Incubating culture in a time of corona

Posted in Employee Events on 15 May 2020 By Victoria Sugg, Group Business Development Director

This seventh session in Emperor’s ‘Keeping communications out of lockdown’ series was hosted by Darryl Mead, Head of Employee Experience and Kirsty Bashforth, founder and CEO at QuayFive and author of ‘Culture Shift: A Practical Guide to Managing Organisational Culture’. 

Culture has shifted from being HR-led to a more joined-up system, with involvement from the C-suite allowing for a more strategic approach. Ultimately, a business’s culture is a competitive advantage.

The session placed organisational culture at the top of the board’s agenda, offering tips for both now and the future, when we emerge from the current pandemic to a changed world.

1. People and culture at the core

We have seen enormous change since the beginning of the year and this is having a huge impact on companies. In the past, some organisations may well have stated they had a people-first approach but their actions didn’t match up. Now, however, culture is a priority for every CEO, with a shift from ‘people-first’ in parenthesis to people-first in reality. 

Culture centres around identity and belonging and embodies the traits a business needs in order to deliver it’s strategy. Taking a step back, given the current pandemic, businesses are focused on the shelter and safety of their employees, asking the question: 

“How safe is it for people to work and how do we keep our people going?”

No one has been left unaffected by COVID-19 and no individual or organisation has been impacted in the same way, with a tsunami of issues emerging for organisations to deal with:


Number of people 


Work environment

Health and wellbeing



Ways of working

2. Culture as a risk

Looking at board preparedness, 80% of FTSE 350 December year-end annual reports have identified COVID-19 as a risk. But alongside this, culture, and the impact of COVID-19 on culture, should also be considered as a risk.

In many cases, frailties have been exposed in leadership, cultural traits and preparedness. We have seen some organisations jump straight into business continuity but with plans that are functional and do not ensure a productive workforce for six weeks or longer. 

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, ESG (environmental, social and governance) was on the front of everyone’s lips but the variety of definitions and understanding of ESG ranged widely. Some saw it as climate-related, whereas others labelled it a fad. What we are now seeing is the social and governance elements of ESG in full flow, with culture running through the middle of them.

On the social side of things, for example, we’ve seen PZ Cussons struggling to keep up with the demand for Carex handwash and working with some of the communities in which they operate to deliver.

On the governance side of things, some companies are being asked to provide guidance on their full year results, which is impossible for any business. With companies unable to hold an annual general meeting in the normal way, stakeholders are potentially losing their voice. But even when getting things done in a rush and in the face of adversity it is integral they are done properly.

3. Managing culture and communication

There are three important angles to consider when managing culture:

  • Strategy: What do I say? How do I line things up? What goes on our website and in the annual report?

  • Social: How do people really get work done? Who do they turn to when they need advice? What are their networks, communities, habits, norms? Are they what you say on the tin?

  • Political: Who is really making the decisions? Who is influencing those decisions? How are they done? Are they documented?

Ask yourself if your business is behaving to fulfil and underpin the culture you say you want, have and need. 

The whole system, every little bit of it, has to be carefully tuned so it works together as the company’s engine; make sure you break down any silos and join up different departments.

We need to see effort and responsibility from leadership, processes and systems need to be lined up to deliver culture and avoid roadblocks, while people need to be recognised for the good being done throughout the organisation.

However, it is important to focus on those you can influence - one third of your employees may want to be engaged, a third might retreat in crisis or change and may become disruptive, whilst a third will likely remain silent, waiting for direction. Active listening is key here, gathering feedback and getting ready to respond quickly and take action.

Amid the difficulty, we are seeing some business leaders step up on culture. James Timpson, Chief Executive at Timpson Group takes an open approach to communicating with his colleagues through regular and honest updates through his Twitter account. The CEO of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson has written an open letter to all partners of the business on their website and Stewart Butterfield, CEO at Twitter, has created a Twitter thread to share the impact COVID-19 has had on the business. What is important here is that we think ahead and manage our message.

When it comes to talking about culture, we need to look at the whole system from the top, with consistent and repeated messaging.

4. Looking back but thinking beyond

We are not going to be stuck where we are forever; things will shift as they have in the last two months. The focus for businesses will change to thinking beyond the crisis.

Cultures are not static. It’s important to learn lessons from the past - businesses may have shifted towards a greater sense of care, but how long will this last?

Right now, there is unprecedented expectation around how business should act. Societal and community focus is high, and some businesses are shifting to become more purposeful. We’ve seen pressure on leaders to take on more pain than their employees and, if not, they are being asked, why not? 

The likes of F1, Airbus and Rolls Royce are stepping away from their core business to make use of what they have in order to produce ventilators; while Giff Gaff are leaning in towards their mission and purpose by launching a ‘goodybag’ initiative where customers can purchase additional minutes, text and data to donate to another customer. People like to rally behind a cause and this allows their customers to feel part of their culture.

As a society, we will look back at this period and point fingers at who did what right and who did what wrong and why.

Now is the time to work towards the narrative that you want to hear about your organisation in the future.

Culture for crisis vs culture for recovery

Culture for recovery or growth may not be the same as culture in a crisis. The traits of your culture may need to shift as you move through one into the other.

An elastic band, stretched for long enough, will not go back to its original shape. How, where and when we work will shift. People are social and some people like to be where the boss is so we will likely see a real divide in the workforce and workplace. We need to evaluate what is working now that will work in the future.

Does culture eat strategy for lunch? No, they are equal partners. You cannot deliver the strategy you need without the culture to underpin it because businesses are driven by people. The way you work, act, think, make decisions and the perceptions you have all feed into your strategy. One without the other means you won't be what you need.

As we emerge from this pandemic, think about what new models, markets and opportunities are appropriate for your organisation and then think about how you might need to adapt your culture. This will feed into your employee value proposition as the whole employee experience has changed - including the type of people you attract.

People drive the success of a business and, now more than ever, culture has to be at the top of the board agenda.

If you would like to discuss the challenges around corporate culture or your ambitions for the future, get in contact at [email protected].


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