“When it comes to culture change, you’ve got to be ready to go on a test and learn journey. Human behaviour is not something you change with a single action or activity.”

This week, our Managing Director, Victoria Lewis-Stephens, takes the hot seat. An engagement pro who has been driving award-winning work for more than 20 years, Victoria is the trusted partner that clients and peers turn to when times get tough. Her ability to creatively solve and simplify even the most complex challenge, coupled with her honest approach, sets her apart from the crowd.

Victoria Lewis-Stephens, Managing Director at United Culture
Victoria Lewis-Stephens, Managing Director at United Culture

We spoke to Victoria about what it takes to engage people at a time of huge upheaval, the secret to successful culture change and the role of values in today’s world.  

Victoria, you’ve spent time in house and agency side during your career, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing in-house teams right now?

I think there are multiple challenges most teams seem to be facing at the moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic means resources are stretched and Communication and HR teams in most businesses have been working flat out to get communication out in a timely manner so people feel supported and can work safely.

Many Communications and HR teams have also been heavily involved in decision making around how businesses can support their employees and customers. This is a crisis where corporate reputations have been built and broken.

The pandemic continues to put a lot of strain on the economy, and attention has definitely turned to looking at business performance, and with that will come change. I strongly suspect comms teams, like many others, will come under the spotlight now as businesses try to right size, and reduce cost to set themselves up for the future. These changes will come with significant engagement challenges, especially after what has been a very busy and hard year. Any reduction in team size will mean that businesses are going to have to prioritise where they want their communication team to focus.They will need to define what will add most value and drive growth. ‘Do more with less’ is about to become a familiar phrase!

Against this backdrop you also have the challenge of employees starting to return to work after being furloughed – which brings with it a unique set of challenges. Talking a lot of our clients, reshaping the communications function to support a hybrid workforce is a must. Hybrid working in itself brings specific challenges and this is going to be an ongoing issue as many organisations start to look at their end-to-end employee journey through the lens of a remote worker.  As part of that, businesses need to think carefully about how to still drive innovation and support collaboration. Many of these challenge will require different thinking, right now we are definitely in unchartered territory.  

Why do you think we are well placed to help businesses during this tumultuous time, particularly in light of the challenges you referenced?

The truth is, we had been looking to launch the new business for some time and it just happened to coincide with the pandemic when it came to go live! But because we focus on engaging employees around driving growth, innovation and helping businesses deliver and operate in a purpose-driven environment, we are well set-up to help organisations bounce back and recover.

There is no doubt that the current situation has had an impact on small businesses like ours. But the onus is on us to really understand how businesses are impacted, and what this might mean for them customers and employees. Only then will we be able to work out how we need to pivot and evolve to meet their needs. We launched with a very loyal client base who we pride ourselves on having great partnerships with, which helps us get the inside track.  

We have already launched new products and have more in the works to help businesses bounce back. Our UCSessions Masterclasses and Deep Dive workshops is one of the things we have launched recently. They are sessions specifically targeted to HR and Communication functions and are designed to help them overcome the challenges they are facing as we move into 2021. Some of those challenges have been accelerated by the global pandemic, but they’re not necessarily new areas of focus. There is no doubt that the pandemic has given us all an opportunity to drive change faster or accelerate existing strategies. We are also in the process of finessing two new service offers which we will share more about later this year.

People worldwide are feeling fatigued by the situation and the constant change we’ve had to experience this year. What do you think businesses can do to equip people to manage change better and be more resilient?

Change is always daunting, especially if you feel it’s being done to you, and you don’t have any control over it. Everyone is talking about the new normal, which in some respects draws attention to change in a negative way. But there is no new normal - change is normal - and it is something we have been navigating in most businesses for years. It just happens that this year, the changes have been extreme, unplanned and unpredictable.  

 Now we’ve got over the initial reactive phase, we need to refocus on how we start to drive the changes for the good of your businesses, people or customers. It is time to focus and prioritise, so people can operate at a normal pace with a normal workload. For many businesses, continuing to operate as they have been isn’t realistic, sustaining “crisis management” level workloads needs to ease, and if this is really the new norm we need to start to operate in this new working world in a more sustainable way.

Resilience isn’t so much about what’s happens to you but how you respond and react to it. I think to be truly resilient people now need to be given a platform to be able to ‘take control’. For many businesses that means identifying the challenge you face and making it a collective problem to solve. This will allow people to start to lead the changes required to bounce back.

With that in mind, what do you think businesses need to be thinking about to pivot their strategies successfully and engage their people in the right way?

I think there are a few things you need to focus on to build an engagement and communications strategy that’s fit for the future. I think businesses need to look at their organisational narrative. Most strategies will change as a result of everything that’s happening in the world right now.  The global pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, social unrest, will all impact how you talk about your purpose, your strategy and your values.  And even if the construct of your strategy doesn’t change, you may have accelerated certain aspects, and helping people understand where the new focus is will help them to prioritise. Fundamentally, you need to make sure your story is relevant and fit for the future.

Secondly, if you want to sustain your culture you have got to look at your employee journey end-to-end and make sure it is fit for this new world of work. Working remotely has changed things –in this new world what skills do you need? How will you onboard someone? How do you drive collaboration and innovation? What does recognition look like now? The contract between and employer and employee is different and that requires a different approach.

I don’t think enough organisations are taking the time to do this piece of work yet and few understand how valuable it is. Our recent WorkRemastered survey revealed that there are contradictions in the areas people say they need to focus on and what they’re actually doing to drive change. Culture and the employee journey are entirely entwined.    

What advice would you give to companies who need to refocus on their culture or whose culture is no longer being manifested in the way they want as a result of the events of the last year?

You can’t overhaul or change your culture easily.

The culture you have within your business today has evolved in response to your vision, purpose, and the behaviours that are recognised and supported within the business. In many respects culture is an outcome of all of these things coming together.Culture is all about balance. You can’t just tweak one element of your employee journey and expect to be done with it. You need to be clear about what behaviours and traits you need to see in your business to live your purpose and drive your strategy.  When you have that nailed, assess what you have. Identify what needs dialling up and dialling down. Then, and only then, can you look across your employee journey and decide what’s fit for the future - what needs to stay and what needs to change.

Human behaviour is subtle and it’s not something you change with one action or activity. It’s not something you can mandate. You bring a lot of yourself to work, and you’ve got to be aligned with the value set of an organisation to enable you to contribute in the fullest way possible.

So, what role do you think values play in today’s world?

I have a love hate relationship with values. Values in most organisations are so generic that they could be applied to any business, and that makes values a difficult way to create differentiation. I think increasingly we should focus more on purpose. It’s the purpose that drives decision making and should be what empowers people to make the right decisions and interact with each other and your customers.

What should businesses focus on instead?

Rather than values, I think businesses should on the whole be more behaviours-led – they should have a core set of behaviours and principles that a business signs up to instead. Values are very passive. People are looking for guidance on how they should act, respond and interact.

Right now, there is a lot of employee pressure on organisations to be more responsible across the piece and have a more meaningful impact on societal, political and environmental issues. What advice would you give to an organisation navigating this challenge?

Each of those topics require a different response and businesses have a different role to play depending on the issue at hand. I think there are some overriding things businesses should do consistently however, irrespective of the subject matter. They need to lead by example and take some responsibility for the impact they have on the world.  

For example, they need to take responsibility for race at work, women in leadership, disability etc. They have a responsibility to structure their businesses in a way that moves what’s important forward in a meaningful and authentic way.  If they don’t, it reinforces the notion that the way things are is actually OK. It suggests they don’t care enough.

What are we doing at United Culture to help tackle some of these issues?

I think we, like most start-ups, are very passionate about certain issues and we are better at some things than we are at others.

Can I honestly say hand on heart that we are doing enough? Not yet. But can I say that we have the will and determination to be better, and have we already made some really positive steps? Yes. Solving any of the societal issues we are facing today will not be solved by a single action. It’s about focusing on a multitude of different things. What you decide to do this year, may not be fit for purpose next year. This is a journey, and like all journeys you need to change direction sometimes.  

We, and all businesses have a responsibility to ensure that we are reflective of the society and community we live in and serve. If we don’t, there is an imbalance, which we need to solve for.

If you want to dive into any of the subjects Victoria has covered, drop us a line at hello@unitedcultureco.com and check out our UC Sessions here.