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People First: solidifying and improving your workplace culture during tough climates

How do cuts and remote working pose risks to staff morale? Constant disruption and change over long periods can create a sense of extreme instability amongst workers. HR teams are often at the forefront of business change – coaching managers on how to deliver difficult news in line with HR best practice, designing crucial remote working policies, and unfortunately, often cutting back on services or headcount.

For core staff, a sense of positivity despite a tough climate, is more important than ever before. This may seem nonsensical or at best extremely difficult given the circumstances, with many companies choosing instead to focus on merely gritting teeth and “getting through” the bad patch. But for HR, prioritising a robust and inspiring workplace culture and focussing on values that were established prior to changes, give a more solid foundation for recovery in the long-term.

This solid foundation offers employees support in continuing their day-to-day tasks, in providing tools they can use for transition, and in offering a sense of hope as we all look to emerge into a post-Coronavirus society.

As an added bonus, maintenance and even improvements to company culture, cost nothing except for time and effort. The rewards in terms of employee engagement, will be notable.

What are our values?

Company culture could be described as a set of values. Values are a combination of both spoken and unspoken rules, which govern the “personality” of any organisation – defining how staff feel about their employer, what they say about it in public and in private, how they behave, and governing the way that they ultimately perform their jobs.

If no active definition or design of these values is undertaken, then company culture evolves on its own, for good or for ill. For want of a better word, without interference, HR and senior leadership have very little control over the eventual company image. So, instead, it’s far better to actively and deliberately define these values, and to reiterate them at every stage of the employee lifecycle – from interviewing and hiring, through day-to-day minutiae, even through to the point that an employee chooses to move onto new pastures, ensuring that they leave with a positive impression of their time in the company.

The physical office vs the virtual office

Whilst changes to operating models or ways of working can happen overnight and almost daily in the current climate, leaving some employees rattled and unsettled, strong communication and open conversations from HR and leadership can all but eliminate any problems and concerns.

It is important that everyone within even a virtual office, has a clear understanding of the company goals at all times. A sense of mystery is not the aim. Cultural goals in particular can be reinforced through online team building events, and through the usual perks that one would expect when working in the physical office, including competitions, celebrations of birthdays, work anniversaries, new starters, promotions and other milestones.

Whilst lockdown is easing in many locations, it may be back. Virtual game nights and pub quizzes quickly gained popularity during hard lockdown, especially where small prizes via couriers such as Uber Eats were involved!

The importance of a general non-work chat at the beginning of the day was also adopted, as people started to miss their water cooler conversations and the human connection in catching up about spouses, pets, children, hobbies, etc.

People first

When organisations are in crisis, it is ironic that people are often the first to be overlooked in favour of sudden business rescue. Two points are clear to HR, one being that without people, there is no business, and the second, that panic mode never lasts forever.

By driving an employee-centric agenda, HR can help to reprioritise relationships, offer recognition, and as mentioned, drive increased communication via multiple channels.

Learning & development

When training cannot be delivered in the traditional in-person setting, in many cases it completely stops. But in-house training can easily be delivered online, providing it is easily digestible, simple, interactive, and fun. Topics should cover new workplace practices when working-from-home, as well as career development and other practical skills.

In designing training, HR should begin by asking employees about their ambitions, so that the training is tailored to their desires, and to increase their attention and engagement. This in turn, increases skill levels, and in turn, profitability.

What next?

As HR continue to be vocal in promoting company culture, how can their jobs be made easier, and how can we ensure that the idea of culture and values does not disappear from plain sight again?

  1. Reward and recognise staff who are demonstrating the most “desirable” behaviours and performance, in order to promote those qualities in others
  2. Encourage staff to build in-house connections, even if it is only remotely. New starters should have a chance to meet all staff online, in small groups, and eventually to meet them in person. Formal and informal mentorship can also be useful here
  3. HR need to believe in the vision too, lip service is not enough, and as crucial members of staff themselves, it’s important that HR and leaders appear positive about the culture at all times, in order to help with morale
  4. Keep the “office door open”. Make sure the opportunity always exists for employees to speak about concerns, their well-being, and their anxieties, and try to listen rather than shutting down any flags
  5. Look outside. Instead of an always inward-looking approach, make sure the way your employees are treated extends to their personal life, and that there are visible efforts to contribute to the local community which also helps to reinforce company culture and brand awareness

A focus on company culture has never been so important. As we have shown, even with restrictions and limited resources, there remain many ways to identify key talent, to develop upcoming leaders, and to always put employees first.

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