Strong workplace culture is the secret of the highest performing organisations. But extended periods of lockdown have destroyed it. Discover five solid ways to reignite your culture in 2022.

A frustrated employee in front of a computer

Employee engagement appears to be broken in Australia and New Zealand according to Gallop’s global research where only 14% of people said they felt engaged in the workplace. In the same research (that referred to world polls between 2014 and 2016), this contrasts sharply with the US and Canada where 31% of people said they had a real connection with their employer. Those figures might sound a little old, but with the two years of recent lockdown hell, how are people feeling today in comparison to back then? — most likely your company culture needs a bit of intensive care.  

What is workplace and organisational culture exactly? With so many definitions being bandied around, it can occupy a very fuzzy and hard-to-define place in people’s minds. According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), workplace culture defines the proper way to behave. It consists of shared beliefs and values that are first established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced over time. Ultimately (and very importantly), culture shapes all the perceptions, behaviours and understanding that people have about the place where they work. There isn’t a one size fits all definition — and varying organisations use it in different ways to inspire their people and give their work a strong sense of purpose. What’s more, if you take the world’s most successful organisations — a strong culture is something that they all share. Part of this cultural  ‘secret sauce’ is the values which make the culture tangible and understandable. 

So can you actually see culture at work? Well, yes you can. The unique culture of an organisation can be seen in the very specific ways it does things. It’s the unique way people greet others and answer the phone. It’s the rituals and traditions that might even be taken for granted. Does your CEO sing to the team at 9am on the dot every Monday? — that’s culture. In the western world, often workers can’t wait to close the shutters and get the last customer out on a Friday afternoon. In contrast, in Japan there is a custom to bow down to the last customer in the store; a very different way of behaving that reflects an entirely different workplace culture. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, culture has never been more critical. In fact, it has been the very glue that has held entire companies and their teams together under the most strained circumstances for decades. Bhushan Sethi is PwC’s Joint Global Leader for People and Organisation. He advises leaders to think of their company’s culture as a ‘bank’ with its own distinctive investments and the credits of goodwill banked through the years leading up until today. Until 2020, and the onset of the pandemic, various activities added ‘cultural credit’ to this bank account in the form of positive internal messaging, workforce morale, leadership behaviour, training and employee benefits.  

However, during 2020 and 2021, workforces were really put to the test and instead of ‘funds’ being added, the stresses and strains caused huge amounts of culture and goodwill to be withdrawn. Many people lost their jobs, were asked to work harder and encountered great stress and anxiety as the security of their jobs and their livelihoods was brought into question. So that begs the question — when the workplace has withered and been tested over the last 24 months, where do you even begin when it comes to rekindling the richness and quality of your culture? 

Here’s 5 actionable ways to start doing this today, ready for a brand new 2022:

Masked woman walks into the office

Make safety a way of life in the business 

When COVID-19 made its unwelcome presence felt, safety became of the number one concern for employees inside and outside of the office. Many people had the luxury of working from home, but for millions of front-line workers, they were required to continue working in stores, in warehouses and in factories keeping our supply chains well and truly alive. Whilst airports went dark for a while, think of all the sky-crew who have been risking their own health to enable others to stay connected with their businesses and families. Some leaders were quick to respond; adding measures such as safety screens and replacing in-store visits with kerb-side pickup and delivery. Other employees were left powerless and felt compelled to tow the company line, putting the health of themselves and their families in jeopardy. If anything plundered the culture ‘bank’ — then safety it was.  

Moving forwards, communicate your safety initiatives to show how you are putting your people first. For you that might mean re-opening offices at lower capacity, distancing workstations and adopting new cleaning regimes. It may mean frequent COVID-19 testing in the office and the re-invention of some services that avoids people congregating closely all in the same place. For example — provision of coffee and other shared services. Whatever changes you plan to make, communicate openly and share the safety gains that the changes will offer. 

No doubt, a large part of your workforce has reset their lives around a new hybrid way of living and working. Not everybody loves working from home — in fact up to 50% miss their commute and the social benefits the office brings. What is clear is that a one size fits all approach isn’t going to work and you’re most likely going to need to be super-flexible in offering a way of work that suits personal circumstances. The ‘great resignation’ that was seen in 2020 and 2021 has proved that people are willing to leave their jobs and are not necessarily going to compromise when it comes to their new found freedoms and the perks of spending more time at home. 

Bring your business strategy and your people together

Employers known for having strong cultures are very open about their company values. In some companies, things like ‘mission’ ‘vision’ and ‘values’ exist only in company handbooks and quickly get forgotten about after onboarding has finished. In others, people are constantly immersed in these to create a strong sense of purpose for people at every level. For some of these organisations, you only have to walk into their foyer (or take a quick look at their website) to see that purpose is put front and centre for employees, customers and stakeholders alike.  

Honesty about your organisation’s future outlook is key. You want to maintain the ‘psychological contract’ that you have with your people, securing their trust and rousing the shared energy needed to achieve goals together. These troubling times haven’t been easy for anyone and leaders are just as prone to feel the effect. It’s far better to be upfront about challenges in the market, giving people the knowledge and advance notice that they need to brace themselves for a bumpy ride. In times of crisis, honesty can galvanise people, so that they come together and fight for better performance and survival. 

A great example of how not to handle this is the well publicised case of and it’s CEO Vishal Garg. He thought that firing 900 people without warning over a Zoom call was the right way to do things. Not only has his action brought fear to people across the entire organisation, his action brought negative publicity to his operation on a global scale. 

Be honest. Act with empathy and put yourself into the shoes of your people. 

Masked coworkers elbow bump

Be an advocate for mental health

The length of the pandemic has put unprecedented and unimaginable pressure on people. In many ways, it magnified the scale of pre-existing issues that had gone unnoticed and unchecked. In recent years, mental health has made great strides, especially in the workplace. Within the global dialogue, it’s become increasingly accepted that “it’s OK not to be OK.” Beyond the hype in the media, mental health still presents a real stigma for people who are trying to deal with a variety of mental illnesses including stress, anxiety and even burnout.  

As an employer, you can re-kindle your workplace culture by stepping up and helping to start the conversation. Challenge your managers to go beyond the usual protocol of sharing mandatory messages of ways to seek help and support. Build their knowledge and confidence in how to take a proactive approach during the performance management process; asking people how they are doing. 

People at all levels will often wait for managers and senior leaders to take the first step. The key is for them to show their vulnerability. When leaders share heartfelt and real stories of their own challenges and struggles, it gives people the permission and safety to step forward, instead of hiding their problems. 

If you’re having all-hands get-togethers and conference calls, make a point of including this issue in every session and keep reinforcing that “it’s OK to not be OK.’” 

Think about onboarding in a different way

The remote-first world we’re living in means that culture needs to be built in a different way. Historically, face-to-face meetings and social interaction has been the classroom of culture. If you think about it, whilst there might be values and official definitions of brand and purpose, culture is something that is learned spontaneously through exposure to lots of different scenarios. As a new starter, you see how your colleagues behave and how they act on a day to day basis. It is through this regular exposure that culture is passed from the existing workforce to the company’s new emerging talent.  

When people are being onboarded in a completely virtual way, this critical social context is lost when the induction is delivered through two-dimensional conference calls. On Teams and Zooms calls, people tend to act differently and the all-important body language (and non verbal) cues cannot be seen. Therefore, you’ll need to seriously overcompensate when it comes to onboarding so that people really understand your culture and how it actually lives and breathes.  

Beware of just distributing documents for people to read. Don’t rely on instant-chat messaging through Teams and Slack when it comes to sharing essential information. Bring people together for rich, full-fat conversations and the opportunity to meet each other.  

Train people on the skills they might not automatically pickup when working remotely. This could be email etiquette, how to provide feedback to others or even the best ways to engage with customers online. 

There’s no rules set in concrete here; experiment, think outside the box and find what works best for you. 

Think about a phased return to the office when the time comes

When the time comes to transition back to the office, think carefully about the best way to do this. Having worked from home for many months will mean the first day back feels a little bit like coming back to school after the summer holidays. Ouch! Imagine the nerves and anxiety. 

You’ll have many questions to answer — such as how many people will come back?, what people’s work will look like? and how they will be assessed?. 

According to Fiona Robertson, former head of culture at National Australia Bank and author of Rules of Belonging, “choosing who will be the first to return to the office should be carefully considered, as these individuals will have a large role to play in establishing a new culture.” 

Select people who exhibit behaviours that you want to encourage, and leave until later folk who exhibit behaviours you want to avoid.” 

The return to physical workspaces also creates opportunities for better collaboration, says Robertson: 

From a practical point of view, it’s tempting to bring back entire teams, but, where possible, choose one or two from different teams; this offers an opportunity to create links across the organisation rather than reinforce existing silos. When people are in their tribes, they think more about ‘us’ and ‘them’; when you are all mixed together, you become a new ‘us’.” 

As and when a return to the office is on the cards, proceed with care so that you can nurture and rebuild culture from the start. With the links between strong company culture and high organisational performance, strengthening it is something you’ll want to think about as we move into the new year. No matter where you stand culturally today, it’s never too late to transition to a more proactive approach. If we take Bhushan Sethi’s bank analogy, before you know it, your ‘bank of culture’ will be growing steadily and will provide the strong and cohesive foundation needed to pay dividends into the future.  

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