Covid up-ended the way most of us worked. We’re now openly questioning old assumptions about working and connecting. Photo: Getty Images

Covid-19 has blurred lines between our work and personal lives, and it is redefining what makes thriving workplaces. But as we take on 2021, how many Kiwi organisations and decision-makers are paying attention to this and putting the spotlight on the one thing that can have the most impact? That is, culture.

We hear all about team cultures in professional sport and the role culture plays in success or failure.

The culture change within the Black Caps, and their ‘NZ way’ of playing catapulted them to the world’s number one test team spot this summer. The All Blacks’ adopted the ‘better people make better All Blacks’ motto and the principle of ‘leave the jersey in a better place’. The Silver Ferns benefitted from a winning culture created by Dame Noeline Taurua, where athletes felt cared for, welcomed and accepted.

How has your organisation changed its culture since last year’s lockdowns? Click here to comment.

Maybe it’s our obsession with sport, that makes this a thing. But why don’t we all know about the workplaces that have built great cultures and the results they’ve delivered from it? How many Kiwi companies can you name with a great culture?  

Culture and people were vital for successful organisations well before Covid came along. The health of an organisation’s culture will directly influence whether it survives or thrives post-Covid. Covid means we’re also now openly questioning old assumptions about working and connecting.

As the country headed to its Christmas close-down, two independent reviews of organisational cultures were released – you may have missed them too.

It’s past time to end the lip service many organisations pay to being a good employer, to culture and to people being ‘their biggest asset’ and to acknowledge in our organisational DNA that people and workplace culture will make or break an organisation’s success in a post-pandemic world.

On Christmas Eve Weta Workshop was told it had to overhaul its workplace culture after a siloed, fractured and pigeonholed culture of hierarchy, blame-shifting, high stress and an undercurrent of sexism and other discrimination was exposed.

A review into the Lyttelton Port Company released a fortnight earlier revealed bullying, racial and sexual discrimination and harassment, lack of diversity, fear of speaking out and normalisation of offensive behaviour. Both organisations are facing 2021 with a string of recommendations to prioritise, overhaul and rebuild culture.

Sadly they aren’t unique: places like the Civil Aviation Authority, Parliamentary Service, NZ Transport Agency and the Human Rights Commission (all of which talked about their ‘people-centred approach’) have come up short in independent reviews.

It’s past time to end the lip service many organisations pay to being a good employer, to culture and to people being ‘their biggest asset’ and to acknowledge in our organisational DNA that people and workplace culture will make or break an organisation’s success in a post-pandemic world.

Nice work, Unilever, for your experiment trialling a four-day working week to help with flexibility, wellbeing and  environment. And to Vodafone for advocating that Kiwi companies adopt a ‘free-range’ employee approach where people can work from anywhere for the benefit of their wellbeing while getting work done over summer.  

Sounds like they’re valuing people’s differences and building a culture that works for people and the bottom line.

Why does workplace culture matter more right now?

Culture isn’t what’s written in annual reports about being a good employer, having diversity and inclusion and bullying and harassment policies. It’s not the values statements on walls or on computer screens. Culture is what it’s like to work somewhere and the environment that’s created, how leaders lead and how we treat each other.

US President Joe Biden called this out in his inauguration speech, committing to “restoring the soul” of the USA.

One thing he made very clear: “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talking down to someone, I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.”

That’s putting culture first.

Australia-based leadership and culture expert Colin D Ellis is adamant culture needs to be an organisation’s number one priority and sets out the case for this in his book Culture Fix.

On Covid-19, he writes that those organisations that had defined their culture and kept working on it remained vibrant and flourished – people seamlessly transitioned to remote working in distributed teams, and were able to produce different outputs and maintain profitability or service levels.

He says that post-Covid, every organisation has the opportunity to fix the things that were broken in their ‘BAU’ culture and make a fresh start, culture-wise.

Experts worldwide are assessing how Covid-19 is up-ending cultures, with one UK firm reporting that remote working has let the genie out of the bottle for leadership, hierarchical organisations, wellbeing, trust, culture and data privacy.

Who cares?

Healthy cultures create engaged people and teams. People are happy and healthier at work, in their communities and in their home lives.

And yet just 16 percent of people are engaged at work according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report.

Culture fuels business performance. Evidence in Oxford Economics and Grant Thornton economic modelling of how culture maps to key performance indicators shows strong cultures are much more likely to report average revenue growth of over 15 percent, higher stock prices, higher repeat business through improved customer satisfaction and much lower turnover and turnover costs.

What does it mean to put culture and people first?

Culture is created and destroyed everywhere. From the behaviour of the CEO and that of the newest employee, the decisions that are made and how customers are treated.

Truly putting culture and people first means people know how you do things in your workplace. Leaders lead and behave in ways that make your organisational values real and are true to your organisation’s vision and purpose.

It is where culture is valued as an asset, invested in, knowing that the return will come from better financial results. Leaders care about their teams. They see their team members as individuals with unique skills and attributes and home lives that matter.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the profile of ‘leading with kindness’ in politics. But research shows that kindness in workplaces helps build culture, connection and belonging. Research also shows levels of anxiety, stress and loneliness are increasing in workplaces. Kindness – where we care about our workmates and act in a kind and forgiving way – is an antidote, creating connection and fuelling belonging.

Post-Covid opportunity in 2021

As a result of Covid, working from home is now more acceptable for those who can. KPMG predicts remote working will rise; the 9-5 workday will be challenged  and measurement of work will be about outcome rather than input.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what needs to change in a post-Covid world.

The 2020 Deloitte Workforce survey urges organisations to focus on better understanding workers’ unique attributes, and to use that to develop targeted programmes and policies that bring out people’s personal best while staying safe and well.

That’s what a people-centred culture does as a matter of course.

What does that look like? You see the CEO and leaders well-connected with employees, asking for and acting on their ideas; openness about the good and bad about the way things are done; fixing what needs fixing. You see people feeling included and respected for who they are and the differences they bring.

The required focus on health and safety includes mental health and wellbeing. Teams work together to deliver results, clear that the way things are done matters just as much as what is done. Celebrating success and sorting out issues and conflict is part of their day to day work. And work is recognised as just one part of our lives, which means more flexibility.

If you’re not talking about culture and the way you work, please start now. It takes just one person to start and share stories. Imagine what we could learn, be inspired by and try ourselves if we talked more about workplace culture. Imagine how much sooner poor culture and leadership in some organisations would have been exposed if we’d focused on this much earlier.

  • To find out more about building a better culture, listen to Anna Hughes’ ‘Books That Work’ podcast available on Apple and Spotify or where you usually listen to your podcasts, or on

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