Preserving Your Culture in an Unpredictable World

Whether it’s the unexpected departure of a key leader or team member, an unforeseen merger or acquisition, or even a global pandemic, every organisation will have to deal with unanticipated change at some point. We all know this well, having shifted our ways of working significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business leaders around the world had to quickly abandon traditional practices and send employees home to work– with no return date in sight. Changes like this – changes of any kind for that matter – can affect your organisational culture.

While it may seem manageable to maintain your culture when things are going smoothly, it’s an entirely different story when there are major shifts impacting your business and your people. As a leader, what can you do to adapt your culture – or sustain the positive elements of it – when an external force changes your business?

To find out how leaders responded to this challenge during the pandemic, we spoke with Chief People Leads within the transportation and media, entertainment, and communications (MEC) industries, including Ian Hampton, Chief People, Communications & Fleet Operations Officer at Stena Line. We asked how mandated remote work impacted their organisations’ cultural identity, what they’ve done to evolve their culture during this time of change, and how they plan to adapt their culture going forward – whether in a fully remote, office, or hybrid work setting.

Here’s what we heard:

Intentionality is of utmost importance. While some organisations viewed the pandemic as an inhibitor to growth, others we spoke with said it was an opportunity to progress more quickly along their culture transformation journeys. The latter group explained that it prompted them to be more intentional about embedding their core values into the mindsets and behaviours of every employee. They felt it was an opportunity to shape their cultures more deliberately.

  • Key learning: Culture – which includes attitudes, values, and beliefs reflected in ways of behaving and working – is not something that can be created overnight. It requires a deliberate process where leaders and employees regularly evaluate what components of culture  add value to the organisation and which elements need to be adapted. Bringing intentionality to the process of shaping your culture is well worth it. Based on our experience, and those documented in multiple studies, organisations that proactively and purposefully focus on their culture outperform others by driving employee mindsets and behaviors in support of change.

Psychological contracts help organisations stay people-centric. Every employee enters into a psychological contract with their employer the day they join the company. These are agreements consisting of unwritten expectations, informal arrangements, and common ground – all of which are essential to the employee-employer relationship. What role did psychological contracts play in the midst of COVID-19-mandated remote working? One leader we spoke with explained that the contracts served as a source of reassurance to employees during the pandemic. How? By creating a new expectation of more frequent communication between leaders and employees. Specifically, they shared that it became common practice for employees and managers to meet more regularly in a one-on-one setting – a simple shift that allowed leaders throughout the organisation to build better relationships with employees. On the other hand, the organisations that did not make a point to effectively manage psychological contracts during this time of significant change said friction permeated their culture. This came in the form of misalignment around agreed upon working hours and ambiguity related to future working locations.

  • Key learning: Maintaining psychological contracts is crucial in the face of change and uncertainty. That’s because, during those moments, employees can look to the contracts – which form the basis of their relationship with the organisation – to mitigate their fears and find a sense of calm in the chaos. Leaders and managers should prioritise talking about psychological contracts to determine how these agreements can be adapted over time to benefit the organisation, and importantly, the individuals within it. According to the World Economic Forum, soft skills like empathy, trust, and curiosity that help support those conversations around psychological contracts will serve as key differentiators in the marketplace going forward.

Boundaries must be protected. A recent study found that 47 percent of individuals say they’ve experienced burnout since March 2020. That’s largely because for many, the boundaries between work and life vanished almost overnight due to COVID-19 mandated remote working. Hours spent on the computer increased, breaks throughout the day decreased, and the pressure to perform in a new remote setting escalated – all negatively impacting employee well-being, and subsequently, damaging organisational culture. When speaking with the Chief People Leads about how they overcame this challenge, many cited the importance of practicing empathy to re-establish boundaries. They remarked that being empathetic is “about [having] mutual respect for each other.” They noted the importance of creating time and space for employees to engage with others and have open and honest conversations to help maintain boundaries, build trust and manage mutual expectations.

  • Key learning: Leading with empathy plays a pivotal role in helping employees transition successfully through change. It allows leaders to create genuine, people-centric relationships and sustain a culture of care – the kind of culture that makes space for flexibility in working styles and creates opportunities for real human connection, even in a virtual setting. Empathy allows leaders to see the individuals within their organisation as people first, and employees second.

All working environments must cultivate team affinity and psychological safety. A physical office space once played a significant role in enabling employees to connect, build relationships, and collaborate. The leaders we spoke with noted that it’s been challenging trying to recreate these conditions virtually. One explained that creative, strategic discussions with flowing conversation are harder to achieve through technology. Another expressed fear that virtual collaboration software could negatively impact psychological safety – which drives innovation, learning agility, and productivity – since some employees may feel uncomfortable raising questions and concerns or sharing ideas in that setting. It will be critical to overcome these challenges, as nearly half of employees are likely to continue to work remotely at least part-time going forward.

  • Key learning: Psychological safety will continue to play a significant role in determining whether employees feel supported through times of change. The level of support they feel will influence the loyalty they show their organisation. With this in mind, during times of transition, it’s critical to be honest and open about what went well and what needs to be done differently to support employees through change. To ensure you’re creating an environment of psychological safety and encouraging team affinity, leaders must value and reward calculated risk-taking, allowing employees to experiment safely, even in a virtual working environment. They must position work as a place where it’s safe to learn and grow. These messages must be consistent and reinforced frequently. Leaders must also ensure that every voice is heard in a virtual room – from every group of employees – to prioritise inclusion and enhance engagement.  Employees should intentionally seek input from other team members and make an effort to actively participate in conversations, in the channel or forum where they can best contribute. Perhaps that is speaking up during a meeting or offering up an idea via message or chat.

There is no doubt that unexpected change will impact your organisation – it’s just a part of the game. Being able to deal with the unexpected is essential for success. By putting these key learnings into action, you’ll be well positioned to adapt quickly and protect – or evolve, if needed – your organisational culture to flow with the tides of change. Only then can you turn unanticipated change into an unforeseen opportunity.  

This blog was authored in partnership with Ian Hampton, Chief People, Communications and Fleet Operations Officer at Stena Line.