How HR leaders can cultivate a robust corporate culture through communication and collaboration, even during a pandemic

By Josh Smith

2020 has been an unbelievable year, and COVID-19 has had an incredible impact on the personal and professional life of almost everyone I encounter on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Entire sectors have been devastated, markets are particularly volatile, and the future appears uncertain.

What I have also witnessed though, are organisations and individuals who have met adversity, adapted where necessary and have weathered the storm well and continue to do so moving towards 2021. What COVID-19 has done, unlike any other natural disaster to this point, is highlight the disparity between organisations. There are those who operate in an increasingly communicative, collaborative, digital and trust-based manner and those who are reliant on cumbersome, traditional siloed operating models.

This disparity has been evident in the more traditional markets as you’d expect; Oil & Gas, Mining & Metals, Energy, Renewables are all sectors that require (at various points in the value chain) a large reliance on site-based personnel, interaction between staff and can often be labour intensive.

For organisations in these sectors, COVID-19 has had a seismic affect. It has poised significant questions around how they continue to ramp up production, productivity and efficiency for global markets continually clamouring for additional resources. It has also reinforced the need for increased digital transformation, collaborative working and a new approach to talent retention & acquisition. Businesses that have these, and a clear People Strategy, have a significant competitive advantage moving into 2021.

During this time, I’ve been working with Anna Toiva, Outotec’s HR Director for Middle East and prior to the new post-merger organisation, Metso Outotec’s HR Director for Europe, North Africa & Middle East. She was kind enough to interview with me and discuss these topics at length, including what the future now has in store for her. During this, she elaborated on steps she’s taken at driving internal change, cultural evolution, collaboration and communication whilst in role:

What are you most proud of achieving during your time at Outotec & Metso Outotec?

I was really pleased I was able to build trusting relationships during the past years at Outotec whilst we were focusing on engagement and I could really see the benefits of that in all the countries. I was able to build trusting relationships in USA, Mexico and Middle East despite the fear of the ”she’s from HQ” stamp on my forehead. I was able to bring HR closer to business and show our people what HR can do. This is what I heard as feedback from many: their view on HR had changed to much more positive after working together.

What has been the biggest challenge when it comes to transitioning workplaces from silos to collaborative working and what have the benefits looked like?

I think the challenge is accepting it takes time and continuous effort. You need to throw yourself in it and lead by example uniting people and teams. I believe HR can have a big role in this, as they are a  neutral party and can work as a glue between teams that drive for their own team specific targets. By inclusive, transparent and appreciative communication, investing enough time in getting to know each other, raising issues immediately, challenging us vs them thinking and reviewing our processes and events with a critical eye, this can be achieved.

How important would you consider work culture is on the success of a business? What would you say is the key factor for improving corporate culture?

I’d say very important. I’ve seen people explaining very proudly what they do and which company they represent, and I’m sure this pride makes us do our best and shines all the way to the customers. A strong, healthy work culture also helps when times get tough, like now during the pandemic. Commitment, goals and inclusive communication are key: Who do we want to be and how does that show? How do we involve our people and truly show we are committed in this?

Having worked in several countries, what advice would you give to being able to transition to the different cultural styles of each country?

I think the key is to spend enough time talking to people, getting to know them and their challenges and successes. Being curious, appreciative and open about yourself. When you build trust, you can enter the new culture in a more profound way. And when there is trust, it’s also accepted that you maybe represent a different culture but can still enjoy theirs and work towards the same goals.

What do you believe is key to strong internal/external stakeholder relationships?

Genuinely thinking from stakeholder’s perspective, providing benefits and understanding the importance of having those relationships. For driving any change it’s important to consult and spar with internal stakeholders, and with external stakeholders you can challenge your thinking process. Very few things in this complex working life can be done alone.

How would you say the pandemic has impacted HR business process & organisational change? 

In many ways. First it forced us to fully evaluate our HR processes from a risk management perspective. Questions we had to answer include: How would we do everything remotely if someone has unreliable internet connection and in a different country? How would we maintain HR operations if someone or the whole team gets sick? It made us question our priorities for this year: where can HR really support the business and our people, and how to do we shift our priorities to accommodate this?

Another big topic is of course the highly discussed remote work and its future: who needs to be at the office, how much and how to do it all safely? Can we recruit well without seeing someone in person? How do we build and strengthen a company culture remotely? The pandemic has shown us the importance of agility in HR as we need to be ready to re-evaluate and modify our processes all the time, experiment, look for feedback and aim for continuous improvement.

From a human perspective, it also opened a window to people’s home and personal life that you don’t see when only meeting at the office. Glimpse of home decorations and paintings on the wall, kids’ voices in the background, casual home office looks and funny coffee cups. We for example organized a ”Best of Quarantine” virtual afterwork where colleagues shared also quite personal experiences of the good things Corona had brought, be it more time with family or exploring personal hobbies. We also had very open discussions on how people were coping, bringing wellbeing topics and mental health as part of everyday chats as they should be. I believe many companies also started to invest in these topics in a new way. I want to keep this human touch in all HR processes.

The above material highlights several core areas of competitive advantage that businesses need to prioritise when reviewing their People Strategy. Key themes of trust, transparency, empathy, communication and teamwork are all areas COVID-19 has put pressure on this year, and businesses that are built to be agile and proactive with a culture of trust and accountability are significantly better placed to achieve their targets over the foreseeable future.

The importance of having a clear People Strategy and empowering HR leaders to build global teams knitted together by a shared corporate culture, mutual trust and the digital tools to succeed in role and communicate effectively, will be key to building high performing teams.

I’m already seeing clients far more open to discussing international talent based purely on cultural fit, objective and subjective skillset and ability to do the role, rather than the candidates’ ability to live within a commutable distance of Group HQ. Organisations and HR teams that embrace this open themselves up to a much more international gender & ethnically diverse workforce, which is a key performance differentiator and one that will continue to become more distinct.

I’m looking forward to continuing to work with hiring managers and HR leaders on building out effective teams and showing what executive search in 2021 can be. In today’s world, as never before, the importance of research-driven targeted search to identify the right talent to elevate a business to the next level is more important than ever. This is particularly relevant given the current climate, when a localised advert is becoming less relevant, and less effective, by the day.

On Anna Toiva’s next steps, following the Metso Outotec merger she’s looking for her next international opportunity.

Written by Rob Walker, Senior Consultant at Gibson Watts.

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