Lockdown means we must care about organisational culture more than ever

Posted / September 14, 2020

By James Malia, Sales Director – MyEva

Much of the national conversation around the world of work, as we head into autumn is about whether or not we should be encouraging people to return to the office.

Desk-based employees at all kinds of organisations, big and small, have been working from home for up to six months and there are concerns that this might be having a negative impact on a whole array of considerations – from the economic re-opening of towns and cities to individual performance and mental health.

But many don’t want things to go back the way they were. They are thriving in their new work lives that may involve more casual clothing, a more relaxed breakfast with the family, the option of lunchtime exercise, potential early finishes and zero commuting.

Maybe my perspective as someone who started a new job in lockdown is relevant. I joined MyEva as the pandemic was gathering pace in March. While I’ve loved all of the flexible working benefits above, I’ve also recognised how difficult it could be to be part of a culture as a new employee within a business when culture spreads largely through face-to-face contact.

After all, how could a new employee truly understand what the organisation stands for – its processes, commitment to health and wellbeing, attitude to equalities, dedication to customers etc. – when his or her only interaction with the workplace and colleagues is on the same screen in the same room at home for weeks on end?

This challenge got me thinking about what happens if organisations begin to lose their cultural identity, by failing to articulate it internally and externally. Does this start to affect their ability to perform, to recruit and retain and to achieve their goals? More importantly, is culture not really about what the company articulates it is, but instead how everyone behaves in the organisation, based on how they feel and how they interact with each other. Perhaps this is driven by the values the company has also?

It seems a clear understanding of organisational culture and how it can be nurtured in this ‘New Normal’ has never been as important. So let’s look at how we can define and build it in our own workplaces.

What is organisational culture and why is it important?

Without wishing to feed you lessons straight from the school of management theory, I do believe the Chartered Management Institute’s definition is a good one:

“Organisational culture is the way that things are done in an organisation, the unwritten rules that influence individual and group behaviour and attitudes. Factors which can influence organisational culture include: the organisation’s structure, the system and processes by which work is carried out, the behaviour and attitudes of employees, the organisation’s values and traditions, and the management and leadership styles adopted.”

So I’d suggest starting by thinking about how those elements of culture play out in your workplace. What would your colleagues at all levels of the organisation say about them, if asked? Next, it’s worth asking yourself whether your organisation truly appreciates the value of a strong culture.  For me, it can benefit your organisation in three major ways:

It has the power to make advocates or critics of your employees.

When people feel like they’re valued, they will not only work in a way that enforces that culture but they’ll promote it to their friends and family – bolstering the reputation of your organisation. This, of course, works in the opposite direction. When staff think poorly of management styles, company values and the corporate commitment to employee wellbeing, they will tell people, which will negatively affect recruitment and retention, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

It impacts performance.

Employees tend to work more independently and smarter if they consider themselves to be aligned with the corporate environment and the organisational goals. Conversely, when the culture isn’t as strong, more effort needs to be placed in controlling employees, monitoring their behaviour and keeping them working as efficiently as possible. This, obviously, is a less efficient way to run a workplace.

It creates happier, healthier employees.

A healthy work-life balance is hugely important to many people. In a recent survey by LinkedIn, 69% of HR professionals agreed that work-life balance was the number one factor impacting the employee experience at work. Factors that can prevent employees, especially those with families, achieving this can include bringing work home with them or being forced to work long hours. On the other hand, workplaces that offer benefits such as home working, birthday leave or early finishes on Fridays tend to produce employees that come to work feeling refreshed and ready to help the organisation hit its goals.

So now we’re a little clearer on what a strong culture is, and how it benefits organisations, the obvious question remains: how do we build it?

How to build a strong culture in a pandemic

In normal times, there are many time-proven strategies that I won’t rehearse here – suffice to say I believe businesses should be (a) celebrating success, (b) listening to colleagues and (c) communicating often to all employees about the organisation’s goals and direction of travel.

What I really want to leave you with is a few practical thoughts on building a strong culture in this strange time we’re in – when staff are worried about survival, both economically and in the health sense.

The first thing is to recognise that the focus for employers has been the safety and wellbeing of their staff. This is absolutely the right priority in a pandemic although nurturing and perhaps evolving the culture of the organisation should come a close second as we move into the next ‘phase’ of 2020 employment.

Next, an imminent challenge: the furlough scheme ends in just over a month and 7.5 million people are coming back into work. For many of us, we will be in month six of working in a pandemic. For furloughers, it will be week one. So, there is a risk they will feel isolated – we need to make an extra effort to include our returning colleagues as much as possible by redistributing workloads and reintegrating them into projects and workstreams.

One-on-one meetings are also key but so also are the casual check-ins. When we managers check in with team members, this shouldn’t always be formal. We don’t want flexible workers to think we’re always judging their productivity or worse still activity. We should ask how they are, what their plans are for the weekend, did the cat come home or how was the first week without the children around. We should encourage them to speak about how they are adjusting and show them they are heard. This is the difference between micro managing and leading.

In larger businesses, team energy is often what motivates people – so encourage this with end of day socials or morning coffee, even if still remote. “Zoom fatigue” is real (there are other video conferencing services available!). If you’re having a team video meeting, hold it at the end of the day so that when the key business is done, people can stay on the line if they want to and it can turn into half an hour for drinks or online socialising so people can relax, perhaps sharing ideas, concerns or just stories.

Think also about creative ways of redeploying any budget that was used for staff benefits – like the drinks fridge or the pizza Fridays – to benefits that can be enjoyed remotely. I went through some ideas for this in a previous post.

In short, don’t just focus on just the clinical factors of day-to-day people management and team-building; the softer elements are just as important. Whether these are (for example) health apps, charity work or social events, managers should promote them and participate. Maybe even set public challenges for leaders in the organisation, publicise the results and follow up on what you learn!

All of this is just scratching the surface; there are multiple strategies for establishing and fostering a strong corporate culture and countless pay-offs – and it takes time and effort. But the more commitment you invest in this endeavour now, the better it will set your organisation up for success in the months and years ahead as we put this national health and economic crisis in the past.

James is Sales Director at MyEva, the digital financial adviser for workplaces. MyEva helps employees improve their financial situation with independent personalised guidance and advice.

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