The coronavirus has created a moment of truth for every company. Leaders are rightly asking themselves: Are our choices and actions right now reflecting our culture and the purpose and values that define us?
For many, the answer is yes. Best Western hotels in the United Kingdom is one example. When the chain began experiencing high cancellation rates in early March because of the virus, management initially thought of converting empty hotels into makeshift hospitals. After local hotels began reaching out to nearby hospitals to offer their help, however, they realized the greatest need was for the accommodation of medical personnel, low-risk patients and at-risk individuals. Within a week the first repurposed hotel opened in London, and through local initiative and rapid decision making the chain has now made 15,000 rooms available, keeping some of its workers employed while the rest of the sector has shut. Throughout, Best Western has been guided by two of its central cultural values: service excellence and being a good member of the community.
An organization’s culture is its behaviors at scale—basically, what it says and does. Culture is guided by purpose and values (see Figure 1). And it will be put to the test by crisis, as is happening right now with Covid-19. Our research tells us that among the values exhibited by strong cultures are collaboration, agility, integrity, people-centricity, innovation, accountability and ambition. Companies that exhibit a winning culture, that have a strong internal compass and inspire their employees, are, we have found, 3.7 times more likely to be business performance leaders.
Culture is your company’s internal compass, informing actions to take in a time of crisis
So as leaders take the appropriate steps to weather this storm financially and operationally, they are also asking how they can ensure that they act in ways that are in keeping with their culture. It helps to take three specific steps.
1. Reflect on your purpose and values.
The first step is to take a moment to reflect on your company’s purpose and values—the reason your business exists and how you believe in doing business. A crisis can bring these into sharp focus and provide a touchstone for your choices. What are you doing (or could you do) to act in congruence with your purpose and values? Are you contemplating actions that are inconsistent? Vacation resorts, for example, have been hit hard by Covid-19. Executives are, of course, worried about business continuity and might wrestle with questions like whether to refund deposits or hold on to them. What they decide will have important consequences in the longer term, and their purpose and values is one important factor to reflect on as they consider the best answer.
2. Talk about your purpose and values.
If managing business continuity is all you can do, make sure you communicate your actions in a way that’s consistent with your values. Hawksmoor, a restaurant chain in the UK, like many of its peers has made the difficult decision to temporarily close its restaurants. Its communication to customers was a strong expression of its culture of integrity and people-centeredness, explaining that employees’ safety was their priority while also expressing deep empathy for both the employees they had to lay off (now furloughed) and for all other restaurants in the same situation. Today many right choices come at a high price. Communicating openly and empathetically helps customers understand the decision.
3. Bring your culture to life for customers, colleagues and the wider community.
The actions you take to ease your customers’ pain in this time of crisis will be remembered. From video-streaming companies making content available early, to online education providers granting free access to classes and brewers switching production from beer to hand sanitizer to be given away, many companies are taking actions that bring them closer to customers and exhibit admirable corporate values.
Your colleagues also need to see the culture expressed in meaningful ways. That can happen through top-down communication and leaders acting as role models of these values, and by encouraging grassroots initiatives. Some retailers in the US have closed stores but continue to compensate employees for scheduled hours, for example. Other companies are trying to help furloughed employees land temporary employment in fulfillment centers and food shops that need more help now.
Staying true to your culture can also mean taking steps to support your community at large, as Best Western did.
Reconnecting with your purpose and values will make it possible, when this crisis has passed, to look back with pride at how your company responded. Culture always matters, but it matters now more than ever.
Marc Berman and Tracy Thurkow are partners with Bain & Company and experts in culture and behavior change. Marc is based in London, and Tracy in Atlanta.