Last week we launched a webinar series designed to support organizations as they navigate a newly transformed business environment. And we couldn’t have asked for a more insightful conversation to kick us off.
In conversation with Quantified CEO Noah Zandan, our panelists shared insights on how their companies’ cultures are evolving in the pandemic, what their new normals may look like on the other side, and how business leaders can both preserve and shape company culture during these unprecedented times. And if there’s one thing everyone agreed on, it’s that we have learned — and are still learning — a lot from this crisis.
- Mark McClain, CEO, SailPoint
- Ethan Burris, Ph.D., Director of Center for Leadership & Ethics, University of Texas at Austin
- Heather Brunner, CEO and Chairwoman, WP Engine
Couldn’t join us for the live webinar? Not to worry — read on for some of the biggest takeaways from the event, and access the full recording free here.
Crisis Reveals Culture
Mark McClain kicked us off with this powerful reminder. “You get to really feel what your culture is all about in the middle of a crisis,” he said, as leaders have to figure out quickly how to be sure everything is moving forward and everyone is equipped and enabled to do their work. This effort brings the culture — and any cracks in it — into sharp focus.
Dr. Burris added that there is a deep sense of grief compounding the chaos. At the University of Texas, he’s watched students grieving their graduations, their rescinded internships and job offers, and the general experience of finishing college or graduate school. And for those who aren’t students, that sense of grief resonates, as well. It’s a process, he said, “of grieving that the work we’ve put in to be successful and be the people that we are is going to look different going forward.”
While nobody is exempt from the challenges COVID-19 has levelled, companies with strong cultures may have been better equipped to manage their collective and individual grief as they’ve transformed their workplaces and, in many cases, their business models.
“The investments we’ve made in culture over the years really paid off,” said McClain, “because the team had a ton of resilience and connectivity that they immediately started leveraging. How are we going to get through this together?”
Defining Culture in Crisis
No matter how strong a company’s culture was in March 2020, leaders must put in a concerted effort to build and maintain culture throughout these unprecedented times. As McClain reminded us, businesses will start to see which cultural cornerstones are still viable, which ones need adapting, and which ones are no longer relevant at all. In order to keep strong company cultures strong — and build up weaker cultures — leaders have to constantly be ready to adapt.
Brunner noted that WP Engine leaders and teams had significantly ramped up their communication and touchpoints as the crisis hit, and they’ve been conducting frequent pulsing, polls, and surveys to understand how employees are feeling, what’s working, and what they can be doing differently. The message they’re sending to employees, she says, is “We’re listening, we hear you, we’re going to act on it.”
And along with adaptability, Brunner said transparency is key right now. “We are telling them the reality and not sugarcoating anything about what’s going on…we’re acting with transparency, role modeling being human, being authentic, telling it like it is.” After all, transparency is the currency of trust, and in these highly uncertain times, employees need to know their leaders are going to be honest with them — not pumping sunshine for the sake of morale, but candidly sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Finally it’s on leaders to create organizational energy to keep the wheels turning during the crisis. To do that, Brunner said, it’s important to keep the four Vs at the forefront: what’s your vision, what are your core values, what does victory look like, and how are you demonstrating vulnerability? “In these times, having that clarity and alignment is such an important way we create that energy in an organization to sustain and maintain your culture.
Facilitating Relationships Remotely
Zandan shared some of the data we’ve been discovering in research and firsthand here at Quantified, which boils down to one fascinating paradox: even though we’re having more meetings and spending more (virtual) time with employees, colleagues, and even customers than ever, people are, on the whole, feeling less included than ever in this time of strictly remote work.
Brunner said WP Engine employees had shared that a big part of that was a lack of opportunities for two-way communication between managers and employees. So they’ve been focusing on ensuring front-line managers have more opportunities for back-and-forth with their employees. They’ve experimented successfully with breakout groups—kicking off a topic all together and then breaking out into small-group discussions on Zoom—to give folks more opportunities to have their voices heard. They’ve also stepped up their internal communications game with town halls dedicated strictly to Q&A with employees. As a result of these efforts, participation in surveys and polls has gone up from 40 to 60 percent up to 80 percent as employees are taking advantage of more opportunities to share their voices.
McClain added that it’s important to remember that, when it comes to virtual communication, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and SailPoint is asking leaders to take the initiative to facilitate small-group and one-on-one discussions to complement the all-hands Zoom meetings that don’t lend themselves as well to interactivity. And, he notes, those connections don’t have to be entirely synchronous.
Finally, both McClain and Brunner discussed the challenge of replicating spontaneous communication over Zoom or Slack. Brunner said she’s been collaborating with senior leaders to identify employees she can reach out to directly and spontaneously to share kudos and congratulate them on great work.
“There’s an old management concept called ‘management by walking around,’ said Dr. Burris, laughing, “and now we have to do management by emailing around.”
Moving Forward After COVID-19
Finally, of course, the panelists shared their answers to the biggest question on everybody’s minds: what’s next?
All three panelists led with the caveat that this is all still in flux, but they agreed that COVID had accelerated trends that were already happening in the industry, and “going back to normal” is just not a practical option. “Does everyone come back the way they were before?” asked McClain. “Almost certainly not.”
He focused on a “hybrid” model. “We’re going to have a lot more mixed kinds of settings, whether that’s mixed communication, local/remote, online offline…” He plans to give employees choices to stay at home “pretty indefinitely” as needed, and he also wants to create options for those who are ready to get back to their desks. But, he says, that’s going to be a very different experience, at least for a while, than it was pre-COVID:
“When we first come back, you won’t be able to hug, hang out for lunch, have a beer. You’ll have your desk again, with a mask on, not near anyone else. It’s going to be kind of a lousy approximation of what the office was before.”
WP Engine is walking the same tightrope between getting back to some semblance of normal and not pushing anybody to come back before they’re ready. In the short term, Brunner said, 70 percent of employees have said they’d like to keep working from home. In the future, 67 percent have requested a mixture of home and office work. They’ll be taking that data — along with variables like job function and location — to determine the right next steps.
“There is no vaccine; there is no time frame yet; this is deadly. [The deadliness of this virus] is very much on the psyche of our employees. At the same time, there is a desire to come back because people love working together and they want to be together.”
Dr. Burris said that, first, strategies have to be based on recommendations from health experts. Second, it’s important to determine what success looks like in different arenas and bring the values of the institution to the forefront in order to prototype different arrangements. But then most important, he said, is taking employee voice into account in order to make better decisions and create more alignment due to active participation.
We want to thank our panelists again for sharing so many incredible insights for leaders on how to guide company culture through these unprecedented times. The ideas in this recap post are just the tip of the iceberg, so we encourage you to download the webinar recording for even more insights and recommendations.
Stay tuned for details about upcoming webinars on leading in this new and evolving world.