Lockdown values: preserving your organisation’s culture through crisis

15 April 2020 -

Lockdown values: preserving your organisation's culture through crisisIt’s in an emergency that an organisation’s true values become clear. We’ve talked to some of the UK’s leading thinkers on corporate culture to find out how to preserve that special spirit through this strange, locked-down period

Mark Rowland

When we talk about organisational culture, it is commonly associated with the cognitive culture of the business. This relates to the spoken values of the company and what matters the most within that organisation, explains Sadie Hopson, CEO and founder of WorkWell, an HR and wellbeing platform. “It relates to how people think about that company and their mental image of the business, relating to topics such as public representation or mission statements.”

Cultural problems emerge when there is an inconsistency between the cognitive and emotional cultures within the business, she says. If the shared values of the organisation do not align with the feelings and attitudes of individual workers, the company culture will collapse.

“While it is not uncommon for a gap to exist between the two, it is during times of crisis that the distinction becomes profoundly apparent; essentially, it is at times of emergency that the true values of a business become clear.”

This is why it is so important that employers are mindful of the steps they’re taking to ensure cultural consistency while their team is in lockdown. “It is a time to consider the purpose of the organisation during the crisis and how it can openly communicate this to staff to ensure that actions and decisions are aligned with the company priorities.”

The situation that every business finds themselves in at the moment is completely unprecedented. Protecting and maintaining your company culture means protecting your staff. All the actions that you take should promote the physical and psychological safety of everyone on the team, says Hopson.

“A people-orientated approach is really vital right now so create chances for employees to give their own thoughts, ideas and feedback to promote creativity, engagement and inspired thinking. For example, if one of your core values is Community, what are you doing as a business to support the community and how could staff contribute to an action to reflect this value?”

Re-communicate your values

The first step for all businesses to maintain their culture is to reiterate their values, says Marilyn Devonish, a flexible working implementation consultant who has worked closely with organisations such as Central and Local Government and the Department for Transport to create flexible and remote working policies. “You could go up to a legacy employee and ask ‘what are the values and mission of the organisation?’ and unless it’s something that’s being talked about as a matter of course, most of your people will say ‘I don’t know’. So I’d say number one, you need to circulate those to make sure they’re very clear.”

Communication with employees should be clear and concise – make sure you spell out what is expected of everyone, and what they should not be doing. “Their lives have been disrupted. Some will be in a state of shock. It’s the organisation’s job to make sure that everything is in place so that people know exactly what’s happening.”

One of the tough things about reiterating or restating values is that often, there’s a lot left unseen. In 1976, Edward T Hall came up with an iceberg analogy for understanding culture: things like time-keeping, attitudes to health and safety, noticeboards, and personal artefacts are all visible emblems of the company culture, but asking questions, diversity and inclusion, competitiveness and cooperation are hidden from the casual observer, however important they are to the business’s core values. When reiterating company values, let it be an employee-led exercise: you may find more nuanced, hidden suggestions coming from their experiences.

Check in regularly and communicate clearly

“It’s important to have regular check-ins, particularly for new or vulnerable staff,” says Devonish. “It could be a phone call, it could be weekly team meetings (you might call it something different because of Furlough), but something that keeps people in regular contact, so no one is falling through the cracks.”

Devonish recommends that managers keep an ‘open phone’ policy. It might be for a certain period of time within the day or week, or you could be available any time throughout the day. “You could set up a dedicated ‘webinar room’ where people can request access – almost like a virtual knock. You might run that, say, every Tuesday.”

To understand the best way of communicating with your team, think about the current company culture in place. One way to do this is to look at Charles Handy’s culture model which aligns practices to ancient gods. The role culture (associated with Apollo, god of order and rules) has clearly defined individual roles, and everyone works of their own accord; so the best communication approach for this culture is to have individual check-ins.

The power culture (associated with Zeus, king of Mount Olympus) has the leader at the centre of the structure and culture, with all communication leading to and coming from this leader, so the best communication approach may be wider company presentations with questions submitted ahead of time. The task culture (associated with Athena, goddess of knowledge) is a flexible structure with teams that have a central leader but work collaboratively; for this culture, try having regular touchpoints with team leaders and heads of departments for them to then feedback to individual teams. The person culture (associated with Dionysus, goddess of wine and song) is a structure built around group of professionals - such as doctors or lawyers - who are ruled by a committee of peers instead of a single leader - so the communication approach could be to have a central invitation for optional hangouts, with information spread via written words instead of meetings and virtual hangouts.

Lauren Chiren has worked as a transformation manager for Nationwide, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays and Wiltshire Council, and worked in a diverse array of management roles across engineering, policing and security. So she knows more about corporate cultures than most. She is now managing director of Women of a Certain Stage, which educates organisations about managing menopause in the workplace. She has an hour each day in which staff can contact her. “The team can get hold of me and have a private chat, or they can all come together in a group call and I can update them on what’s going on.”

Corrie Jones, CEO of digital agency Untapped, makes sure she has weekly one-to-ones with everyone on her team. However, she is also letting her staff dictate just how much communication they receive from her and her managers. “They’re driving how much communication they want from us during lockdown.”

Buddy up your team

Chiren has devised a buddy system throughout lockdown in which staff can check in with each other and offer peer-to-peer support outside of management interference. Each buddy speaks to each other twice a day, and helps colleagues feel valued and assured they have something to contribute.

“People on your team who are quite introverted and are prone to withdrawing into detail and away from other people can end up being quite isolated,” she says. “If you’ve got someone who is more the life and soul of the party, a real people person, they are the people right now to help sweep people up and bring them on the journey.”

Trust and empower your staff

Your company culture won’t survive lockdown unless you have trust in your team. “At this moment in time, many of us feel like we don’t belong because we’ve lost our place and our way in the world,” says Chiren. “If we don’t go back to the basics of who we are, and how we fit into society, our organisations and our families, I think in the future we’ll see a lot of people leaving their jobs because they haven’t felt looked after and that they belonged during this period.”

Jones had already set up a collaborative culture for Untapped, and has doubled down on that during lockdown. As the company was figuring out how it would work together completely remotely, it was inundated with requests for work from panicking businesses trying to figure out how to reach their customers. That collaborative culture put the team in good stead to navigate both situations – everyone was able to contribute to the new way of working, and the new work that they needed to complete.

“Even if you can’t see them working, you know that everyone is pulling together to get the job done to the best of their ability,” she says. “Also cutting people a bit of slack is important – this is a big, heavy thing that everyone is dealing with, and we’re all affected in different ways.”

When it’s right to bring the ‘fun’

Jones is running a weekly online ‘pub quiz’ for her team every Friday to make sure the social side of the business is maintained. “Some of our younger team members live with their parents, so we had people’s mums joining in.”

However, relying on gimmicks to boost staff morale will only go so far. You need to strike a good balance between work and play, with clear delineations between them – if you have a strong, trusting culture among your team, you shouldn’t need to do too much to ensure this happens. You also need to ensure that your team has a work/life balance. Agree individually what each team member’s working hours are (there will need to be flexibility here as some people will have to balance things like childcare). If you need to contact them, stick to those hours.

You also need a virtual replacement for the watercooler chat or the kitchen conversation. Let your staff chat with each other over whatever technology you’re using, whether it’s Zoom, Slack or Microsoft Teams. Don’t police their interactions too much.

“You can’t always get that connection to the best degree virtually, but you need that replacement for it,” says Jones “Allowing people to message each other and have fun calls is a good way of doing that.”

On ManagementDirect, you can see more granular thinking on how to build and understand company culture. Why not see how your management style impacts the team dynamic?

For more content exploring the impact of Covid-19 on everyday working practices, head over to our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.