7 Strategies To Retain Culture In A Downturn

June 20, 2022
The Culture Equation
7 Strategies To Retain Culture In A Downturn

We are in uncertain times. It is normal to look within your business, and start thinking about the future. Culture should be the number one thing, you look to bolster during challenging times.

History teaches us that crisis situations occur far more frequently than we anticipate. It is only two years after COVID first hit our shores, and its impact is still the backdrop of most of our lives.

A global health crisis has exposed outdated economic, political and social systems – not least within the workplace. And now? We find ourselves staring down the barrel of a (potential) recession.

In light of this, how do you retain your company culture? How do you ensure it is resilient and steadfast, withstanding any external challenges your Startup will face?

Nobody feels the pointy end of a sudden change in hiring strategy more than the Head of Talent. With 15 years working across many technology Startups, I reached out to Nathan Reese to get his perspective on retaining culture in a downturn. 


Show Strong Leadership

Culture simply doesn’t exist without leadership demonstrating what it looks like in action. How you show up during the tough times will forever be remembered, for better or for worse.

Great leadership teams are aligned, this becomes even more critical during times of crisis and uncertainty. Look for opportunities to be available (and present) on a daily basis, even if it is only to discuss how people are feeling. 

Resilient cultures begin with engaged, values-driven leaders that understand and support employees during transitional periods.

A lack of true, authentic leadership and regular engagement cross departmentally, might mean you open yourself up to the risk of disengagement and an unstable company culture.

Show up, make the time, be real and live your values. Your company values will be stress tested during these times so use them, refer to them, communicate them and above all demonstrate them.

Be Transparent

Honest transparency about the organisation’s situation may seem counterintuitive, after all, you want to put on a strong face no matter the struggles, right?

Acknowledging issues puts more stress and anxiety on employees, doesn’t it?

Not so fast.

Research indicates that uncertainty is actually worse than certainty of bad things to come.

Strive to be hyper transparent about the business – what is changing, what will be the trigger points for having to make difficult decisions, how those decisions will be made, what the considerations will be and how often communication can be expected going forward.

People appreciate honesty and can help position the company toward better outcomes. It is important to not be hyperbolic or negative, but to present reality as it is.

Encourage community and connection

Covid has re-designed the way in which we participate in and view work. It has forced our workplaces to shift and most workplaces have adjusted to an ‘office first’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘remote first’ based culture.

Either way, as we go through turbulence ahead it is important to provide forums to connect on the topics that are top of mind for your people. Take intentional measures to ensure everyone feels included in these forums and safe to speak up.

If layoffs need to be made to keep the business viable then offer to open up your network and personally make connections to help your talent find a new home within the Startup Ecosystem.

Don’t forget, a highly skilled digital worker could at this point choose to go back to a more stable corporate environment. Let’s think of the big picture and do our best to keep our much loved talent where we desperately need it.

Nathan’s part of Talent Down Under, a Slack Channel with 900+ Aussie TA / HR folks dedicated to helping each other with advice daily (Feel free to reach out to Nathan for an invite).

Give space for change

More and more emphasis has been placed on creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Employees are juggling more than ever before—it’s nearly impossible to continue ‘business as usual’ given external and environmental stressors at the moment.

Whether you tackle the upcoming market conditions with cuts, restructures or strategy changes the net effect is still taxing on the individual.

Consider setting up peer support groups, offering KitKat days (coined by Dovetail), or simply asking managers to ensure they have had a wellbeing chat with everyone in their team.

Double down on professional development

Joining a Startup offers the opportunity to live and breath the rollercoaster that comes with the territory. Ironically, going through tough times offers unparalleled opportunities for professional growth (and resilience).

A major part of a good company culture is providing employees with opportunities for growth. During normal economic times, this is a much simpler proposition. But don’t discount what people can learn formally and informally during the times we are in that can set themselves and your company up for success in the future.

Even with frozen or cut budgets, resist the urge to stall development paths. Continue learning programs and consider low-cost initiatives such as mentorships. Ensure managers are still having career and growth conversations.

Learning is still one of the most attractive retention strategies an organisation has, a whopping 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn.

Create a culture of feedback

An organisation’s most important asset is their workforce. Your employees are on the front lines every day, dealing with common issues. For example, they may have cost-cutting solutions that you haven’t considered.

Provide an avenue for employees to give feedback and follow through on the ones deemed useful. The new policies will not only improve the bottom line, but involving employees in creating solutions also will increase their overall satisfaction and engagement.

In fact, employees who feel heard are almost five times more likely to do their best work. It really is a win-win situation to listen to your teams.

Take time in a downturn to get ready for the next upturn.

In working with many Startups I often find important steps are skipped when designing and implementing their desired workplace culture. That can often lead to difficulty hiring the right people and we all know the costs of hiring the wrong people.

If hiring is going to slow over the coming weeks or months then now is as good a time as any to take stock of where you are on this journey. Revisit your culture pillars, make sure they are future fit, think through how you will embed them operationally and behaviourally.

Now is as good a time as any to position yourself well for when the switch comes back on and you can be certain it will.

Building a resilient culture takes time, but the rewards for any company are extensive.

Results may not come as swiftly as the next challenge. Don’t forget how important it is to ensure your culture is designed and embedded as the foundation of your business. If this last sentence left you a tad stressed, don’t worry, this is what we live and breathe at The Culture Equation.

Contact Hiam Sakakini to organise a chat about your business, your goals, and how The Culture Equation can support you. Book a meeting with Hiam her