At Culture Amp, we often talk about what it means to be a culture first company. Leaders at culture first organizations are thoughtful and deliberate about how they empower and enable their people to do their jobs better, knowing that business success will follow. Although most businesses want the best for their employees, the last few years have made it more difficult to take a culture first approach to leadership.
Many companies have been pushed into the challenging position of trying to do more with less as a result of the pandemic and recent poor economic outlook. Budget cuts, limited headcount, and layoffs are just a few of the harsh realities people and businesses are facing today.
And yet, it’s during times of uncertainty and change that it’s most important for businesses to keep their employees at the heart of everything they do. Your people are what will ultimately determine how quickly your company can pivot and stay afloat. Motivating, engaging, and prioritizing your employees will help your organization navigate the unexpected, push through challenges, and find innovative solutions.
In this article, we’ll explore how to treat your people well in challenging economic times. Even when resources are limited, your business can adapt your culture and continue building a culture first environment focused on communication, empathy, connection, and development by following these four practices:
Four ways to stay culture first in a challenging economy
1. Maintain constant communication
The first aspect of company culture to erode during tough times is often transparency. It may feel more compassionate and less anxiety-inducing to keep business challenges on the down low, but this (perceived) secrecy can backfire. When employees feel like they’re being left out of the loop, they may create and latch onto their own narratives around possible layoffs, shifting responsibilities, organizational chart changes, and other uncertainties.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety, so consider bringing your employees into the conversation early on, before irreparable damage is done. A lack of communication can harm productivity and motivation while reducing employee trust. Follow these two tips to stay ahead of misinformation and maintain employee support:
Share essential information with employees as soon as possible: Remove any ambiguity by sharing critical information as soon as you’re able to. By providing people with a clear understanding of organizational changes and how and why priorities are shifting, you will help employees feel less anxious about impending changes.
Tell employees what you don’t know and what you’re doing to figure it out: Leaders are not all-knowing. It’s ok to admit that some things are uncertain or even out of your control – like the pandemic or recession, for example. What separates a good leader from a great one is a willingness to openly acknowledge this information.
Explain to employees how you plan to close these knowledge gaps and how you might respond as the situation evolves. Your honesty will give employees the context they need to understand what’s happening around them, and how potential changes could affect them.
“Employees are looking for you to be in control of the situation. A lot of leaders are afraid of getting called out on something they don’t know the answer to or being unprepared, so it helps to get ahead of employee questions rather than reacting when someone asks,” explains Dr. Kenneth Matos, Culture Amp’s Global Director of People Science. “Employees get that there's a lot going on. They’re just looking for you to say, ‘This is what we’re considering. We have these various plans in motion to address this. We'll see how it plays out.’ That’s helpful for people to hear.”
2. Keep leaders connected to employee feedback
Culture Amp has found that as managers move up the ranks, they get increasingly separated from employee feedback. This means leaders often don't realize that something is brewing among their employees until it’s too late. That’s one of the reasons why we recommend that people leaders regularly gather data and feedback from employees and share these insights with managers and senior leaders.
Establishing clear and continuous feedback mechanisms not only helps your managers stay abreast of employee concerns and needs, but also shows your people that your business genuinely cares about them. Listening to and addressing employee feedback can help managers boost both employee trust and confidence.
However, be cautious of collecting feedback if you don’t have any plan to take action on it. Employees may feel like they’ve shared their genuine feelings, only to have leadership disregard their input. This can undermine the efficacy of your feedback process and be detrimental to workplace morale.
While you likely won’t be able to give your employees everything they want, you can and should use the information you collect to acknowledge their experiences and frame your actions around their stated needs. Doing so will create critical alignment, build trust, and foster the commitment that is necessary to keep your employees engaged during good times and bad.
3. Show solidarity with employees
Tough times can cause an “us vs. them” mentality to develop between employees and senior leaders. Employees rightfully get frustrated when decisions are made without their input or knowledge, and if not handled properly, these feelings can snowball and create feelings of resentment that persist long after the problem has been solved.
So, how can you stop this snowball in its tracks? First, get comfortable being vulnerable with your employees. Let them know that they aren’t the only ones affected by the current climate and that you’re in this together. It’s important to show that leaders have had to make sacrifices too, whether that’s working long hours, taking a pay cut, traveling less, etc. This shared sacrifice – assuming that there is one – helps employees understand that they aren’t alone, and that executives and leaders are fighting alongside them.
“Shared sacrifice makes facing hard choices a lot easier. When leaders are also hit by what the organization is struggling with, employees see themselves as one team working together to accomplish something,” says Matos. “On the other hand, when the burden of sacrifice sits with only one group, that builds resentment that will stay long after the problem is gone. It's important for leaders to make sure they're part of the sacrifices that need to be made.”
At the same time, don’t overstate leaders’ sacrifices, as this can come off as inconsiderate. As people who are higher up the corporate ladder, leaders often have higher pay and more job security. Creating solidarity is important for any culture first company going through challenging times, but so is recognizing that inequities exist, and that the same events affect different people differently.
4. Keep employee development a top priority
Regardless of what’s going on in the world, employee development remains a strong driver of employee retention and engagement. As a matter of fact, Culture Amp’s people science team found that development is the top reason people join – and leave – a company. Moreover, development is an aspect of the employee experience that your business can invest in, even with limited resources. In times of economic uncertainty, employees are especially eager for job security. If your business can show it’s invested in employees’ careers, these individuals will feel safer in their current roles, or at the very least, more confident that they have the skills needed to find another job quickly.
“Development is a pretty constant driver of retention. Employees always want to be planning for their future. I think we moved away from the idea of job security, or ‘Can I stay in this role forever?’ toward career security, or ‘Can I stay employable?,’” shares Matos. “Today’s employees are much more accepting of the fact that they might be laid off. They just want to believe that if you do, they can find another job.”
Professional development can also be a way to raise morale after periods of great change. The silver lining of these moments is that they give your business a moment to pause, rethink priorities, and remove redundancy. If an employee’s work is repetitive or has become unnecessary, you can redistribute work to give them an opportunity to try new things and develop new and existing skills. Just be careful that you aren’t asking employees to do more with less, as this can quickly lead to burnout and low morale.
“If you do find yourself having to layoff employees, redistribute your work. Try to give people developmental opportunities by letting them do something they haven't always done, rather than keep them trapped in the pigeonhole of repeating the one thing they've mastered,” urges Matos. “Otherwise,” he adds, “They'll come to hate their jobs because they’re so redundant and repetitive.”
Proactively offering on-the-job development opportunities shows your employees that your company cares about them and their future. That feeling of being connected to something greater than oneself can help drive employees loyalty, even in the most difficult of times.
Culture first through good and bad
When your company falls on hard times, remind yourself that employees don’t expect perfection. They don’t expect you to have all the answers. That said, in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, it’s especially important to listen, communicate clearly, show solidarity, and demonstrate that you value your employees.
Being culture first is all about doing what’s best for your people – a goal post that is constantly shifting. Your job as a leader is to bring your employees along on this journey. Convey to them the challenges your organization is facing, your options, and how you're planning to move forward. That alone can empower your employees to ride out both the good times and the bad with your business.