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Creating Culture in a Tough Market

Building an incredible company culture can be tricky even in the best of times when business is strong. In tough times, it’s much harder, and can leave you wondering where to begin. If you feel like you’re in this position, you’re not alone: many companies have recently expressed declining confidence in the areas of employee retention and engagement, no doubt spurred in part by the chronic economic headwinds of 2023.   

So, if you have had recent layoffs, changes in leadership, or sales are down, read on for some ideas that can help breathe new life into your organizational culture.  

Talk to Your People and Truly Listen 

The first thing to do when improving your company culture is to get a sense of how your people feel. This means talking and actively listening. When employees don’t feel heard or cared for, they might underperform or decide to leave the company altogether. Have your division leaders, HR professionals, or managers reach out to schedule one on ones, or small group meetings, to hear employee concerns. Be sure you have set these conversations up for success where employees can truly speak freely. It is a lot harder for employees to speak the whole truth in a large group setting or when speaking to someone they do not trust. Once you hear them out, come up with a plan to address these issues. You will not be able to fix everything, but even just to acknowledge what they have said can make big strides for employees to feel heard and validated. If you’re thorough, you will likely come across recurring patterns and concerns, and responding to these should be at the top of your list.  

Communicate Often 

When employees hear frequently from leadership on direction, goals, and changes, it brings everyone onto the same page. Conversely, if employees are hearing bits of information piece-meal from coworkers, they might get misinformation, feel in the dark, not as valued, and not aligned. This is something free and easy to control so why not take advantage of it. Be sure to be inclusive and communicate with all employees – remote and in-person, across multiple shifts, and in multiple languages as needed. Consider using multiple channels as well to minimize confusion. For instance, if there was an important announcement in the all-hands meeting, follow up with a recap via email to crystalize the points made. 

Share all the Positive News 

Communication doesn’t have to be reserved for company-updates or otherwise big news. You can normalize ongoing communications with your team by sharing the small wins too, especially when times are tough. Did someone get a certification that they have been working hard for? Did the team land a new account? Are there fun new snacks in the office kitchen? Share every little positive thing and give people the opportunity to engage. There might not be a lot of big wins in a down market, but the little wins help keep spirits up and get you through. 

Find the Fun 

Even if your company is trying to watch their budget, think about what you can do that is cost effective. Maybe an office lunch event, volunteering together, dressing up on a certain holiday, or having a campaign where everyone sends positive messages to each other. Ask your employees for ideas to create a space for them to engage with one another. This, in turn, can boost office morale, and allow employees to tap into their creative side. Remember, you do not have to spend a lot of money to engage your employees and have them connecting. 

Leadership Style 

Picture this: Your car breaks down and you take it in to the mechanic so that they can have a look. You’re frustrated and apprehensive, but the mechanic enthusiastically says, “this is a great opportunity to replace those expensive brakes!”

This interaction is likely to leave you not feeling so great. It shows a lack of empathy in a tough situation. Similarly in the workplace, employees want leaders who can empathize and be honest with them. This, combined with a calm and confident approach can help improve company culture and camaraderie even in the worst of times. Save the positive, jovial attitude for another day when you have just delivered hard news. Now is the time to own and acknowledge that while the present situation may be a tough one, there is a clear path that you will get them through to better times. It shows that you care about your people and this in turn creates trust.  

Creating a rewarding workplace culture is a challenge, particularly when times are tough. However, hardship represents an opportunity to forge bonds that can strengthen and sustain your organization over the long term. At the end of the day, reflecting on leadership styles, engaging employees, and thinking outside the box should be a regular element of your culture.

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