Culture matters

As economies around the world tentatively ease restrictions to move slowly out of lockdown, businesses are once again adjusting to manage the impact of Covid-19 on their operations.

Few organisations, if any, have been unaffected by the crisis and, as the headlines have shown, the corporate response has been varied. At the positive end of the spectrum, factories have been re-purposed to provide vital equipment, hotels used to accommodate hospital workers and supermarkets have distributed food to foodbanks. At the other end, warehouse workers have been fired for raising safety concerns and staff dismissed via text message.

No one could have predicted a crisis on this scale, and the need to radically alter business operations almost overnight has been a huge challenge. One factor that can make such difficult decisions easier is a strong corporate culture.

Organisations that understand their culture and are accustomed to decision-making guided by values and purpose will feel confident that even the hardest decisions have been well-made.

Building a good corporate culture

An organisation’s culture is the way it conducts its business, sometimes described as “everything we say and everything we do”. It is culture that determines how a company behaves, how it operates, how it treats its stakeholders and whether or not it can be trusted to do the right thing. It is a crucial, if sometimes intangible asset, but one that can determine long-term sustainability.

A strong culture should be built from the top, with senior managers who lead by example and are trusted to do the right thing. Our experience tells us that organisations with good cultures are also people-focused, treating all stakeholders fairly, supporting the development of their employees, listening to concerns and respecting the communities in which they operate.

In large organisations, the board is responsible for assessing and monitoring company culture and should seek assurances that management behaviours, and the policies and practices of the business, are aligned with company values. In smaller organisations, and particularly SMEs, it will be senior managers, sometimes supported by colleagues in HR, who will set the tone, determining how the business conducts itself on a day-to-day basis and building the desired culture as the company grows. We also know from our research that smaller companies can be more effective at building stronger cultures where staff feel appreciated, supported and valued.

Culture in a time of crisis

Culture is also a key differentiator. As we have seen from the range of Covid-19 responses highlighted above, it influences decision-making that can make or break reputations.

As certain sectors prepare a pathway towards reopening, protecting staff and customers will be the obvious priority. This goes beyond protective equipment, screens and social distancing. Companies with a strong ethical culture will look to ensure that staff are aware of Covid-19 symptoms and know to stay at home if they or a member of their household show signs of the virus. This, together with the requirements of contact-tracing, may mean adjustments to sick pay policies to ensure that financial pressures do not drive individuals to breach the rules.

In our experience, organisations with the strongest cultures encourage people to speak up. Where this practice is already established, staff should know that concerns are listened to and addressed, with no fear of retaliation. Given the importance of effective virus-control strategies, some organisations may wish to remind staff of existing speak-up systems and the need to report concerns in order to keep everyone properly protected.

For many businesses, working from home has become a new normal that may continue for some time. Sustaining company culture while staff work remotely isn’t easy, particularly where there are additional pressures, such as home-schooling, to be taken into consideration. However, some of the core principles for building and maintaining a strong culture apply:

1. Communication is key. Taking care to avoid Zoom/Teams overload, video conference calls should be encouraged to maintain contact, re-create a sense of company spirit between colleagues and mitigate feelings of isolation and detachment. Communications from the top should be open and honest, especially around difficult decisions, and cascaded down through the organisation as appropriate.

2. Ensure staff feel nurtured and supported. Continue to provide guidance and training to maintain opportunities for career growth and progression.

3. Create informal catch-ups. Contact colleagues for non-work-related chats and use the opportunity to monitor stress levels, pressure points and other signs of well-being which could go undetected on a video conference call.

4. Monitor work-life balance. Recognise the working day and ensure staff are not working excessive hours or contacted after hours for status updates or briefings on new tasks.

5. Listen. New systems may need to be put in place for raising concerns. Identify what these might be and ensure they are communicated to all staff.

Moving forward

Many hard decisions will need to be taken in the coming months. But a business with a strong culture, guided by ethical principles and determined to do the right thing by all its stakeholders, will benefit in the long run. Sharing any burden in a fair and equitable way, treating affected stakeholders with respect and mitigating any impacts where possible, will help organisations emerge from the crisis with their reputations intact and their businesses more sustainable, ready to attract investment, customers and, in time, a growing workforce.

Any actions taken should be designed to maintain reputation and trust, even if operating on a more modest scale or adapting to new markets. With companies facing considerable scrutiny, those in a position to do the right thing will be the ones to derive lasting benefit for the business and its reputation.

Debbie Ramsay is Director and Culture Project Lead at GoodCorporation.

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