How to Maintain Company Culture in Times of Change

August 7, 2020

HR is at the heart of a business’s response to major changes, whether it’s a merger, a new CEO, or a pandemic. As the initial flurry of emotions dies down, it’s important to turn your attention back to something else that’s at the core of your organization: company culture

Many things may need to take a backseat during a big change—the company picnic, your plans to expand to the building next door, those new positions you wanted to advertise––as you reexamine expenditures, adjust your strategy for the present and plan for the future. However, company culture is not one of the things you should push to the side. Maintaining organizational culture and focusing on your values will provide needed support for your employees so they can stay engaged.

Hear what HR experts say about maintaining company culture during times of change.
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Build a Resilient Company Culture on Your Values

Company culture is the sum of all that you and your colleagues think, say, and do as you work together. It reflects both the written and unwritten rules that people follow. Even if an organization does nothing, a workplace culture will develop. This means that the first step to maintaining company culture when times get tough is to purposefully build it on the right foundation—your values—and keep reinforcing it.

As Ben Peterson, co-founder of BambooHR, explains, “The values you define for your organization will mean nothing if you don’t intertwine them into everyday work. Otherwise, your culture will evolve on its own, and whether it continues to match your values or not will be a tossup.” And we know this is true from research BambooHR has done on culture, which identified company values as the top characteristic that enhances company culture.

Adapt and Stay Flexible

But what if your new circumstances make it impossible to keep some of the culture initiatives you had before? How does company culture stay connected to your values if it has to change, too? While your values won’t necessarily change, the way your culture manifests itself may not be able to stay exactly the same in the wake of a crisis, and that’s okay.

Changing your culture initiatives and programs isn’t a sign that you’ve failed at keeping your company culture grounded in your values. It just means you’ve adapted how you reinforce your values through your culture.

Example: You Can’t Quarantine the Welcome Wagon

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, remote work doubled from 31 percent in mid-March to 62 percent of employed adults in mid-April. BambooHR has likewise shifted the majority of its workforce to be remote, which poses a range of challenges for every team.

Specifically, the HR team has had to make dramatic changes to how they welcome new hires. Rather than relying on their usual in-person, in-office welcome that had helped new employees feel integrated in their team and in the organization, the recruiting team at BambooHR had to switch to remote onboarding. In addition, the first new hire to go through the 100 percent remote onboarding experience also posed a unique challenge because they had recently returned from a possible pandemic hotspot and couldn’t even come pick up their equipment as they were in self-quarantine for 14 days.

The recruiting team decided that making new hires feel welcome and ready to do their job didn’t have to be limited to the in-office experience. The friendly, open culture at BambooHR could be translated to this situation with some ingenuity and a few balloons. The team dropped off the new hire’s equipment to their home, a touchless solution which helped the new hire adhere to health and safety protocols. The team also decorated the package with a handwritten welcome sign, showing the new hire just how excited the team was to have them and making it possible for the new hire to start feeling engaged right away.

Want more tips on adapting your culture during difficult times? Let our HR pros tell you how.

Keep Your People at #1

In an article on adapting to remote HR work, Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at BambooHR, discusses how easy it can be to let the initial shock and deluge of new tasks override HR’s focus on people. “When you’re in crisis mode,” she says, “it’s easy to focus on to-do lists and transactional tasks. That type of work seems very manageable, and it’s comforting to feel like you’re checking boxes.”

But you can’t stay in crisis mode forever. Employees need HR to keep managing organizational culture with employee-centered initiatives. As Cassie puts it, “It’s important for HR to take this opportunity to broaden their mindset. If there’s ever been a time to prioritize relationships and ‘people work,’ it’s now.”

Under normal circumstances, employees already feel strongly that employee-focused initiatives support company culture. In the same survey that ranked company values as the top characteristic that enhances company culture, respondents also ranked regular communication, company benefits, and employee rewards and recognition as the next three most important things that enhance culture. It’s all the more important to strengthen those aspects of your company culture during times of change.

Communication: Do It Often and Be Open

It’s always important to be open with employees. Consistent communication is one of the ways that you can build a transparent work culture, fostering trust in the organization and in leadership’s decisions. It’s even more important, then, to be open and consistent when your business is going through a major change or facing challenges.

Obviously, HR can’t remove all anxiety from employees’ lives. You can be the culture and employee advocate in the room, but it’s not just up to HR what decisions do or don’t get made. And while you should keep employees up to date on relevant developments, like office closures, timelines for proposed changes, and possible pay cuts, suddenly flooding them with all the details of every meeting you or the leadership team has isn’t the right answer, either.

Information overload isn’t going to make them feel more secure. And that should be the goal of communication during times of change—maintaining company culture by managing employee emotions.

In a webinar on company culture in times of change, our director of HR, Cassie, gives some pointers for how communication can support culture. She says that it’s about communicating in a way “that you’re working through the human interactions, you’re walking people through emotions, and you’re acknowledging those realities.” She advises HR to step back, think about the intent of each message, and consider how it will be received, with questions like:

  • When employees get done reading this, what do I want them to feel?
  • What several emotions do I need to manage with this communication?
  • How will we need to manage change together?

HR can set up a consistent framework for communication that helps employees navigate the stress of the unknown.

Benefits: Get Creative and Help Employees Get the Resources They Need

We’re not suggesting that you overhaul your organization’s benefits program during a crisis. Preparing benefits is a huge undertaking under normal circumstances—it might not be wise to introduce more financial and strategic uncertainty under difficult circumstances (though, if a change is needed, we have some suggestions for the best employees benefits). Instead, think of how you can use or adapt the resources you already have to improve employee well-being during stressful times.

Here are some ways to build greater employee support with small tweaks to your benefits and perks:

  • Allow employees to work remotely. Many surveys show remote work helps employees reduce stress, be more productive, and have a better work-life balance.
  • Encourage employees to take their paid time off (PTO). Taking time off helps employees recharge and be more productive. Having an “all hands on deck, now and forever” mentality will just burn out all your people. You also need to couple this message with reassurances that taking time off won’t jeopardize people’s jobs.
  • Model good mental health and self care. As with any behavior that you want your employees to internalize as part of the company culture, this has to be a top-down, organization-wide attitude. Work with leadership and managers on managing their own stress and how to be good mental health role models.
  • Educate employees about the help they have access to. Whatever you already have, let people know about it, from particular covered services in their health insurance plans, like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), to meditation rooms in your office. These can reduce stress, help employees cope, or in the case of the EAP, give employees someone to turn to when they need professional counseling.
  • Find new ways to reduce stress and foster happy, healthy workplace relationships. It won’t cost you money to host virtual meet-ups, like game time or chats during lunch, and while nobody likes to add more meetings to their calendar, creating more opportunities for managers to talk to and listen to their teams with daily stand-ups or weekly check-ins can help boost employee morale. These small, informal meetings give teams a set time to come together while helping managers keep a close eye on their team’s well-being.
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Recognition: Train Up Culture Champions

Rewards and recognition are other crucial forms of organizational communication. Recognition is key in keeping up employee engagement and productivity, both of which might take a hit during a crisis. The good news is that meaningful recognition doesn’t have to necessarily come from the CEO every time, and it doesn’t have to be very expensive, either.

Gallup reports that the most memorable recognition comes from managers, and while money certainly is on the list, it’s not the only memorable type of recognition. Respondents also mentioned the following options:

  • Public commendation
  • Private recognition
  • High achievement on reviews and evaluations

As Cassie puts it, HR’s job is to maintain company culture at the company level; managers do the same thing but at the employee level, which is exactly what you need to make employee recognition work. So if you’re looking to motivate your employees during a difficult time, you should be training your managers to be culture champions and to recognize and celebrate their team’s achievements.

Managing Company Culture Means Helping People Do Their Best Work

A supportive, resilient company culture can help your organization weather the storms that will come, and HR plays a pivotal role as the culture and people experts. Leadership and employees will turn to you for help navigating the uncertainties that come with big changes or a crisis, and by maintaining company culture, you’ll help give them a sense of purpose and continuity by focusing on the company’s values, mission, and vision.

Even if the company culture has to adjust in the face of new circumstances, transparent communication, supportive resources, and recognition of employee efforts will help everyone stay confident in the organization and in the future.

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Marie-Reine Pugh

Marie-Reine Pugh is focused on making HR simpler for HR professionals and workplaces a better place for everyone. She pulls from her previous experiences as an educator and six years of writing and researching to explore how to create inclusive company cultures that help businesses succeed.