Culture Matters

As news of a the coronavirus began to emerge, few, if any were predicting a crisis on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many businesses have had to radically alter operations. This has been a huge challenge. Difficult decisions have been made, and made fast. One factor that can make such difficult decisions easier is a strong corporate culture.

Organisations that understand their culture will find this easier; they will be accustomed to decision-making guided by values and established corporate purpose.

Building a good corporate culture

An organisation’s culture is the way it conducts its business, sometimes described as “everything we say and everything we do”. Culture determines how a company behaves, how it operates, how it treats its stakeholders and whether or not it can be trusted to do the right thing. It is a crucial, if sometimes intangible asset, but one that can determine long-term sustainability.

A strong culture should be built from the top. Corporate culture should also be ethical, driven by senior managers who lead by example, and are trusted to do the right thing. Organisations with good cultures are also people-focused. They treat all stakeholders fairly and support the development of employees. They listen to concerns and respect the communities in which they operate.

In large organisations, the board is responsible for assessing and monitoring company culture. This involves seeking assurances that management behaviours, and the policies and practices of the business, are aligned with company values. In smaller organisations, and particularly SMEs, it will be senior managers who will set the tone. Often supported by HR, they will determine how the business conducts itself on a day-to-day basis. This is critical to building the desired culture as the company grows.

Culture in a time of crisis

Culture is also a key differentiator. It can set businesses apart and influence decision-making that can make or break reputations.

As businesses prepare a pathway towards reopening, protecting staff and customers will be the obvious priority. This goes beyond protective equipment, screens and social distancing. Companies with a strong ethical culture will look to ensure that staff are aware of Covid-19 symptoms. In addition, they should know to stay at home if they or a member of their household show signs of the virus. This, together with the requirements of contact-tracing, may mean adjustments to sick pay policies to ensure that financial pressures do not drive individuals to breach the rules.

Speak Up

Organisations should also ensure that speak-up systems are also working well under any new arrangements. In our experience, organisations with the most ethical corporate cultures encourage people to speak up without fear of retaliation. In these organisations, staff know that concerns are listened to and addressed appropriately.

For many businesses, working from home has become a new normal that may continue for some time. Sustaining company culture while staff work remotely isn’t easy and may require new forms of flexibility. Managers will need to recognise new pressures such as home schooling or care responsibilities when planning workloads or new tasks.

Core principles for building and maintaining a strong culture

1. Communication is key. Maintain contact through the use of video conference calls, but take care to avoid Zoom/Teams overload. Good use of video calls can re-create a sense of company spirit between colleagues and mitigate feelings of isolation and detachment. Communication from the top should be open and honest. This is particularly important when it comes to conveying difficult decisions.

2. Ensure staff feel nurtured and supported. Continue to provide guidance and training to maintain opportunities for career growth and progression.

3. Create informal catch-ups. Contact colleagues for non-work-related chats. Use these opportunities to monitor stress levels, pressure points and other signs of well-being which could go undetected on a video conference call.

4. Monitor work-life balance. The boundaries of the working day should be recognised to ensure staff are not working excessive hours or contacted after hours for status updates or briefings on new tasks.

5. Listen. It may be necessary to put new systems in place for raising concerns. Organisations may need to take time to devise such systems and communicate new processes to all staff.

Moving forward

In the coming months, many hard decisions will need to be taken. But a business with a strong culture, guided by ethical principles and determined to do the right thing by all its stakeholders, will benefit in the long run. Organisations should aim to share any burden in a fair and equitable way. Treating affected stakeholders with respect and mitigating any impacts where possible, will help organisations emerge from the crisis with their reputations intact. Businesses that respond in this way will build greater sustainability and emerge from the crisis ready to attract investment, customers and, in time, a growing workforce.

With companies facing considerable scrutiny, those in a position to do the right thing will be the ones to derive lasting benefit for the business and its reputation.

The full version of this blog by GoodCorporation director Debbie Ramsay first appeared on the Ethical Reading website on June 15.