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April 16th, 2020


Cultivating Culture in the Face of Uncertainty

By Landon Young, Ph.D., Director of University Initiatives & Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Like gardening, company culture is an ongoing process and is always affected by the who, what, and where. Your team, product, and work environment might have changed, but your job is still the same: cultivating a good company culture. So, how do you maintain the great culture that you had while operating remotely? How does your company culture change as employees are laid off? What can you reevaluate to increase cultural health and productivity? We explore three areas companies can focus on to ensure company culture is still at the forefront of the business.

Thrive in Remote Work

Although remote work and Zoom videos can feel awkward at first, there are hacks that can improve communication and continuation of team culture:

  • Establish asynchronous communication such as Slack, Jira, or Microsoft Teams and establish best practices early. For example, syncing calendars and updating your status helps improve team collaboration.
  • If your company uses Slack, then Slackbots like Scorebot can boost morale and interaction across distributed teams.
  • Virtual backgrounds on Zoom can help calls feel more professional (or less depending on your needs).
  • Nothing beats a good whiteboard session, so utilizing tools like Mural can improve the collaboration during video calls and meetings.

Recently on Inside Indiana Business, Dr. Jonathan Blake Huer of Eleven Fifty Academy recommended several habits for effective remote work. He recommends taking calls from a well-lit, quiet place. I’ll add that wearing your typical work clothes helps communicate that you are working and not on vacation and can help you feel awake, focused, and ready for the day.  Dr. Huer also suggests that over-communication is key and to not be afraid to schedule quick chats that replace the short conversations that would have occurred around the “water cooler”. At times like this, people need those short interactive sessions.

One experience that was invaluable to me was the virtual RemoteWorkSummit. At my previous company, our leadership team and employees spun up a Slack Channel to discuss as we all watched in real time. Some of the key takeaways from the summit were that nearly everyone faces challenges with remote work and that managers who have also worked remotely are more likely to empathize with these struggles. A sample of remote work data, statistics, and best practices can be found on their website and helpful resources can be found here.

Conduct Layoffs With Dignity

Many companies are faced with the reality that they must lay off or furlough members of their staff. These decisions never come easy and have a tremendous effect on not only those let go, but also on company culture for those that stay. The Harvard Business Review states that survivors of a layoff experience a 41% drop in job satisfaction, a 36% drop in organizational commitment, and a productivity loss of over 20%. While there is no perfect way to let valuable team members go, there are practices that can invite a sense of dignity for those who leave, and a sense of commitment for those who stay. In the face of COVID-19 and the resulting economic conditions, Forbes recently outlined steps a company can take when considering layoffs:

  1. Start with a plan
    First, consider alternatives for your employees like offering them an alternative such as taking a pay cut, reducing hours, or working in a different capacity (such as a contractor). A strong demonstration of leadership would be to consider your own temporary pay reduction. This shows that the team is in it together. If a team member must be let go, then be clear in their termination letter that the reason is not performance but solely due to COVID-19, or another applicable reason. Offer to write a letter of recommendation, and consider filing a mass claim for unemployment, which can speed up unemployment benefit distribution. A thoughtful plan will help maintain culture by easing employee uncertainty, providing multiple options, and ultimately ensuring the company continues operating effectively.
  2. Communicate Openly, Timely, and Often
    Open dialogue will instill trust in those who are leaving as well as those still at the company. It’s crucial for leadership to take the time to explain how the business is impacted, and how it impacts everyone involved. Leaders should outline what changes are being made and why they’re being made. This transparency increases employee trust in the company and, by knowing that changes are a result of a larger economic shift instead of poor performance, it doesn’t take a toll on their self-confidence.
  3. Lead with Empathy
    Layoffs are difficult for everyone involved, and it is important for leadership to act and speak from a place of empathy. A recent piece by Emergence Capital offers some salient advice:  “If cuts are necessary, avoid death by a thousand cuts. Take your medicine early and treat people well on the way out to soften the blow.” Your employees will remember if they are treated well or poorly during this time. A bad experience will lead them to spread the news to their networks and through online reviews about the company and their experience. This can adversely affect the company’s reputation and ability to attract quality talent when business starts to pick back up. Conversely, treating employees well will certainly result in respect for the company and leadership, loyalty to the organization and a boost in morale.

The way you respond to the current situation and how you treat employees today will impact the company for years to come. By having a plan, communicating well, and leading with empathy you bring dignity to the situation and build elements of culture that will endure well beyond this current economic situation.

Support Your Team’s Mental Health

Supporting your team’s mental health should be paramount to maintaining culture and productivity during this time. A recent study found that nearly half of all Americans — 45% — feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health. They have loved ones who are sick, are facing layoffs, and/or may be fighting feelings of isolation. In fact, U.S. mental health hotlines are seeing an increased rate of 891% from people calling to discuss mental health issues. Pitchbook recently reported on growth in the use of mobile mental health apps and services as well.

In the face of adversity, a New York Times article published this month suggests that “tragic optimism” is needed and that acts of meaning such as volunteering or helping in one’s community are associated with long term benefits of a more positive outlook and feelings of inspiration and enrichment. In a 2018 article about layoffs, Fast Company suggests ways to help employees build resiliency. “To help surviving employees move forward consider holding mindfulness training, such as meditation or journaling classes. Learning how to ‘build in a pause’ when reacting to situations will help employees learn how to process information and take out emotion before they react. Engaging in gratitude exercises, such as by journaling, can also increase positive emotions and reduce stress.” Consider company giving opportunities or service opportunities through Indy’s own Embracing a corporate posture of gratitude, optimism, and meaning can drive your team to longer term personal, professional, and corporate benefits.

This unprecedented shift in economic landscape has left an evolving workforce facing an unfamiliar working style and new demands. Use this time to dig deeper into improving your company’s culture and invest in the core values and practices that will leave your culture more robust and resilient to what may come. When the current downturn has passed and you are left with a healthy and growing company, your team, your community, and your investors with be thankful.

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