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Don’t Let Hardship Kill Company Culture

Woman Talking on the Phone in an Empty Office

I miss the “buzz.”

Let’s face it, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to duplicate the live office feel without the face-to-face interactions. When your culture has always relied on the energy you get from the high fives, the whiteboard sessions, the company parties, and frequent group meetings, this COVID thing is taking a toll. I know we are feeling it, and it does not feel good.

Here’s a confession—I did go through a phase where I was confident that with enough virtual “fun,” company Zoom calls, weekly updates, and inspirational quotes, we would maintain our cultural nirvana. I was hell-bent on navigating this pandemic with our culture unscathed. And then I realized that the magic happens organically—you cannot force it with video calls and happy face emojis. In order for that to happen, it had to come from the natural connections that humans make when they are passionate about the things they do and who they do them with.

When my perspective on the situation changed, I began to see some of this happening. Ad hoc virtual connections around books, movies, trivia, diversity, and sometimes just to offer support. Don’t get me wrong, company Zoom meetings are important to provide information and keep people connected at a high level. They provide a momentary connection or interaction, but over the long term they are not emotionally fulfilling on their own.

Start with empathy

I have found that the pandemic has offered an opportunity to connect on a more personal level with our Element Three team members through 1:1 check-ins to really understand how they are managing the implications of this situation. It has, in turn, opened my eyes to aspects of their lives I would never have known about if we were all back in the office with our shiny happy faces moving through our days as usual. This led me to a realization.

Each person I talked to had a unique perspective on how this pandemic is impacting them and how they are reacting and coping, succeeding and failing. No two people are dealing with what has been happening in the world since March in the same way. There is no panacea for how to help your team manage it. It is critical that you take the time to understand the unique needs of each team member and create mechanisms to support them each in the right way. You will find patterns and trends, but at the end of the day, each individual needs to feel heard and supported in the best way possible.

Trust your instincts

We have all been inundated with blogs (like this one), webinars, podcasts, and books on the topic of managing your culture and employee experience during the pandemic. And if you are like me, you glean a few gems from them but overall, you just end up feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. You want to do it all because everyone says you should do it all, but you just can’t because of limitations on time, resources, finances, etc. So you become paralyzed and do nothing until you are forced to do something. If this has been your experience, I have good news. You are not alone. You are not failing. You are just trying to figure it all out, like the rest of us.

I remember feeling exactly the same way when I had my first child—too many people giving me advice on how to be a perfect mom with a perfect baby. So what did I do at the end of the day? I trusted my instincts, I shut out the noise, and I focused on the tiny person who mattered most and gave it my very best shot to support him. Guess what? It all worked out and my kid grew up loved and supported, absent the anxiety and obsession of me having to be the best by comparing myself to everyone around me. Did I make mistakes? Sure. We all do. That’s life and you have to be okay with that.

I decided to do the same thing now with this situation and with our team. Scan the expert advice for nuggets of gold and then rely on my intuition, ability, and heart to do the rest. Connect with the people directly, ask them what they need. Stop looking over my shoulder to see who is doing it better, trust my instincts. Release the stress. Will I make mistakes? Sure. So will you, and that is okay. Starting from a place of good intent is the best that you can do.

Leaders lead

Here’s a little not-so-secret secret for you. Your success or failure hinges on the strength and tenacity of your leadership team. Now is the time to put forth a herculean effort toward supporting, training, and arming your leaders with the tools and information they need to take care of their teams. That means things like consistency in messaging, proactive review of important announcements and changes, refresher lessons on basic leadership and management practices and tools, and accessibility to your executive team to support them along the way.

The better kept secret is in how your leaders show up. Perhaps they have all of the knowledge and training they need to lead and to manage. The checklists, the scripts, the rules, and the policies. Ensure they understand the importance of empathy and how it applies now more than ever. Absent empathy, the charisma to lead, the integrity, and the passion, you will fail to maintain any semblance of a healthy culture. Now is the time to review your core values with your team. Talk about how they adapt and apply in the current situation. Practice them consistently.

Pro tip: Listen to (and remember) the wise words of Simon Sinek. “Being a leader has nothing to do with rank.” (Take a moment and watch his four minute clip here, you will thank me for it.) Leaders are those who show up in a way that makes others want to follow them. At the very least you should EXPECT your leadership team to show up this way, but you should also not ignore the fact that they, alone, don’t complete your journey toward success. If you have leaders who do not show up this way, here is some free advice—fail fast or they will bring everyone down with them.

Find your winning combination

Stop thinking you have to fix it all alone. Listen to your people. Practice empathy. Trust your instincts. Lead like someone others want to follow. They’ll follow you, and your business and team will be all the better for it.


Karen Seketa Element Three

Karen Seketa has been matching people to positions for years, and she's the one who finds all the superstars that populate the Element Three family. She's been here almost since the beginning, and if you ask her, she'll tell you it was the best decision she ever made.