wellbeing but somewhere in-between lies the undoubted challenge of managing or even changing company culture.

Culture consists of typically long-standing, shared values, beliefs, and assumptions that influence behaviours and attitudes within an organisation. Though quite often implicit, smart organisations help to define, share and control what culture – as intangible as it might be – should look, sound and feel like. That’s why being a Head of Culture is now a thing.

Culture matters.

I’m sure there are many successful business leaders out there who’ve never really given this much deliberate thought yet have done very well for themselves. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have a strong culture that has flourished naturally and is clearly understood across an organisation. They definitely do but it just kind of happened. In fact, this kind of positive negligence is far better than attempting to create a faux-culture that doesn’t exist in reality.

“Come and work for us, it’s great fun, look, we’ve got a ping pong table.”

“Right, now you’re here, you see the thing is, the ping pong table is for closers only. Hit the phones.”

That kind of thing.

But more often than not, those organisations that do pay attention to culture – and proactively nurture it – will outperform those that don’t. They’ll attract and retain better people more closely aligned to vision and values. They’ll work with customers who are a better fit which ultimately leads to more enjoyable and profitable relationships that endure.

Your people will continue to view culture as the glue which bonds them with their colleagues, customers and the organisation itself. And for most of them, it’s just as important as the pay cheque.

fake office culture

Sometimes, it’s just not right.

At Studio North, one of our brand values is No Stone Unturned. Amongst other things, when necessary, we’ll move heaven and earth and jump through hoops for clients and for each other. But we’ve never translated this as meaning ‘everyone must continually work long, late hours’. In fact we’ve always respected personal and family time. From day one, quite unusual in our sector, we paid overtime but discouraged it. We’ve often been pro-active down the years in checking in with people who we see regularly working late. It usually means something isn’t stacking up in the day.

What must have been a decade ago, a talented young colleague, Lucy Anderson, who was doing a very good job in the client services team, handed her notice in after 12-18 months in the role. The reason she shared was entirely cultural. Nothing to do with pay, opportunity or clients. She wanted to work at an agency that regularly did that late-night team working thing, ordering pizzas and burning the midnight oil. I’m sure there were other reasons she didn’t share but the reason stuck with me. Anyway, Lucy moved on with our best wishes and carved a successful career at Code Computer Love. I just looked Lucy up, she’s now Lucy Tallon and doing really well as Head of Design at Co-op. Well done Lucy.

Back to the point, finding people that fit your culture reduces staff turnover and improves the bottom line.

In the beginning.

Not many founders start-up with an accurate vision of how their business will evolve but broadly speaking, culture in the formative years will derive from their own personal or shared set of values.

That might look like a business with excessive process controls, reporting measures and lots and lots of meetings focused on granular detail. Or it could be one that trusts, delegates and empowers but is light on attention to detail. Neither way is right, neither way is wrong… but there’s usually a way of doing things that shines through. 

At a micro-business scale, this works organically. The founder hires, manages and likely communicates with the entire team on a day to day basis – or they certainly did pre-Covid. He or she can easily set the corporate tone and everyone feels it. In theory, this tends to naturally retain colleagues who fit and filters out those who don’t.

We work with plenty of fast-growth businesses or those facing merger or acquisition. They tend to circumnavigate this organic evolution and are most likely to rapidly encounter jarring cultural fragmentation. Things can turn toxic quite easily. Us and them. New versus old. School playground mentality can ensue. These kind of scenarios require cultural intervention which should start with a brand reset.

Lost in translation.

Most of what I’ve referred to above relates to human behaviours and interactions. For the duration of this pandemic, the overwhelming majority of internal and external interactions have been digital and individual behaviours largely invisible to a webcam. We’re seeing outputs and messages from each other but not really witnessing the experiences in-between and seeing each other as we normally would do.

The body language. The banter. The smiles. The eye-rolling. The smirks. The grunts.

All the little signals that form part of an overall human communication portfolio.

Remember, people are not 2D.

Any new starter in March 2020 might still be asking “I wonder what this place is like to work at?”

Put quite simply, culture is being lost in digital translation.

team spirit culture

Reclaim control of culture

However, all is not lost.

Remember above, when I referred to culture as often being implicit which means suggested but not directly expressed. I’d argue that right now and to compensate for lack of togetherness we probably need to directly express far more.

It isn’t easy at the best of times but when working remotely, this proposed mindset shift from implicit to certainty becomes a non-negotiable to harmonise how things should be.

Otherwise, in 3, 6 or 12 months, when the band gets back together, they might all be playing a different tune.

An obvious starting point is absolute clarity on brand values which underpin everything else. Not just what they are but what they mean, how we bring them to life and how they can be measured. Businesses that do this well, embed values into the entire HR process such as appraisals and link performance management to their ability to live and breathe these values.

Remotely, it’s challenging but not impossible. And doing something is better than doing nothing.

All of this points to the obvious. That we do indeed, need to get people back into offices again but until then, here’s some stuff to start thinking about:

  • Don’t ignore it – yours might well be one of those lucky organisations that naturally does this entire culture thing really well. But unless you have a consistently healthy, happy workforce, like relationships it requires effort and attention not complacency.
  • Perform an ecology check – are your brand values still relevant and aligned to reality. It might well be they were never right in the first place. Something might have changed. It could be time for a reset.
  • Set best practice example from the top – it’s where culture emanates from – so be consistent, authentic and stay true to your beliefs.
  • Devolve ownership – nominate an internal culture team, spread across departments, divisions or offices that can come together and own this from grassroots up too. They’ll help to drive change and self-police internal cultural abuse. Problems nipped in the bud early are easier to fix than widespread toxicity.
  • Embed it – By defining, explaining and continuing to reinforce brand values, you will maintain and evolve culture. Think of it like practice or training. As soon as you take your eye off the ball and stop training, skills drop off and performance is impacted.

How have you been managing culture since March 2020? If you’ve had any experiences or ideas that have led to positive outcomes, I’d love to hear them and potentially pull some of these into a follow-up piece.

Finally, if you’d like any help with a cultural reset, starting with a sense-check and potential redefinition of your brand values then please get in touch for an initial consultation. We know a thing or two about this.

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