Culture club

Written by: Alexa Robertson Posted: 03/09/2020

BL69 culture 1As the financial services sector – and the world around it – continues to feel the aftershocks of the pandemic, smart organisations are no longer viewing culture as a tick-box exercise but as imperative to their survival in the new normal. So how do these forward-thinkers measure it?

Ten years ago, says Elvina Aghajanyan, Head of HR for HSBC Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, words like ‘happy people’ and ‘kind leadership’ were signs of weakness in business.

Fast forward to 2020 and the effect of Covid-19 on the global workforce has thrust corporate culture into the spotlight, creating an unprecedented need for a compassionate, people-focused approach to management.

“We’re all human,” she says. “People are more likely to share and be themselves if you are willing to be yourself and be vulnerable as a leader. A crisis has hit us, and some of our people have never seen anything like this before. We could only achieve results if we acted together.”

The benefits of building and maintaining a positive working culture are plentiful. From attracting talent and retaining staff to improving customer satisfaction and achieving growth, a committed focus on company culture that aligns with its values is integral to an organisation’s success. 

Cultural deficiencies are regarded as one of the root causes of major conduct failings that have occurred within the industry over the past two decades, so regulators are urging organisations to prioritise their internal working culture.

Yet despite this, there are still many companies treating culture as a tick-box exercise for their HR managers – many of whom don’t have their feet under the boardroom table. 

And they’re failing to integrate it with their core business values.

Threads of strength

Chris Clark, CEO of Prosperity 24/7 and former Chairman of the Institute of Directors in Jersey, understands the difficulties.

“It’s often challenging for leaders to engender transformational, empowered, diverse and inclusive cultures, especially within mature businesses, unless they lead by example,” he says. “Often, culture is perceived as a new initiative rather than the pervasive thread that an organisation needs to permeate all aspects of its business. 

“If you sincerely focus on people and culture, this has a direct correlation with performance and prosperity. Productivity is the byproduct of us looking after our three key stakeholders – our clients, our colleagues and our community.”

“Many organisations have started to wake up and smell the coffee in ensuring that they have a long-term culture strategy, but it has taken a lot of mistakes to get here,” adds Susie Crowder, Director of Human Capital, at Grant Thornton.  

“A lot of organisations continue not to do it or to treat it as an HR matter. But it’s a leadership and management agenda item. It requires someone at a strategic level to really understand the importance of it and take accountability for it. It’s the number one thing that can attract clients or lose clients, attract staff or lose staff. It’s much more than an HR exercise.”

People power 

So how can organisations develop and maintain a strong working culture, and ensure company-wide support for a cultural shift? The answer, says Crowder, lies among its people.

“You should confirm a culture champion within the organisation – ideally the CEO or another board member. Human behaviour right from the top is vitally important because that person can allocate the time and resources required to drive a cultural revolution, regardless of sector.”

There should be company-wide commitment to inclusion and wellbeing, says Aghajanyan, as well as a more forward-thinking attitude to company culture. “If you’d asked me 20 years ago what was most important for attracting talent, I would have said compensation and equality of job opportunities,” she says. 

“But it’s not enough anymore. Now it’s about inclusion, it’s about wellbeing. The requirements of millennials are quite different to those of previous generations. They want flexibility of work, equality of opportunities and diversity. 

“Now, when we interview, we are being asked about the values of the organisation, about whether we have culture programmes, about the development opportunities. 

“You have to do these things if you want to attract the right people with the right values and principles and retain them.”

A strong culture, adds Paul McAvoy, Chief People Officer at Ocorian, is driven by diversity within the management team. 

“We are constantly trying to ensure that we are identifying and promoting diversity,” says McAvoy – who has been spearheading the creation of a new culture within Ocorian following the investment firm’s merger with Estera earlier this year.

“We need to bring in enough change agents who understand our ambition and who can help drive us towards that goal,” he says. “It’s really important that diversity is part of the culture.”

BL69 culture 2Simple measures

The million-dollar question when it comes to company culture and cultural change is how you measure it. 

In recent years, Grant Thornton has invested significantly in helping organisations to more effectively manage and measure cultural initiatives, and to make the transition from survival mode to thriving mode.

Crowder says: “Measuring the success of culture can be much easier than most people think. I’m a huge fan of keeping things simple. If you keep it simple, you can carry people with you, set out smart KPIs, and keep your team motivated to help achieve those.”

It’s particularly important to focus on employee turnover, she says. “One of the indicators that something isn’t quite right is high staff turnover. 

“This is a great metric to understand how stable the organisation is. It helps with managing workload to ensure you’re not overburdening people, and it allows for more effective and efficient planning.”

Cutting the cost

Capturing customer satisfaction is also important, as is implementing and monitoring employee and manager satisfaction scores, the latter of which can save organisations significant costs in terms of human capital.

“Having a look at what that bottom-up feedback is telling us is important,” Crowder says. “People will often leave a role because they’ve fallen out with their line manager, not because they’ve been attracted by more money or a different role.” 

He continues: “Having a look at how that relationship can be maintained or improved is vital, because the cost of replacing staff can be high. Holding onto human capital and ensuring the cultural fit is aligned is really important.”

McAvoy agrees, adding that the connection between each individual and their manager is a great starting point for gathering data on the wider culture.

“A manager’s ability to inspire, support and provide clarity is essential,” he says. “Performance reviews should be quarterly at the very least. The quality of these will drive the quality of the culture you’re trying to create.”

Channels of communication

Keeping channels of communication open and implementing tools through which employees can provide honest feedback can also provide solid, actionable metrics for improving the working culture, particularly in the post-Covid-19 age.

“We recently sent a survey to 1,200 Ocorian employees, 83% of whom responded,” says McAvoy. “We wanted to ask how we could best support them as lockdown continued, how our communication had been, and what they’d learned from it. 

“What we found is that our employees are asking for much more flexibility going forward. We’re now looking at how we can show that we’re listening to that.”

The global pandemic has created an opportunity for businesses to embrace cultural change, says Richard Searle, Managing Director of BDO, and it is essential that organisations take on board lessons learned.

“There’s no point going through an experience if you don’t learn from it,” he says. “Before lockdown, many companies were saying people couldn’t work from home, that you had to have them in the office. We’ve proved that it just isn’t true. 

“We’ve always had flexible working, but now we’ve updated our policy so there’s no limit on it. 

“We’re empowering our people to figure out how to work productively while also taking personal responsibility to ensure they’re not putting unnecessary pressure on their teams.”

Aghajanyan believes the struggle to juggle the logistical challenges of the pandemic could break down barriers between leadership teams and their employees in a new way.

“The main thing that we have noticed is that people really like the virtual working and Zoom calls. You’re sitting in your house in your sportswear and your child is running around behind you. Suddenly you’re authentic, you are more visible. It really has helped give leadership presence beyond the boardroom.”

It seems there has been no time like the present for building authenticity in business, increasing adaptability and ensuring an environment of support and collaboration. 


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