Wrenching change and gut checks rule the day as companies lurch from one unforeseen challenge to another. Besides the massive human toll, corporate cultures are shaken at their foundations.
With businesses stressed and their workforces stretched in quantity and distance, the culture of a company matters now more than ever. The most authentic of those cultures will sustain organizations.
That is what Josh Levine believes. The organizational culture strategist is especially busy working with companies that have transitioned their workplaces to remote operations, grappling with new policies and tough decisions.
“It’s the leaders who have the power to transform and unify,” Levine said as he talked with Meghan M. Biro, analyst, brand strategist, podcaster and chief executive officer of TalentCulture. They looked at the power—and importance—of work cultures today.
Organizations struggle with company culture because corporate leaders haven’t put much thought into company culture beyond “It is what it is.” They underestimate how they set the example for “Do as I do.”
“The world has changed, but leaders who haven’t considered how that might affect their culture will continue to struggle,” Levine said. “Leaders need to understand that the context their business is in is entirely different with remote work. Therefore, so is their culture.
“Even if the company isn’t asking those questions, employees are,” he said. “They wonder, ‘Why am I doing X anymore?’”
As companies focus on the bottom line only, it comes at the expense of employee safety, satisfaction and flexibility.
“It is part of the rules of capitalism to make money, but don’t forget to balance long and short term,” Levine said. “Companies are panicking and only focusing on the short term, sacrificing great employees and future customers.
“Now is the time to take a hard look at your company’s purpose,” he said. “Values are how employees make choices when times are tough. Culture is all about decision making.”
Create for tomorrow
There are companies that do their level best to keep their people working—some at the short-term expense of the bottom line.
“That’s the only way to make it through,” Levine said. “You will be remembered for years by what you do today.”
Despite pressures, culture cannot be slapped together.
“Organizations can overlook the essence of their own company culture by not taking the time to dive into it,” Biro said. “If you go straight to a marketing consultant without looking at what your company’s really about, you’ll miss it.
“What are your true values?” she said. “How do you care for your customers and your employees? If the two are not aligned, there’s a gap in your culture. Start with that.”
The risk is in overlooking the obvious.
“Companies miss the connection: Culture is in actions,” Biro said. “Today’s hard business choices shouldn’t refute your culture. They should reflect it.”
Rather than simply put their businesses in place, entrepreneurs should stop and think about how they want their company to be perceived outside and within the corporate walls. They need to look around and see if today’s reality is what they truly want to be.
“Reset your expectations around the purpose of your company,” Levine said. “Take a hard look at your purpose and values. it may seem like it’s not a great time to step back—’We have to act!’—but in fact, it’s exactly the time.
“Managers, you need to check in with your peers and reports,” he said. “All-remote means we need more one-on-ones and connections.”
Culture reflects choices
One of Levine’s colleagues is using this time to do a complete reset on their culture. For that, Levine offers the culture canvas for how to proceed.
“Reevaluate purpose,” he said. “Make time to connect with the humans you work with. Don’t panic. That is their No. 1 job right now. Your people are all you have. Make sure they can do their best.
“Don’t forget: Culture is the cause and effect of every choice you make,” he said.
Looking at towering problems, necessities might not appear so necessary.
“Improving company culture may not seem an immediate must-do, but it’s never been more important,” Biro said. “The first strategy is the overall commitment to do it now.
“Remember when we were talking about the importance of offering flexibility and having built-in empathy for working parents and working caregivers?” she said. “We were thrust into that reality. So, leverage these abnormal times to better define these elements in your culture.”
Reality still wields a strong slap in the face.
“Managers may not be able to participate in a whole strategic program now to improve company culture,” Biro said. “Likely they’ve got their hands full with remote teams or trying to keep essential workers safe. But leadership can use this time to set the course for the future.”
Company culture is not a one-person operation. Leaders should ask their people what they think of the culture that surrounds them—whatever their definition. Then get an unbiased outside point of view to assess and suggest.
Leadership from the ground up
“Culture grows up from the roots, and the roots are leadership,” Biro said. “Leaders need to think about what matters most—but transparency and communication are essential. These times are throwing that into stark contrast.
“Leaders need to weigh the drive for a growth mindset with the need for a people mindset,” she said. “Culture lies in a way forward that includes both.”
Large players are already taking the initiative.
“Look at big tech industry leaders,” Biro said. “They’re seizing growth opportunities, innovating in new ways to tackle new challenges. Can leaders of smaller firms adopt this innovation culture? That’s where most value is.”
Plus, value becomes even greater with recognition.
“Identify your culture all-stars,” Levine said. “These are the folks inside your company that if you could replicate them, you’d have the kind of culture you strive for.
“Leaders may not be able to describe what will make their culture great, but they definitely know their culture all-stars,” he said. “Transparency is everything right now.”
Along with that, leaders must make a point to learn about their people.
“Action comes from understanding what behaviors should be supported and which should be discouraged,” Levine said. “The problem is that this skill needs to be embedded at every level of the organization—Hello, managers—not just the C-suite.
“Those companies who can look for new opportunities will come out of this ahead,” he said. “But most enterprise companies are too focused on protecting what they already have. Look to balance that effort.”
Levine concurred that culture can’t be solved in a quarter or a single year. It’s an ongoing effort—like finance or information technology.
He summarized the approach in no-nonsense management terms: Hire slow, fire fast.