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How to restore a healthy balance in your firm’s ‘culture bank’


Culture has never been more critical to how we operate our businesses. The ability to emerge stronger from these past few months has depended on how well our teams worked together; how we showed support for our people and our communities; how our talent felt about their daily experience; and how the public and shareholders perceived our brands as responding to global issues.

Think of a company’s culture as a bank, with its own distinctive investments and the credits of goodwill made through the years leading up to today. In most cases, your culture bank balance going into 2020 reflected deposits made in areas such as internal messaging, workforce morale, leadership behaviors, training, employee benefits, shareholder opinion and brand reputation.

In today’s environment, culture banks are likely being drawn upon like never before, and goodwill balances are being stretched and are at risk of having insufficient funds.

As the impacts of the pandemic continue, with the economy stressing our businesses and people and racial inequality exposing painful truths, it becomes even more critical to replenish that culture bank. Yet, culture may be at risk of account closure, as leadership may be tempted to focus on other business concerns.

So, how do we restore a healthy balance in the culture bank and earn interest from renewed goodwill investments?

Companies that are navigating this era successfully are taking five key actions, but, before that, they are embracing humility. It’s important to show your people that you’re learning as you go, you’re experimenting with new approaches, and you’re committed to being honest and communicating with them.

Five culture imperatives to ‘bank on’

  1. Make safety a way of life, not just a process. For many companies, workplace safety has become a key foundation of company culture. You not only need to understand everyone’s safety, you should also make sure everyone feels safe. But one size does not fit all when it comes to how your employees’ lives and needs are evolving, so flexibility should be essential.
    • Create safe workspaces: Safety measures in the workplace can affect how people interact. If work stations are now sectioned far apart, you should help foster spur-of-the-moment conversations in other ways, like reimagining collaborative spaces — with frequent cleaning protocols in place.
    • Acknowledge fiscal responsibilities: Putting new workplace safety protocols in place may likely come with a cost. As you determine the right way to handle relevant new costs, it’s also important to establish metrics that measure the impact of employee and organizational safety. Also explore how you incent good behavior and how you illustrate results to stakeholders and customers.
    • Consider hybrid work environments: How the work gets done can be almost as important (if not more important) than where the work gets done. As you think about which employees will possibly return to work — and the safety precautions needed to support them — also keep in mind workers who may remain remote and the safety benefits that can bring by reducing the number of people in the office, thereby supporting social distancing. Considering a mix of employee experiences, think about how you can foster an inclusive culture, such as video-on conferencing for all meetings, no matter where employees are located.
    • Establish a clear travel and entertainment policy: Confirm everyone understands your current company travel and entertainment policy. Decide now if you will be allowing your teams to visit and engage with customers or vendors in person. Also, determine how you plan to manage company-owned events and customer entertainment scenarios. A clear plan can help avoid confusion and demonstrate to employees (and customers) that you’re prioritizing safety.
  2. Connect employees to your business strategy. It’s essential to be honest with your employees and share the company’s future outlook and how you are evolving strategies. This builds trust across the organization and can create positive energy to conquer goals — together.
    • Overcommunicate: The more frequently employees hear from you, the more likely you are to foster loyalty and reduce potential dissension. Reach out regularly and consistently through scheduled video town halls, leadership webcasts and frequent emails. Be the agent of change management. Explain how operations, supply chains and even trade policies are creating necessary pivots to your business. If jobs are likely to change, communicate that early on and encourage teams to be part of the solution by embracing upskilling or asking for redeployment volunteers.
    • Be honest and clear: To foster understanding, treat your employees as equals and explain what is affecting your business. Give details on the business impact resulting from the current environment. If you may need to consider job eliminations and/or furloughs, be clear about why. And, above all, act with empathy.
    • Lean into transparency: The speed with which businesses had to operate during the spring bred agility, and that required transparency. Don’t give up on that now. It’s a key ingredient to help keep your workers engaged, regardless of their struggles. If you do this well and often, you can change your culture for the better
  3. Examine every aspect of your inclusion agenda. Inclusion, which is incredibly important, is a reflection of how you lead your entire workforce.
    • Identify inclusive behaviors: Everyone in your company should feel included and have the opportunity to participate. Embed the expectation of that behavior into your metrics and rewards, speak about them often and then model them as a leadership team.
    • Commit to specific, concrete actions: Actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate your commitment to an evolving workplace by sharing your diversity progress, adjusting talent management practices to help reduce bias or giving employees paid time off to volunteer for a social justice cause. Demonstrate to employees that their needs are being heard by showing them the steps leadership is taking.
    • Consider equitable work practices: Meeting employees “where they are” can be crucial in light of new pressures on working parents and caregivers. Each situation may be different, so poll your people to find out what they need.
    • Embrace a holistic culture of tolerance: Today’s world of work has changed — literally. We’ve experienced kids jumping into video calls and dogs barking in the background. Remind your people that we’re in this together, and we should find a new balance, instead of trying to transplant old work expectations into this new environment. We should be patient with each other and our environments. Modeling the right behavior is essential.
  4. Advocate for mental health. The length of the pandemic was unimagined, there’s election divisiveness throughout the country and the stark truths around racial justice have come to the forefront of community concerns. It all adds up to an increase in mental health issues among our people. They need us to step up and help start the conversation.
    • Make regular touchpoints a priority: Ask your managers to go beyond a usual one-on-one agenda, and show genuine care for their team by asking each individual how they are doing. Don’t know where to start? Help them by sharing suggested talking points to follow while they get accustomed to this new behavior.
    • Act with vulnerability: When leaders share their own struggles, it helps their teams be honest and open about what they are up against. Breaking down stigmas is a first key step in empowering people to get the help they may need.
    • Create space for dialogue: Include mental health and well-being on agendas of town halls and all-hands conference calls. Let employees know it’s OK to not be OK. Reinforce that message. Encourage people to engage by normalizing emotional well-being as a vital topic for your company’s — and their personal — success.
    • Reconsider your benefits: Take a critical look at how your health and wellness benefits actually support mental health. Look at how many virtual visits will be covered, how easy it is to get access to quality care and whether your insurance covers just the individual or their dependents. Explore additional resources to make help available, including mobile apps, online services and useful articles.
  5. Look at onboarding and development through a different lens: The “apprenticeship model” of learning on the job is an age-old practice, but it warrants a fresh look now. Due to many remote working practices, new hires need to be trained differently. There are essential social cues that may be missed while new employees start work virtually — from how to interact with team members to how to figure out feedback. It’s also important to keep this in mind when developing employees for career progression.
    • Overcompensate onboarding: Be deliberate. Set up time with each team member and the new hire. Give your team scripts to follow that help nurture human connection, as well as providing professional explanations.
    • Think outside the box: Train on skills that might not usually be part of a new hire playbook, such as email etiquette, feedback, participating in video calls or better ways to engage with customers.
    • Foster coaching and mentoring: Every healthy company culture includes aspects of professional development. Social distancing has challenged the old norms of mentor lunches or coaching coffee breaks, so lean into virtual options like “walk and talk” to help promote connectivity in the workplace.

Now what?

Like a bank account, your company’s culture is ever changing, flexing and growing. As you assess your current state and determine your focal areas, remember to poll and engage your people. Let them be heard. Solve for your culture needs together. Doing this will help inspire loyalty, build community goodwill and set your brand apart from others.

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Bhushan Sethi

Bhushan Sethi

People & Organization Joint Global Leader, PwC US

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