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Companies and their culture generally fall into three categories: the ones who spend a fortune to create and maintain it, those who have all the right documents and words but somehow it just doesn’t quite happen and, finally, those where the culture just kinda, sorta happened and no one is quite sure why or where it came from nor can they really articulate what it is. Regardless of which category you fall into, right now your company culture, in all likelihood, is gone! Never before, and probably never again, will your team members be so split up over such a long period of time. How you – as a leader or manager – behave over the next few weeks will determine your culture going forward.

Maintaining culture

Maintaining a company culture in a distributed team is difficult when it’s planned, intentional and all the right mechanisms are in place. Who had time to set this up (unless you already had a distributed team) before we went into lockdown? Who even knew how to do this? No one! There are guidelines, rules if you will, for maintaining a culture in a distributed team (you can read more about that here). But right now, you aren’t working with a normal distributed team. Right now, you’re working with a team under stress. Regardless of what you company culture is (or was), now it needs to be one of kindness and empathy.

How managers and leaders behave and treat their team over the rest of lockdown will determine the culture people bring back with them when they return to work. Your team are working in extreme situations. They might be sharing very small workspaces with other people. They might have children they are not only taking care of but educating as well. They might have elderly parents to look after. And no one has any external help at the moment. How each unique situation gets understood at the moment, will determine how each individual team member feels post-lockdown. Relationships could get soured or strengthened. It’s up to you! If you mess it up, will you have a bunch of resignations post-lockdown if your team is unhappy? Probably not. The state of the economy will be a reality check for anyone thinking of leaving a job. But what you will have is a group of disgruntled and disengaged people on your hands. And while your company is trying to recover, that’s the last thing you need.

Yes, we’re all under pressure. I’m not for one moment saying that as a leader you have things easy. You’re trying to keep a company or department alive and financially viable. You’re trying to communicate with clients who are feeling very uncertain. You’re also in a state of flux too. But you’re the leader and you need to think about your team and the messengers you’re putting out there. Even if you’ve messed it up so far, it’s ok, there’s time to fix it.

Culture checklist

Think about the following things:

  • Have you taken the time to check in with people individually just to see how they are doing? Are you doing this regularly? And no, this is not and HR function. You need to do it yourself. A quick text message might mean the world to someone who’s feeling lonely.
  • Have you taken the time to understand the outcomes required from each individual? Are you focusing on outcomes-based performance or time-based performance? This is a tough one. Because the only way people can check the time-based performance boxes successfully right now is through video conference or conference calls. Are these all necessary? Or are people just trying to prove they are working by tying everyone up in calls all day? This mindset will be driven from the top! You might need to re-examine your own beliefs.
  • When is the best time for people to make these conference calls? Have you asked? Is there a potential compromise? Which team members are in a better position to make a compromise? A single mom might need some flexibility around working hours, whereas a couple with no kids who each have their own home office might be able to negotiate around what time calls are made. When a leader shows up and makes that compromise, others will follow.
  • A lot of people are feeling very pressured and having high levels of anxiety by the “make your lockdown time productive” movement. Are you making people feel better? Or are you sharing the “Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb during the bubonic plague lockdown, what are you going to do?” memes and making people feel like if they don’t end lockdown speaking German, having read War and Peace and with a new degree, they’re just underachievers. You could be connected to your team members on social media – what messages are you subtlety or unintentionally putting out there?
  • Are you sharing daily motivational messages? I know this might sound very cheesy but it might really help someone who’s feeling down.
  • Have you tried just saying thank you and letting them know that their support during this time is appreciated? Never underestimate how far appreciation goes.

If you focus on creating a culture of kindness and empathy this is what people will carry with them. It’s what you do right now that counts. Think about it and make it intentional. It no longer matters that you threw your team an awesome Christmas party, paid bonuses and everyone got flowers on their birthday. What matters is how you respond and behave right now. Make that count – not whether people learn to speak German