Lessons from 2020: Workplace culture flows from the top

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Source: Unsplash/Mimi Thian

What image does the phrase ‘workplace culture’ conjure? Before COVID-19, there might have been table-tennis in the breakout room, beanbag meetings and a fridge stocked with after-work drinks. 

In 2020, we discovered a different meaning of ‘culture’ that proved pivotal for many SMBs tackling the harshest business operating conditions we’ve ever experienced. This is especially true for businesses here in Melbourne, where two lockdowns bit viciously hard (not to mention the scare evoked from the recent 5 day snap lockdown).

I don’t mind saying that my business, Impress!ve Digital, survived the first brutal lockdown by the skin of our teeth. With a team of 65 spread across our head office in Melbourne, plus the Sydney, Brisbane and Austin, Texas offices, we were challenged in ways we never dreamed we would be — including losing $3m of our revenue in the first 48 hours after lockdown was announced.

When push came to shove during these times, there would have been a number of teams discovering a new understanding of what real ‘workplace culture’ means. Resilience, cohesion, grit and class were needed to pull through the difficult year, all while working remotely from home without their pool tables to keep them connected.

For me, the key learning has been that culture flows from the top down. If you don’t have business leaders who seed values of teamwork, support, respect and resilience into the DNA of the organisation at every level, there’s a real risk your business could be a house of cards, exposed to the first serious headwind that comes along. 

Through my networks, I’m aware of a hell of a lot of SMBs who struggled to make it out of 2020 that are still in business. These include workplaces where key staff jumped ship at the first sign of trouble, or gave up caring about the business or their fellow colleagues. They waved the white flag.

I won’t lie, it got pretty harrowing at times at Impress!ve as I had to let some people go, cut pay and implement all sorts of measures just to keep the doors open. They’re hard decisions to make, and harder still to be on the receiving end. 

Yet, amid the mayhem, businesses also saw signs that they had the right workplace culture and people in place; employees who remained loyal and committed to riding out the lows, offering their ongoing support even when difficult decisions were having to be made.

It is a testament to those businesses whose employees had their backs because they knew the company had theirs. The businesses then had the right support structures in place to foster the culture needed to see them through.

I’ve always built my business based on what I understood ‘workplace culture’ to mean. It was about, ‘people need to have fun, they need to enjoy where they work’. And yes, that surely is something you need to foster. 

But that has changed completely for me after the difficult times we have been through. Now, the definition is, ‘how am I advancing this individual’s career, their personal life, their academic life, whatever it may be? How am I getting the best out of them in this workplace?’

Culture always comes from the top. If I don’t put myself in that person’s seat, then how can I expect them to do a certain thing, think a certain way or behave in a certain manner? Through real leadership, true workplace culture can be embedded within the DNA of each individual by challenging them from a business perspective, training them, and supporting them. From there, the organisation develops the same values. 

I’ll admit, I haven’t always set the best example to follow. In the early years of the business, I was the super-competitive, ‘always-on/never takes a holiday’ guy, determined to work twice as many hours as my competitor did. If he worked 10 hours, I worked 20. There were times that I slept for a few hours at the office, got up and did it all again. 

I still work hard, but I now carefully manage my work-life balance, making sure I carve out time every day for my wife and son, as well as setting aside time to exercise, meditate and journal. It all means that when I switch on and go to work, I hit the ground running with an absolute focus on getting the best from myself and my team, and setting a positive example to follow.

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