Five ways your culture can return stronger in 2021


December 2020

Doug Hewett

We’re having so many great conversations right now – with current clients and others out there asking for our advice. So here’s a quick fire list of the five things we keep coming back to across all those conversations…

1. Build opportunity into necessity

There’s a bunch of stuff that every culture will need to think about in 2021 – from returning to the office to avoiding burnout and death by zoom. But rather than being bound by the norms that you’re already within (and trying to answer to those needs), see it as an opportunity to re-design the target culture that you need. Too many return to office strategies are emerging that aren’t connected to the wider company purpose, values and behaviours, or even the customer proposition. See this as a once in a generation opportunity to rewire the culture in a way that answers to your long-term business strategy.

2. Check your say – do’ gap

One of the simplest litmus tests of your culture – at every level you should be able to analyse what you say’ or promise, and then what you do’ or deliver against that promise. Get granular, deconstruct your values, behaviours and your purpose against it. Be the harshest critic that you can be – throw rocks at it. Then see it from different perspectives – take any number of talent segments and put yourself in their shoes. Think about it from their employee (and candidate) experience. Be honest – and then you have two choices: 1) revise your promise and expectations (the say’) or 2) make good on your promise and invest in change.

3. Commit to design, not default

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, nothing comes easy. The same is true with culture – the best are made by design, and the worst are shaped by default. Committing to culture isn’t difficult, but it does take some rigour and process. We often suggest breaking your culture priorities down into five workstreams each year (e.g. Leadership development, or becoming more actively inclusive as a culture) and then working in 3 monthly sprints’ with clear aims and objectives around impact. This brings clarity, clear outcomes, and milestones to check progress, learn from mistakes, and recognise success (something that gets forgotten too often). If it’s not a razor sharp programme with clear markers, you’re running a marathon without a plan, and that’s never going to work out well.

4. Focus on belonging and connection

We humans are sociable beings. We need meaning to be part of a community and to feel valued. The best company cultures allow room for all of these – a place where you feel a sense of belonging to the work you do and the people around you. But in 2020, company culture for most people was narrow and about a smaller circle of people than ever before. The bigger company culture’ was more conceptual and elusive than ever – an enigma. Left unchecked, this erodes belonging and connection. That’s where there’s an opportunity – for leaders to be more visible, and deliberate, than ever. With increased leadership access comes a bigger responsibility to role model the culture and be the connector’ across the divide. Through strong messaging, timely recognition, and rapid knowledge transfer, leaders at every level can knit cultures back together in a way unlike ever before.

5. Prioritise what’s right for you (and ignore what others are doing)

Put simply, it’s not about being the best employer, it’s about having the right culture. Anyone can follow a playbook and become a great place to work’ – but that won’t deliver on your distinct purpose, brand or business strategy. You might attract great talent, but will they thrive in your culture, or worse still, erode the culture that you have? We tend to say that your EVP (Employee Value Proposition) is as much about setting expectations as attracting or retaining great talent. The what it takes to work here’ rather than the this is why it’s great to work here’. By shaping your culture around non-negotiables, and setting clear expectations of what’s needed (and the kind of person that will thrive here) you’ll reinforce your culture, and repel talent that you might have hired and then lost anyway.