Businesses have taken a major hit because of circumstances outside our control. But take comfort from the power to protect our unique culture and employment brand from the same fateful hit. Hard times may challenge the way you operate your business but should never change the values that define who you are as a company.
Culture, home to beliefs and values, represents your company’s essence and competitive edge as well as how you’re known in the market—your brand. It is what allows you to retain your people through the hard times and attract the right people as you grow. You can rebuild your business when the climate is better. But you’ll do it much more successfully by protecting your culture and brand throughout the recovery—even if you’re temporarily reducing rather than growing.
Always remember that your business is about people first, and everything else second. Right now, from leaders to managers, to employees, to gig workers, people are uncertain and scared. On top of that, many, if not most, are working from home and at risk of feeling distant from the culture that ties you together as a company. Don’t let that happen!
Start by being sensitive to the new landscape and unprecedented times that are affecting your people at home and at work. Be cognizant that people are different: Some feel exposed when Zoom meetings invade their personal privacy; some people love showing more of who they are outside the office. Some love working from home; others hate it. None of us know what problems other people may be facing because of Covid: It could be anything from loss of income when a partner is laid off, to chaos at home, to the death of loved ones. Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but no one should be judging anyone else at this moment.
Leaders can set the right tone by making deeply thoughtful decisions related to work policies in this environment and understanding how they might affect the wellbeing of your people. Use this as a guide to create a culture and brand protection plan for recovery, which should include consideration of leadership, communication, accountability, and performance as well as anything else where change is impacting your work environment.
People need to hear from their CEO. They want transparency, consistency, and the truth about what’s happening and what’s expected to happen. That includes talking about the financial health of the company. Many talented people leave companies because they fear financial failure or don’t trust the information they get. Ask yourself how much you are comfortable or willing to share and then share it honestly. Don’t be afraid to be human. People look for flexibility, understanding, and inspiration from the CEO. They can take the news, whatever it is, as long as it’s based in reality and delivered with sincerity.
Employees watching leaders in their roles and sitting around a table talking casually with them in a group have long been major drivers of innovation and growth. For the time being, we don’t have those opportunities on a regular basis, making the quality of our leadership more important than ever. It’s up to the CEO and other leaders to make time in their schedules to stay connected in meaningful ways. Here are some suggestions:
- Employees will depend more on their immediate managers and supervisors. Make sure they are fully informed on everything that’s relevant and that they pass that information on to their teams in a timely manner. Train them in offsite supervision and coaching.
- In addition to regular team meetings and one-on-ones, include time for casual interactions through things like online coffees, lunch and learns, and happy hours.
- Formally, informally, and frequently, talk about your culture and values and recognize people who demonstrate them.
- Don’t forget that conversations are based on give and take. Make sure you listen and accept feedback in online meetings and calls. TinyPulse is also an effective way to get regular feedback.
- Distance makes it even more important to develop mentoring programs or buddy systems to help ensure a sense of belonging.
- Pay attention to the top five ways leaders can support remote workers: frequent communication, check in on employees, provide or subsidize technology, allow for schedule flexibility, and provide emotional support (CultureX, Josh Bersin & Waggle—May 2020).
Communication is probably the most important part of your plan. When people don’t have information, they make up their own stories—and they’re usually bad. Misinformation increases confusion and rumors and reduces trust and productivity. Don’t expect people to know what to do. Clearly explain what the expectations are for now, and how they have changed. It’s hard to over communicate when everything is changing so quickly. Communication should be daily, relevant, interesting, and fun wherever possible. Here are some ideas:
- In addition to the CEO, leaders of various functions (HR, finance, legal, operations, sales and marketing) should send consistent messages to onsite, remote, contract, and part-time workers.
- Communicate in real time and make sure the messages are accessible to all afterward. Update information with video and webinars rather than emails.
- Be transparent in all things, and especially with financial information that is impacting the business and what that may mean to employees.
- Allow for anonymous feedback, concerns, and questions. Respond to them quickly.
- Do something positive for your community and tell employees so they can feel proud.
Don’t let accountability slip because of distance. What do your accountability pathways look like? Define them in your plan, based on your values and current circumstances. For example: How much additional flexibility will you allow for remote workers in terms of things like work hours or formality of dress for online meetings? What are the expectations around background noise from kids playing and dogs barking and the like? Knowing that people are dealing with difficult personal situations, what are your guidelines for being late to meetings or on project delivery? What are the current work priorities and what has changed from what was normal in the past? Remind people of your culture and what it means in terms of work ethics. Make certain supervisors call out practices and behaviors that don’t fit with your desired culture.
Remote employees work over three weeks more per year on average than onsite workers (Business News Daily). The pandemic has brought that reality home to leaders previously reluctant to trust the trend to work from home. Although working remotely isn’t for every person, position, or industry, now most companies have an opportunity to better understand what works and doesn’t work for them. There is no need to lower your performance standards for remote workers. Following are some ways to measure how you do so that you can reevaluate your workplace practices in the new future:
- Train and coach managers in how to support remote workers, and give them the additional tools they need to succeed.
- Set expectations for performance and make certain every person has the technology and other tools they need.
- Be conscious of perceptions about fairness between onsite and remote workers and set guidelines for which positions are eligible for working from home.
- With change come new business models and strategies. Make certain your people, skills, and structure are aligned with changes.
- Recruit, develop, reward, and retain the right talent and make sure they are in the right roles.
Culture and brand are not things you turn on and off. They are what sustain you over time—whatever the time throws at you. During this pandemic, we’re dealing with challenges we’ve never imagined. They call for increased safety precautions, caring and empathy, and flexibility. These additions to our company cultures will surely make us more humane, better places to work.