In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry shares why it’s important to keep company culture at the forefront of your business during difficult times.
When Mary Kelly, founder of MCK Leadership Talent Group, worked in Bank of America’s default servicing organization during the financial crisis of 2008, she found something extraordinary. The employees were doing an incredibly difficult job, fielding calls to and from homeowners in default on their mortgages yet remained an incredibly positive and engaged group.
“Bank of America always invested in building their culture,” Kelly says. “During the worst time in the financial history of the company, these employees were doing a very difficult job yet still saw the vision and mission of the company and felt a sense of purpose in their work — to provide solutions for homeownership to their customers.”
As leaders face an uncertain economy in 2023, it’s important to remember the power and value of culture. It’s not a project that can be shoved aside during difficult times. Culture is the very fabric of your organization that can help your teams navigate turbulent weather. In other words, when trouble strikes, it’s time to double down on culture.
Why Strong Culture Is a Necessity In 2023
Modern employees demand a lot more from their work experience than a paycheck. The 2022 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that following compensation, the top factor employees value is a positive culture. And according to SHRM, companies lose $45 billion annually from turnover due to poor culture.
“People’s expectations of organizations have changed, and employee choice is significantly more driven based on the elements of culture than ever before,” Kelly says. “Organizations that don’t invest in making a clear statement of their company mission and values and creating a culture where people can thrive are suffering.”
And when an economic downturn hits, those organizations are more likely to have difficulty making it through the other side.
Kelly advises leaders to think of culture like a bank account. You want to be making daily deposits so there’s a balance to draw from during rough periods. “Building goodwill and trust — the emotional deposits you make to your culture — doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “But if you put in the work daily in the long-term, your team will be better able to pull together when tough times hit.”
Yet it can be all too easy to neglect culture during a crisis. Here’s how leaders can ensure culture remains healthy during a downturn:
Regular culture check-ins.
A positive culture translates to stronger collaboration, communication, morale and engagement — essential for getting through a rough period intact. Regularly ask the following questions: How do employees perceive the culture? What is their workplace experience like? Does it reflect the company’s mission and values? Can they articulate how those values translate to everyday behavior?
Too often, there’s a disconnect between leadership perception of culture and the actual lived employee experience. Research has found that among managers, over half feel leadership is out of touch with employee expectations.
“Continuing to assess employee feedback, take action and work to align employee experience with what leadership perceives culture to be is critical,” Kelly says. “Listening to employees can be one of the biggest impacts leaders can have during tough times.”
My company, Centric Consulting, for example, relies on Voice of the Employee (VOTE), an advisory team made up of a cross-selection of employees across the organization, to provide transparent feedback from employees to leadership. VOTE’s most important function is to weigh in on any decisions impacting culture — the goal is to make sure Centric’s culture remains strong as the company evolves.
Transparent, abundant communication.
Uncertainty is a cause of stress and anxiety, so when times get tough, the worst thing leaders can do is stop the flow of communication. Instead, be as transparent as possible about changing business conditions, new challenges and the path forward. It’s also important to admit when you’re unsure about something – vulnerability helps breed trust across the entire organization.
“When an economic downturn hits, the strain afflicted on a business directly impacts its people. Measures such as budget cuts, scaled-back perks and canceled events may have people on edge, believing that the company culture they signed on for is eroding under the stress. This only gets worse if their company isn’t forthcoming about the financial side of the business,” says Chris O’Sullivan, senior vice president of finance at Workhuman. “Anxiety only grows when people are left in the dark.”
Showing appreciation for employees can go a long way toward keeping morale and engagement up.
Express gratitude often.
Showing appreciation for employees can go a long way toward keeping morale and engagement up. “Even in difficult times, if people are valued for the work that they do and their unique contributions to the company’s culture, the unease they feel won’t be nearly as acute,” O’Sullivan says, noting that Workhuman’s Human Workplace Index survey found that half of employees would feel more seen at work if they were recognized for their contributions. “In keeping the focus on building a safe, supportive environment in which employees feel valued, you can keep culture strong during a crisis.”
Embody the organization’s values.
During difficult periods, all eyes will be on leadership. “It’s another opportunity for employees to evaluate whether this is the right place for them,” Kelly says. “It’s important that organizations truly live their values and beliefs in how they treat employees during those tough times. If an organization has to layoff part of their workforce, for example, they need to think about the impact both to those being let go and those they’re trying to retain, treating everyone with dignity and respect.”
By remaining transparent, embodying organizational values, helping employees feel valued and regularly checking in with culture, leaders can ensure culture remains intact and their greatest resource — their people — remain satisfied and engaged.
“After all, it’s your people who are going to get you through,” O’Sullivan says.