How We Leaned Into Our Company Values During Difficult Times

When times are tough, people need an anchor, a foundation, a compass, something to lean on to give them some stability.  Something people recognize.  In a company, this should be your values.  If you don’t have values, it can be your employee promise or whatever you use to define your culture.  To use Simon Sinek’s phrase, it’s the “why” people are at your company.  Your values provide people a common language they already recognize when everything thing is upside down.  During a difficult time, it will help people remember what makes your company special, what your team stands for, to rally people together.

A quick Google search delivered articles from Forbes and Fast Company in 2019.  No one could have imagined just how important they would be in 2020.  Let’s take a step back and remember how your values should be used every day in your company.  And then, let’s add the additional layer of how they can help during difficult times.

  • Decision Making – Decision making is about who needs to be involved, who the “decider” is, who you need buy-in from, and if there are “untouchable” things are in the eyes of your team.  Your values can help identify if your company is a democracy (“We are all in this together”).  Or if you make decisions with customers in mind (“Customers first”).  Maybe you are more mission-driven.  At this moment, companies across the globe are trying to decide if, when, and how to return to the office.  Based on your values, are you able to say how that decision will be made?  It will come with controversy, and there will most definitely be different opinions.  Lean on your values to make the decision versus allowing for uncertainty and confusion for the team or arguments about who gets to make the final call.
  • Communication – Every company has a voice, a tone they use in their branding that is often used internally as well. How and what you communicate starts at the core of who you are as a company.  Are you direct?  Are you extremely transparent (“Honesty at all cost”)? Who communicates most messaging, both literally but also who has the credibility given a certain topic? Is it over email or live in a team update?  Do you communicate with everyone or in small groups?  How often do you communicate with the team?  During times of stress and uncertainty, you need to overcommunicate.   I have seen some companies during the pandemic have a weekly business update email from one exec, a daily slack or blog-like touch base from the Head of People/HR, and a weekly team update more focused on wins and Q&A led by another exec.  Is that too much for your team?  How much are you going to share about the impact your business is feeling during that difficult time?  I know some companies that will literally share their bank balance as they are fundraising so the team knows how long they can survive without an investment, while other companies cringe at that level of transparency.  Don’t hide from the truth, but think about how & what you want to share with your teams to give them the information they need that is helpful (and not overwhelming) based on your culture.
  • Equality – For those of you who know Myers-Brigg (MBTI), you will appreciate this one! What does “equal” or “fair” look like in your organization?  Does everyone get the same perks?  Is it a cookie-cutter approach across the organization?  Or do you support individuality and people can use things as they need (“Be Weird”)?  Do you tend to be more conservative and process-driven in your programs?  Or are you more flexible and progressive?  There is no right or wrong answer.  It’s what is right for your team and your company.  But in difficult times, it’s very possible the people in your organization will need different things (front-line workers versus corporate employees, call center sales versus product engineers).   A pandemic, economic hard times, organizational change, it will affect people in different ways.  Is your culture built to give people different support? If not, how will you handle the different requests or needs of your team?
  • Connectivity – Do you have a strong sense of internal community that important to your team (“We are all X”)? Or are you more siloed and there is more focus on individual teams, offices, or smaller groups?  Some companies have yearly company-wide retreats, other companies support project team happy hours and that’s all they need.  During difficult times, people want to know they are not alone.  How can you use your sense of community (at whatever level is right for your culture) to give the team a shoulder to lean on and sense of camaraderie?  Who will organize the events?  If you start with something that is counter-intuitive to your culture, people will sense it and it will feel inauthentic and forced.  Don’t plan a company happy hour if that is not something you normally would do, it will be so awkward and not helpful!  During a stressful time, you need you to stay as genuine to your culture and with your team as possible, or it will lead to additional stress as people try to navigate an environment they don’t recognize (and start to wonder what else is going on behind the scenes).

I would assume if you are reading this article, you agree that philosophically values are extremely impactful.  But let’s see how the above can actually be put into practice.  As I write this article, we are almost three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when every company had to rethink how their teams worked and there was a lot of uncertainty in the world.  I worked with our team at Ordergroove to lean into our values to lead the team through an unprecedented time when we went totally remote over a weekend as the pandemic was becoming more and more of a concern.  We discussed it as a leadership team and communication came from both myself and our CEO.  We turned to different departments to help us make sure the teams had what they needed to work from home and stay safe.

What you see is what you get. It is important that Ordergroovers feel safe to be their authentic selves.  As we moved to work remotely full-time, we encouraged people to share the chaos at their home. We did standing desk competitions (people using toasters, chairs on desks and their kid’s easels) and new recipes (fish tacos, fancy french toast, and amazing baked goods).  Parents got together and had their kids build legos together to recreate playdates (and help form a support group for the adults).  We reminded people constantly to never say you are sorry for an interruption (kids, pets, roommates walking into the picture) because that was your authentic life at that moment.

We’re in it to win it.  At OG, there are no egos and it’s about coming to the right answer, no matter who comes up with it.  As we dispersed across the US, we had to keep focusing on collaboration if we were going to hit our goals.  New slack channels were created, and additional recurring meetings were scheduled to recreate the “drive-by” conversation.  Without being asked, people to stepped up to cover for someone who was more impacted by the pandemic at that moment without a second thought (maybe due to illness, difficult home set-ups, or because they are trying to homeschool their kids).  On a recent pulse survey, there were several comments about the ease of connecting with people even as we are physically apart.

We drive results. As we move to remote work, I saw so many articles about how managers can track the productivity of their team to know that they were working even though they couldn’t see them.  Our focus on results and outcomes (and not just actions) has built a sense of trust over time.   Instead of just checking the boxes we had said we were going to do at the beginning of Q1, we quickly adjusted based on where we were being pulled by our clients and partners.  Celebrating the achievement of our goals, especially during such difficult times, became even more important, and we started a biweekly team toast and a “good news” channel in slack to make sure we were recognizing the results we were still able to drive during the economic downturn.  Even with adjusted schedules, never once did I have a manager question if someone on their team was working.

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We’re comfortable being uncomfortable.  This might be my favorite OG value.  As a start-up, we are used to riding the rollercoaster, and while this was the mother of all coasters, we were up for the challenge.  We tried new programs and adjusted as we learned.  As things changed in the world around us, we were quick to say, “ok, what do we need to do now.”  While there was definitely burnout and fatigue with all the change and the emotional rollercoaster we all were on, the ongoing changes didn’t throw us, and everyone was able to adapt quickly.

It was not any one value that guided us through the difficult times.  We learned a lot about our team and how we can work together. We overcorrected for some things (a virtual lunch table every day was too much) and two months in, people definitely found themselves needing extra support as the stay at home orders kept being extended.

I challenge you to take a step back and revisit your values.  How do they help your organization work together, communicate, make decisions, and stay connected as a team?  Will you explicitly reference them in communication, or will they just be the glue keeping things together behind the scenes?  How could you have used them more in past stressful situations to help your team?  Remember, people need something lean on during tough times so they don’t feel like their world is totally upended and that they can make it through to the other side.  Your company values are the foundation of your culture, so lean on them when your team needs them most.

Karen D. Weeks is a strategic partner whose drive is to help companies build and scale their culture to meet their business goals and help people find their career passions.  Her passion is around talent development, organizational effectiveness, individual career development, and helping teams through change.  Currently, Karen is the VP of People at Ordergroove and was named one of the 2020 Notable Women in Talent by Crain’s New York Business.  Karen is also a career coach, a speaker, and the published author of “Setting the Stage: A Guide to Preparing for Any Feedback Conversation”.. Karen’s academic credentials include an MS from Villanova University and a BA from Elon University.  She lives in NYC with her husband and furry babies.

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