Investing in Culture During Times of Trouble

Posted by Chris Dornfeld

Companies around the globe are feeling the impact of COVID-19 and are instructing their employees to work from home or even laying off part of their staff. As schools are closing, some through the end of the school year, many remote employees will have to parent their children and support their education as best they can. (Here are some educational resources for working parents during this time).

These changes, combined with some managers having to learn how to manage remote teams for the first time, are creating a situation where it’s easy to lose sight of how your company culture will be changing. Why? Because culture is the sum of our collective behaviors, and when our daily patterns of interaction and activity are fundamentally changed, our behaviors will change as well. Finding ways to maintain these behaviors that drive your success and the identity of your organization might be one of the most important challenges every leader will face over the next year.

Companies often struggle with culture in the best of times. Yet in times of crisis, like we are in with the COVID-19 pandemic, people need more communication, clarity and support. The culture a company creates can significantly impact the ability of an organization to cope with the change brought on by the crisis.

There is plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence emphasizing the financial impact of culture. Many thought leaders go so far as to say it’s culture that ultimately sets apart the great companies. Gallup, for example, routinely publishes research demonstrating the powerful impact a purposeful culture can have—including a 10 percent increase in customer ratings and a 20 percent increase in sales, among a multitude of other dramatic effects.

How should leadership confront cultural challenges in a time when people’s working environments have changed so dramatically? How can leaders keep employees focused, motivated and engaged during times when there are many reasons for them not to be?

Here are five considerations for maintaining culture during times of change or crisis.

1. Increase employee listening.

It’s a natural reaction in tough times for employees to step back and slip into survival mode. One method for forestalling a skittish mindset is involving them in efforts to maintain and evolve company culture.

Ask for their suggestions on team camaraderie, increasing productivity or other pertinent product or solution improvements. Ensure that they understand how important their input is for meeting the current challenges and reinforce their contributions with rewards and recognition. Use this as an opportunity to explore what is core to the business and engage people in making the business more efficient. Typically, companies focus on increasing communication—pushing out constant information—when what employees want even more is to be heard, supported and appreciated.

People at Maritz are already organizing virtual events like morning team coffees, innovation brainstorms and even happy hours through group video conferencing tools. These activities are not only supported but encouraged and celebrated by our CEO.

2. Increase recognition.

No one has ever complained about being appreciated or recognized too much, but a lack of recognition can significantly reduce the motivation and retention of employees. As people become more socially isolated, your work relationships become even more important part of daily life.

Managers have an especially important role in recognition because our research shows that recognition from a manager has eight times the impact of a peer. Managers also set the example for employees to follow and people are much more likely to mimic a behavior like recognition when they see managers demonstrating the behavior.

Teams should set recognition goals and tie those recognition programs to the behaviors that are most important to success. A well-designed recognition program is one of the most powerful tools for building and maintaining a strong culture, because it is tied so directly to individual behavior.

3. Keep it real.

A sudden flurry of scattershot recognition during a rough stretch — particularly this rough stretch — will not have the desired effect. Quite the opposite: It will more likely give the impression of panic and desperation in a time where people are, understandably, already feeling panicked and desperate. That’s the last thing employees need from leadership — who needs to act as a well of strength and support for the workforces currently receiving a great stress-test of their limits.

Instead, take the time and effort to provide employees with specific examples of why they’re valuable and why managers personally appreciate their service. This can be done either through an employee recognition platform or during video conference calls, or preferably both.

In other words, keep doing what you’ve always done with recognition; just do more of it. But if it can’t be done sincerely, leave it alone—it’ll cause more harm than good.

4. Reinforce customer-facing personnel.

The whole world is in a heightened emotional state where predominantly negative emotions of anxiety, fear and doubt are prevailing in our interactions. It is fair to say that employees in customer-facing roles are currently in a delicate position. That goes double for anyone currently reporting into a retail location and serving customers face-to-face.

Customers are looking to these employees to deliver pre-crisis levels of service, value and care — and even looking to them for relief from concerns about the future. The problem when that crisis is a pandemic is that this is an issue that touches everyone.

We cannot ask employees to remain ignorant of the breaking news updates pushed to our phones as the spread of COVID-19 changes the way we live our lives. We cannot ask employees to set aside the reasonable fears and doubts that are no doubt arising from this crisis as it develops.

What can we do?

We can reinforce our employees on the frontlines. We can help employees in customer-facing roles find purpose and value in the work that they are doing. We can remind them how, now more than ever, their work is helping others and playing a valuable role in keeping the wheels of society turning.

Employees on the frontlines need visible and unambiguous displays of trust and confidence from their leaders. Refocus your appreciation and recognition efforts on these important employees, highlighting their daily contributions and rewarding significant efforts to retain customers.

We have a saying at Maritz Motivation, “Your customer experience can never exceed your employee experience.” How your people project your brand is often overlooked but might be the most important element of delivering your brand to customers.

5. Increase investment in your employees.

One of the first areas considered during cost cutting exercises are the programs to support people. Employee programs can be seen as “soft” targets, because they can be harder to defend than investments that drive growth (like marketing and sales). This viewpoint will increase both your pain in the short and long-term.

First, it’s basically sending a message to employees that the company is in trouble and, by the way, we value you the least. This can increase turnover of the most valuable people and undermine productivity at a time you need it most. Companies need to be increasing investment in employees to help develop new skills and ways a creating value through new operating models. It’s a tough ask in times of crisis, but investing in people can pay dividends for many years to come.

Long-term, these problems (losing key people, lower productivity) further reduce innovation and compound a short-term problem into a long-term problem. As our data shows, programs like recognition positively impact both retention and financial performance. A case study highlighted in our Proving the ROI of Recognition e-book showed that a well-designed recognition program produced up to a 500% percent return on investment annually. The short-term saving are appealing in times of a cash crunch, but that is like taking out a loan at a 500% interest rate to address the problem – something no responsible executive would support.

With globalization and today’s pace of change, which has dramatically accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, your company falls into one of three categories: those going through transformation, those about to go through transformation, or those that won’t be around in 10 years. It might come as a shock that most companies fall into the last category. If you’re not currently thinking about culture change and asking if your recognition programs are helping shape your company for the future, are you sure you’ll have to chance to do it later?

Topics: Culture, Employee Experience Platform, Recognition, Research, Rewards, ROI, Retain Employees, Thought Leadership