If you’ve been in a strategy session over the past few weeks that has focused on where your business can trim back costs in the new year, you’re far from alone. Budget planning for 2022 has largely consisted of how businesses can continue to operate while being very conservative in what they spend.
This invariably leads to a conversation about people, as staff are generally a business’s largest cost centre. Which is where things start to go wrong. The traditional focus on the bottom line and cost-cutting wasn’t working before this pandemic, and Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on how a profit-focused strategy won’t carry businesses through a crisis either.
I have always been of the belief that people shouldn’t be seen as a cost. When people are listed as expenses on the balance sheet, they feel it – they see themselves as any other overhead that can be trimmed or cut when necessary. And of course, the slew of retrenchments over the past year has proven them right.
When your people don’t have a reason to believe in you, the leadership team, the business or in your purpose, commitment, loyalty and customer service will slip fast and furiously. Instead of looking for ways to trim back when it comes to your people, I propose that now is the time to spend money, not save it. Invest in your people and greater revenue and profits will be just one of the rewards you will reap in 2022.
Put culture at the centre of your strategy
The foundation of Cultureneering, which is the business methodology I have developed over four decades of building successful businesses, is that culture lies at the heart of everything a business does. The number one priority of culture-driven leaders is earning the trust and moral authority to lead their people, followed by creating a working environment built on mutual respect.
When people feel cared for, when they believe in what the company stands for (your purpose), and when they know that they can make a positive impact on the world, exceptional customer service is the natural result. The purpose of business is to serve – as humans this drives us – we just need to create an environment that gives our employees the mental and physical tools to look after our customers.
What does an investment into your company’s culture look like? First, be completely transparent and authentic with your team. Show genuine concern for the well-being of everyone in your organisation. Show a commitment to the development and growth of your people, and create a place of safety where people can speak up if they have any problems or grievances without fear of retaliation.
We’ve seen leadership teams over the past two years that are so focused on making their customers happy they have completely forgotten about their people – and the result is poor customer service anyway. People need to know that the company is worried about their physical, mental and financial wellbeing. People also need to feel safe.
Everyone knows that times are tough. They also understand that businesses need to make money. Share your numbers with your teams. Remind them of your shared purpose and that you are a team. Bring everyone into the fold and strategise together how you can increase customer service levels, which will in turn improve customer loyalty and revenue. Don’t let your people feel worried about whether they will still have a job next year – instead, let them help you future-proof your business for everyone’s benefit.
In a Covid-19 world, people are looking for reasons to believe. They need stability in an uncertain world. The culture you build and the consistent message that you share will help them find something to believe in and work towards. People naturally want to make a contribution to others. The right culture of service gives them that ability. The key is to link what they do on a day-to-day basis to a larger purpose.
Purpose and culture in a hybrid working world
The question, of course, is how you achieve this when we still don’t expect a full return to the office in 2022? Some companies are planning to bring everyone back as soon as they can, but it’s unlikely that will happen before April. Others have implemented a hybrid situation that blends the office with working from home. Either way, culture building still needs to happen and it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. So, where to begin?
After helping my clients to navigate this very question for over 18 months, there are a few key insights we know to be true.
Many businesses are concerned about culture and this is one of the reasons why there is a rush to bring everyone back. However, a blanket instruction to work at the office, or to work at home, or a combination of both, will not be successful because you simply can’t please everyone.
We cannot simply go back to the way things were in 2019. Employees have proven that they can be productive from home. They have enjoyed the flexibility of not being office-bound. Talented staff in particular might want to hold on to that flexibility. Bringing everyone back against their will could result in the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.
Each employee has their own set of circumstances that are either suited to working at home or working at the office. Some people like to work at home because:
- It avoids travel time in the traffic or on public transport.
- It gives them flexibility with their children.
- It avoids the risk of being infected by Covid-19.
- There are less distractions than in the office.
- They can arrange their working hours to suit their needs (that is, waking up later but working in the evenings).
- They are more productive at home.
However, some employees like to work in the office because:
- They miss the social interaction with their workmates around the coffee station.
- They can walk over to the next desk to ask a question rather than setting up a Zoom call to do the same thing.
- They crave human interaction and don’t enjoy the loneliness of being at home.
- They have constant physical access to their leaders without the hassle of virtual meetings.
- They are more productive in the office.
Once again, the rules of building a strong culture apply – it’s a collaborative effort. It’s not a top-down directive, but a shared reason for being and purpose. What do your employees want? And what are their commitments in turn to balance their personal needs with the company’s needs?
I believe that the best solution lies in the hybrid format. I cannot see that working at home on a full-time basis can be the best for either the individual or the business. There must be some form of on-site interaction to keep the culture alive. I suggest therefore, that you hold individual interviews with each employee to assess their needs and preferences. In other words, allow each person to select their preference of how they want to work and ask them to explain why. Those that choose to work predominantly at home, need to be in the office at least once or twice a week.
Try to avoid comparisons between employees as this could lead to perceived favouritism. Rather get each person to make their own choice based on their circumstances and not worry about what the next person is doing. In strong cultures, comparative analysis of perceived favouritism is less evident because employees are happy with what’s best for their colleagues. Everyone is part of the team and has a shared purpose.
Looking forward in 2022
We have no idea what the next few months (or year) will bring. What we do know is that we have each other. Your business is built on your people. If you haven’t already made them the centre of your strategy, perhaps now is the time to refocus on them. With a strong culture in place, your business will be far better placed to navigate both the highs and lows of 2022.