January 7, 2021
Last year, many organisations were forced overnight to adjust to new ways of working. Digital transformation accelerated, and collaborative activities were recreated virtually. But while teams have adapted functionally to maintain productivity, organisational leaders need to pay special attention to the “intangible” cultural aspects and their overall purpose.
Before the pandemic, our organisation conducted an interview-based study with 10 unicorns (former start-ups that have cracked the $1bn valuation mark), to understand how fast-moving organisations use culture as a driver of performance. Unicorns, by virtue of their fast-paced growth, constantly operate in “crisis mode”. They onboard dozens to hundreds of new employees, open new offices, expand into new geographies, and develop new products and services in the short space of just months. To succeed, their mindset has to be agile and their culture must be strong.
A strong organisational culture consists of mindsets, practices and rituals. It is shaped deliberately and is a driver of organisational performance; leading to employee engagement and happiness. Culture is about the operating principles and behaviours that are right for the organisation. Nurtured well (from the top and the bottom), it helps avoid inertia and stagnation.
With hybrid work (remote and office) here to stay, we believe three factors will drive high-performance culture:
Purpose-led businesses are proven to perform better. Purpose drives growth. There must be a common vision and ambition driven out of the central brand purpose; employees need to not only know what to do but why they are doing it. There have been dramatic pivots from the previous way of working to the present, and so a brand lens offers an important filter during this period of ongoing uncertainty and fosters belonging. It connects employees and leaders, whilst helping to make workplace culture decisions that will enable the company to learn, adapt, and accelerate post-crisis. Unicorns often do this by echoing the collective brand purpose at every opportunity to rouse and centre their teams. They also create a sense of belonging by giving their teams a feeling of ownership and responsibility. This trust in the workforce is rewarded with employee loyalty to the employer brand, and higher performance overall.
Successful organisations have cultures that allow them to get stronger in a crisis, which acts as a pressure gauge for culture in that it reinforces behaviours that made the organisation successful in the first place. Crises also fortify or destroy mutual trust. Only when the leadership can prove that they can be trusted, can they expect employees to trust them in return. This trust is established through transparent communications. Clarity and frequency of communications are critical. For example: what measures are in place to protect jobs? How is the organisation coping with the unusual situation? What is a realistic set-up for the workplace over the next 3-6 months? What is the next step? At the same time, showing the human and authentic side to leadership underpins trust. Unicorns do this very well. Regularly and honestly appreciating the efforts everyone has put in during this time, will go a long way.
Just like belonging and communication, rituals are unique to a business and essential to culture. They should be rooted in the brand, and therefore can be an effective way of bringing the brand purpose to life. Rituals are particularly important in a transient and uncertain world, as they offer structure and certainty. Whilst most organisations and their employees have adapted to the new ways of working functionally, it has become blatantly clear how much this new reality lacks the rituals of the status quo ante. Rituals can happen on a large scale, such as regular town hall meetings, awards ceremonies, or social events (summer parties, Christmas drinks). They also happen at a very small scale, such as watercooler moments, “making a cuppa”, celebrating a team’s success.
These rituals create cohesion and are therefore critical to maintain. As the new work reality removes a number of daily routine rituals (the commute to and from work, the tea break, the lunch break, social moments with colleagues) organisations have to maintain these rituals in new ways. For example: asking staff to block out time for lunch or tea breaks, to make sure they don’t work flat out. Encouraging a “fake commute” of a morning walk around the neighbourhood helps teams to start the day. Studies have shown that just completing the acts of a normal working day has a positive impact on employee mental health and productivity.
Similarly, the larger-scale social gatherings are key to organisational cohesion. These can be maintained through regular staff-led updates on topics that are important to the organisation (for example the BLM or Pride movements), as well as social gatherings on digital platforms such as Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts with fun focuses and themes.
As we look to the year ahead, leaders must invest in and enhance their workplace culture. To maintain high performance, culture should be consistent and visible through purpose, communications and rituals that are unique to the brand. In doing so, organisations can navigate the new world of hybrid working with their teams, and flex successfully in the future.