Even though lockdown restrictions have eased, and most businesses and industries have reopened, we know that we’re still far from being out of the woods. Economists are predicting another recession and there is no doubt that South Africa’s economy is depressed.

So, what do we do? As business leaders, how do we ensure that our companies survive the upcoming months? We’ve seen that one of the responses of many businesses is retrenchments in an effort to curb costs. While we understand that job losses will be unavoidable, we also believe that there is a better way to rebuild companies in the wake of Covid-19, and it begins with your people.

Cultureneering in a post-Covid-19 world

Across the globe we’ve experienced a collective trauma. The pandemic is not your business’s fault and so in many respects you cannot be blamed if you’ve needed to cut back salaries in order to survive. What you do now is in your control though.

You may find that you’re facing a degree of resentment, frustration and even anger towards the business and its leadership team from your employees, even though circumstances were beyond your control. These relationships need to be rebuilt. This should be your top priority. Your employees serve your customers, and if they do not feel heard, respected and supported, they are unlikely to put in the care, focus and passion necessary to deliver exceptional customer service – and right now, customer loyalty is essential.

Remember, your customers are reevaluating how they spend their money and who they spend it with. Companies that are not customer-centric will not continue to attract business. If you don’t want that to be you, it’s time to put your employees front and centre through a cultureneering philosophy.

Make sure your people are okay

Are you regularly checking up on your people? As a leader, it’s important that you’re spending time on making sure that everyone is okay. Your employees need to know that the company cares about their physical, mental and financial wellbeing.

Don’t ignore the fact that there will have been damage done, even if it’s beyond the scope of your organization. Empathy and understanding should be your watch words during this period (and always).

If you’re back in the office, set up 5-minute face-to-face meetings and a (social distanced) community gathering during work hours. If your business is still predominantly WFH, set up short zoom calls and an office ‘zoom’ party.

Put culture first

If you had a strong culture that focused on customer service then start rebuilding it. Don’t assume everything will just return to the way it was. A business’s culture is a living, breathing thing that requires constant care and attention, and if you aren’t ‘cultureneering’ in this way it will stagnate. After months of upheaval it’s a good idea to go back to the basics to make sure everyone is on the same page. A good starting point is to remind everyone why they come to work – if it’s just for a salary, even now when things are so uncertain, that’s not enough.

You can start a company wide initiative that invites employees to share their lockdown lessons and why they are excited to be back at work. You can also ask each employee to share how their specific job role makes South Africa a better place, and link this back to your culture. The important thing is to start the conversation.

There’s a great story about President John F. Kennedy visiting the NASA space centre and noticing a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and asked: “What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

If you can inspire this level of motivation and inclusivity through your culture, you will build an incredible business.

Start with your purpose

At Hatch, we speak a lot about purpose and a business’s Reason for Being. Is your Reason for Being still relevant? Do customers need you? Do your employees feel supported by you? How is your organization living its purpose?

Covid-19 has highlighted the fact that 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 contribute 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.

For example, if someone is on a production line, show them the bigger picture. Who is the customer? What problem are they helping to solve or what joy are they bringing because of the important role they play?

Link purpose to core values

As the leadership team, it’s your job to entrench your Reason for Being throughout the organization through your core values. Be careful though – you can’t state values and then not live by them. You must practice them. Consistency is key – if you are not consistent, you will not win the hearts, minds and respect of your people.  If you say one thing and do another, your people won’t follow you. It’s that simple. Look at every decision you make through the lens of your values. Are you aligned?

Put people before profits

The traditional focus on the bottom line and cost-cutting isn’t working. A bottom-line focus puts profits before people. Culture-focused businesses, on the other hand, always put people before profits. Focus on only profits and your perception of people changes – they become a cost burden, instead of an empathetic and caring core to the business. When people are listed as expenses on the profit and loss statement, they feel it – they see themselves as cost burdens, which is not very different to any other overhead that can be trimmed or cut when necessary.

Commitment, loyalty and customer service will slip fast and furiously when your people don’t have a reason to believe in you, the leadership team, the brand or in your purpose.

Empower a culture champion

At Hatch, we believe that you need a person who is solely responsible for culture in an organization. This individual should do whatever it takes to start culture initiatives and to keep them rolling. It’s too difficult to expect a line manager to concentrate on culture together with their other roles and responsibilities.

Some companies might use a person in the HR department and that’s fine, but their designation should really speak to what they do and they should genuinely care for people, the organization, and know what’s happening with their colleagues. Put them in the role, give them a clear title (such as culture champion), give them real responsibilities and watch them shine. They can then train line managers on how to treat people and support the business’s overall culture.

Empower your employees to chart your course

No industry or business has been left unscathed by the pandemic. Business owners are reevaluating their business models, products, solutions and whether they are still relevant.

The term ‘adapt or die’ has never been more relevant, and many management teams are out of their comfort zones.

Are you locked in a boardroom trying to navigate this brave new world, or are you including your employees? Are you tapping into their experiences, ideas and diverse views to find solutions that can really take the business forward during this time?

If you aren’t, this is something worth considering.

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room

Racial polarisation lies at the heart of most of the problems experienced by South African businesses. It’s the underlying reason for problematic corporate cultures, poor productivity, and below-par customer service. Covid-19 didn’t cause racism, but it has shone a spotlight on the inequalities of our country. Dealing with it is a business imperative.

As a business, you can choose to ignore race relations within your organization, or you can address them. If your entire team takes this courageous step together though, you will not only build a business on the foundations of respect and empathy, but your will boost productivity and customer service and build a truly diverse company that can rise to the occasion of meeting South Africa’s needs and challenges.

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