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“Human beings are the most complex components in any business.”

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​Derek Bishop is the Director of Culture Consultancy - experts in business culture, they work with leadership teams of global organisations to deliver sustainable performance improvements.

Derek has over twenty years’ experience leading people and delivering results for businesses. As an expert on culture change, our co-founder Leon spoke to Derek about the importance of good leadership and nurturing company culture as businesses attempt to return to normal.

How have company cultures changed during lockdown?

“It’s fair to say that there has been a huge range of experiences,” Derek says. “There were businesses in February saying that they couldn’t do remote working, that they don’t have the level of trust with their people, and they cannot effectively manage performance.” This was what a lot of businesses believed, and yet several weeks into lockdown they are finding that remote working is actually working well for them, and they are reducing the amount of time staff must spend in the office. Derek also noticed that an ‘unexpected bonus’ of remote working was that things such as internal politics were removed from people’s work, and they were able to focus on a common goal.

Derek points out the opposite end of the spectrum – companies where micro-management has kicked in, or the business doesn’t have the right performance management systems in place. “Some companies are also struggling to have the empathetic conversations with their people.” Derek observes.

“All the experiences tend to fall into three main categories” Derek goes on to say. The first, where culture has remained true to the mission of the company. The second, where a negative cultural drift has begun to happen and bad habits have begun to creep in. And the third, where a positive cultural shift has happened, where people are bringing new attributes to the table – a new agility, new ideas, and a new form of productivity.

Derek gave a session to business leaders a few weeks into lockdown, and found that 57% said that their culture had remained strong, only 9% said that they had the cultural drift, and 34% said that they were seeing new attributes from their teams that were largely positive.

“The key thing is that you need to understand what’s actually happened in your business, because as business leaders we might think that it’s all great, and there’s been good stuff that the culture has fuelled. But our people may be thinking something slightly different.” Derek explains. “We need to make sure that our people think and feel the same way. I would really encourage leaders to understand their staff perspective. That’s really critical.”

What are the risks to company culture?

Derek believes that the businesses that see negative traits emerging in their culture should address them as soon as possible. “You absolutely need to address that,” he advises, “if you allow that to continue to drift, then you’re going to end up with multiple, unintentional cultures, and that is actually really going to hinder your performance and productivity.”

Culture makes up 20-30% of your difference in business performance, and therefore business leaders should really be making the most of their businesses culture and nurturing it, tapping into the opportunity to improve performance.

There are so many mixed emotions and feelings within teams at the moment – furloughed staff returning to work, some people who really struggled to adjust to working from home – it is imperative to be reinforcing the company’s culture, whether that be the same culture that you had before, or a new and improved culture that harnesses the new attributes and behaviours that will benefit the business.

“If you’re not paying attention, then you are going to miss out on a performance opportunity, and if you’re pivoting the business or looking to launch new product, that will be harder unless you really focus on the cultural dynamics within your teams.” Says Derek.

How can business leaders nurture their company’s culture and engage their teams?

In the situations where your company culture has improved during all of this, recognise it and celebrate it. Use it as an opportunity to reinforce how your values drive the way that you do things. Recognise people for their individual contributions, not just in terms of results or outcomes. “It has been a tough period for people, and may continue to be, so celebrate the good stuff,” advises Derek.

If you are having a cultural drift within your teams, make sure that your people understand what your values are and they are engaged with them, and then do exercises to identify the gaps between how you are currently doing things and your company’s values, especially if your business is going to continue with remote working. What do you need to do to address those gaps, and bring everything back into line? “A pro-active approach is key,” Derek says.

If you have spotted new behaviours and attributes within your teams, do an exercise with your people identifying these attributes, what benefits you have seen, what impact it has had on customers and clients, what impact it has had internally, and what might your team need more of in the future?

“Particularly if you are looking at new propositions, pivoting your business, or introducing a new working model such as remote working - what sort of attributes and behaviours do you need? What impact has this had on customers, suppliers, colleagues, partners? This gives you perspective on what behaviours are making the most difference and what you need to make the most off. This gives you the input to redefine what your culture is going forward. Culture should always be future focused.”

There has never been a better to sit back and reflect about where your company’s culture is, and where you want it to be.

What are the risks and challenges to a business and its culture as people begin to return to work?

“I see this as potential for cultural disruption,” says Derek. “Every individual staff member’s experience over the past few weeks will have been different, based on their own personal views and experiences. Some of these experiences will have changed their mindset, expectations, and behaviours.”

Some staff members will not behave in the same way that they did before lockdown, and it’s important that businesses do not just assume that their staff are going to come back into the office and pick up exactly where they left off. You need to pay attention to the journey that people have gone through over the last few months. Where some people will be jumping to get back into the workplace, others will be more hesitant because of ongoing personal challenges such as home-schooling or caring for vulnerable relatives.

Staff will bring those challenges and stresses with them, with their own perspective as to what is a reasonable expectation of them from the business. This means that even if your business has a strong culture, these different dynamics and mindsets could cause disruption when people come back into the workplace.

The importance of strong, empathetic, and open leadership.

Staff may question some of the decisions that have been made over the past few months, and what the future looks like – especially if these decisions have impacted themselves or their colleagues. Business leaders should be aware of the emotional side of a return to normal, as emotions will drive people’s behaviours.

“We need to be really empathetic to every individual, because if we apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, then it will not work and you will end up with lower productivity, you’ll potentially have more issues around engagement, more sickness issues… all these individual things need to be considered by leaders and managers to make sure that people re-engage with the business,” Derek advises.

Things are going to keep on changing, too. The future is far from certain, there are a lot of variables and therefore leaders must use their judgement. Whereas the rules surrounding lockdown and work were clear and strict, these are going to become less clear over the coming months and more open to interpretation. By not providing strong, empathetic leadership by listening, understanding, and giving the team common goals to work towards, then the dynamic may become disruptive and the business could suffer.

“People want to know what’s changed and why,” Derek explains, “especially the ‘why?’” Your staff will want to understand the rationale behind these decisions. Also be clear about what is expected of them - perhaps there are new ways of managing performance and internal communication, or new expected behaviours.” Create a re-engagement plan, including what support you are going to give your employees, and be prepared to re-enforce these lessons and have open lines of communication between management and employees.

“For me, direction, principles, and communication are the foundation, but managers are the ones that will really make a difference here. We need our managers to play that pivotal role in re-engagement and re-onboarding, and they will need to lead our people through those difficulties.” Do your managers have all the right skills, tools, and confidence to effectively lead this transition phase? Are they prepared to have difficult conversations? You may need to provide support and training to your managers, so that they can effectively lead through difficult times.

“In summary, I would say that human beings are the most complex component in any business,” Derek points out. “Because of the diversity in perspective, views, opinions, behaviours, and attitudes, and what has happened the last few weeks will fuel a new set of emotions and challenges. Think human, and think about the empathetic, exemplary leadership that we need to provide. We owe it to our people to provide them with really strong leadership, but it needs to be empathetic.”

You can listen to the full podcast here.