In the startup world, we hear a lot about culture. While the term may bring to mind office perks, like ping-pong tables and happy hours, true culture goes deeper. It forms the fabric of your organization and makes a big difference for your bottom line. In fact, research shows that employees with a strong connection to their organization’s culture are more engaged. Companies with great cultures attract the most qualified candidates, too.
A simplified definition of culture is an organization’s shared behaviors, values, and assumptions, all of which take a while to cultivate. Culture doesn’t happen overnight.
For managers and CEOs, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an unprecedented challenge: how to maintain their hard-earned culture when most employees are working from home, some for the first time ever. According to Gallup, virtual work now accounts for 62% of the workforce. Leaders must find new ways to uphold their culture, which typically leans heavily on face-to-face interactions in an office.
As CEO of my company JotForm, I’m still adjusting, then readjusting, to the new, hopefully temporary, normal. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to nurture the supportive work environment that took 14 years to build.
Here are a few expert-backed strategies to ensure that your culture initiatives don’t get lost during the coronavirus pandemic.
Reflect on your purpose and values
As circumstances change and you navigate one week at a time, continue to reflect on your company’s original purpose and values. Ask yourself whether today’s decisions align with them. In some instances, that might mean pivoting on your business strategy in order to carry on during rough patches.
Take, for example, Best Western hotels in the United Kingdom. When cancellation rates soared in early March, they decided to start offering accommodations to medical personnel, low-risk patients, and at-risk individuals. With these repurposed hotels, the chain made 15,000 of their rooms available and, importantly, managed to keep some of their employees working.
Bain & Company partners, Marc Berman and Tracy Thurkow, explain the hotel chain’s strengths. “Best Western has been guided by two of its central cultural values: service excellence and being a good member of the community.”
Create a culture grounded in trust
When faced with a difficult situation, the best leaders take the opportunity to regroup and build a better version. If employees are suddenly working from home, that requires implementing new office protocols, including how to communicate and support each other; how to work more effectively; and even fun stuff like virtual coffee breaks and happy hours.
As you re-create your culture, keep in mind the importance of establishing trust. Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer reminds us, “Management needs as much information as possible to ensure that employees are able to execute their jobs.”
In short, a well-functioning organization necessitates a culture of open communication, in which employees feel comfortable telling management what is and isn’t working under today’s novel work circumstances.
Leaders can establish an atmosphere of open communication by practicing transparency. Harvard Business Review points to a Chinese proverb, which says great generals should issue commands in the morning, and change them in the evening.
It is not a sign of weakness to share developments based on the latest information, even if that means having to change course sometimes.
Communicate and connect with your community
In light of COVID-19, some brands have risen to the occasion to offer comfort to their customers and followers. As Slack cofounder and CEO Stewart Butterfield recently said at a virtual event, “People really, really remember when you care about them and are respectful, even when the news is bad.”
Consider Fat Rice, a beloved Chicago restaurant that realized their business model— serving food in a sit-down setting—couldn’t weather the pandemic shutdown. As reported by the New York Times, they decided to offer their customers takeaway meal kits instead, under the name Super Fat Rice Mart.
An announcement on their website stated: “We remain committed to providing our friends and fans with extraordinary food and beverage experiences. But it won’t be in the form of a typical sit-down restaurant.”
In a time of crisis, communications like this go a long way towards reaffirming your culture for the long term.
Show employees that you care
According to Gallup, only 4 in 10 U.S. workers think that their supervisor or someone at their job cares about them. The percentage is surprisingly low already, and likely to dip even further with the COVID-19 disruption.
Leaders must find creative ways to show employees that they’re looking out for them as human beings.
Kat Myers, head of people at Respondent, a market research company, shared a great example of how her company is connecting to their team on a personal level: “We recently set up a weekly chitchat session for everyone to speak openly about the virus. It’s an hour-long, weekly video chat that’s on the entire company’s calendar. We speak about what’s happening where we live, share support tactics, and any interesting articles we’ve read.” If your company is too big for one group video call, Myers recommends using Zoom’s “breakout” function to divide employees into smaller groups.
With some intention and ingenuity, hopefully, you can hang on to your hard-earned culture. Perhaps it may end up even stronger than before.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections and more.