The secret of company culture is how it's celebrated

Terry O’Faolain / March 2021

Terry O’Faolain is director of Google Customer Solutions Outsourcing in EMEA. In 2020, he managed a large team across the Nordics and Benelux to help local agencies and advertisers respond to the challenges brought by COVID-19.

In just one year the industry has changed forever. While businesses around the world accelerated their digital transformation at an unparalleled pace, employees were met with the challenges and novelties of working from home indefinitely. Both of these developments have significantly impacted the way we do our jobs.

Like many managers, I’ve had to shift from looking to my teams as a whole to paying more attention to the individual. Everyone has a different reaction to the pandemic depending on their life situation, but working remotely has only increased the need for teams to feel connected. That’s why good company culture has never been so vital.

Working remotely has only increased the need for teams to feel connected.

Admittedly, being culture-first was easier when we were all in the office together. It takes much more organisation to achieve that same level of intimacy online. However, what we have been able to maintain at Google is sharing the burden of responsibility. We urge people to take care of themselves to protect their own wellbeing as well as that of their team. But the magic isn’t in just saying this, it’s in showing our team that everyone, from me down, is living it.

Stand out with a culture of change

A key part of my job is to work closely with agencies across the Nordics and Benelux, and if there’s one pattern I can see in those that were most successful in dealing with the uncertainties of COVID-19 it’s that they live up to their company culture. Sure, fostering an environment that truly appreciates and understands change is important, but not as important as the way in which that change is facilitated.

Recent research from the Boston Consulting Group found that a key differentiator of successful transformation going forward will be that it’s human-centric. In this new world, businesses cannot hope to transform successfully beyond the crisis unless they do so in a way that demonstrates humanity.

three yellow icons (head, heart, hands) accompanied with following text: 1.Bring clarity to people. 2. Lead and communicate with empathy and humility. 3. Mobilise resources against critical actions.

The research states we should drive transformation through the power of the head, heart, and hands. The head envisions an aspiration and defines the organisational agenda; the heart holds the strengths your company built in a crisis; the hands shape the new reality of work. It’s about bringing clarity to people, leading and communicating with empathy and humility, and mobilising resources against critical actions. And they all tie together to help us navigate trying times.

Obviously, organically creating that environment can be difficult, especially when it doesn’t seem like a priority. But Dutch digital agency Dept is a great example of why it’s crucial. They really believe in the idea of lived culture. They have always prioritised their company identity first and that impacts the type of people they hire. They celebrate hires who are adaptable and open to new ideas. And by building their team in this way, they have been extremely efficient at integrating new companies.

When COVID hit, this lived culture of change allowed Dept to pivot successfully to new ways of working with their clients. They already understood the importance of fulfilment and automation and how important those are in an era of hyper-accelerated digital change.

You can have the greatest company culture in the world on paper, but none of it matters if you don’t live it.

Another example that comes to mind is the Swedish-founded agency Precis Digital, who was able to quickly help their clients pivot and respond to unexpected changes when the pandemic struck as a direct result of really fostering that culture.

Do as I do, not as I say

What it comes down to is that what you say is irrelevant. You can have the greatest company culture in the world on paper, but none of it matters if you don’t live it. Giving employees, clients, and partners something they can benchmark their performance against helps build motivation, trust, and loyalty.

If people are doing a great job, tell them that they’re meeting or surpassing the standards you have set, share that news with their team. Likewise, if someone is acting in a way that doesn’t live up to your company culture, don’t let that slide. Confront them in a constructive way to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In both cases, show them with your own behaviour at all times what is expected of them.

So if I could leave the management teams of agencies with one piece of advice, it’s to ask yourself: “Are we catching our leaders doing the things we value, are we catching them doing it right?” If you can answer those questions with a “yes” then it’s likely you can say your organisation is living what it stands for.

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