(Photo by martin-dm/iStock by Getty Images)

For many companies, this era of multiple crises has focused attention on the strengths and weaknesses of their mission, their values and other fundamentals. A strong corporate culture, as robust as it might be, is useless if it does not adapt. Adaptable companies, on average, bring in 15% more in annual revenue than those in the same industry with a more rigid corporate culture, a University of California, Berkeley, research paper reported. How does a corporate mission like PepsiCo’s, which is “Create more smiles with every sip and bite,” look like in 2020? And with everyone talking about the importance of empathy in Corporate America, what does that really mean?

“When Corporate Culture Needs to Evolve,” was the topic of a panel discussion among corporate leaders at From Day One’s September virtual conference, which focused on managing change. For many leaders, the multiple crises of 2020 brought dramatic shifts in their roles in support of their employer’s culture, they told moderator Lydia Dishman, an editor and writer for Fast Company. “It was supposed to be a big year for my department,” said Christine Salerno, the global head of social impact for Marsh & McLennan, who had created the department a decade ago. “It’s really all about engaging our employees, inspiring them to give back to their communities,” she said. After the pandemic struck, however, Salerno’s team pivoted to focus on disaster relief for the company’s employees, creating a COVID-19 support fund that has granted more than $2.5 million to thousands of company workers affected by the pandemic. The company’s CEO, Salerno said, felt it was important to make a statement that “we are a people-first company.”

The speakers on From Day One's panel on corporate culture at the September virtual conference (Image by From Day One)

A people-first approach calls for a culture of communication. “Rather than having business calls [some teams have] have calls just to talk, just for people to express themselves and say what they're feeling,” said Randy Martinez, director of strategic diversity management at CVS Health. “And we're seeing people latch on to certain leaders and reach out and say, Hey, do you mind if we spend some time talking about this? And I do it.” Curtis Stancil, an HR business partner director at Sodexo, the global food-service company, said this communication is particularly crucial in companies that have made layoffs or furloughs. “With the current state of affairs we have to not only keep our employees that are remaining engaged but optimistic about the future and [about] how we can still have growth opportunities and still benefit those that we're serving, even under this dire situation,” Stancil said.

Several months into the pandemic, with the killing of George Floyd in police hands, corporate leaders needed to respond not just to a health crisis but a surge of expectation that they should be addressing social injustice as well. In the first phase of the pandemic, CVS focused on setting up testing sites in underserved communities. But after Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, the company’s approach to systemic inequity became broader. “Suddenly we found ourselves investing $600 million, but to address inequality faced by Black people in disenfranchised communities,” said Martinez. “And we find ourselves now right in the middle of the conversation and culture shaping conversation for the company. Our purpose is to put people on a path to better health.” CVS employees then take the conversations into their own hands. “There are book clubs that are starting inside the company, based on the social injustice issues that we're dealing with, so it's creating a conversation. And then from that people are breaking off into one-on-one discussions,” he said.

At Even, a responsible earned wage access (EWA) provider that helps employees plan their finances, the surge in concern about social justice spurred the company’s co-founder Jon Schlossberg to refocus Even’s commitment to the issue. “As the CEO of the company, I have the pleasure and the responsibility of being able to set the company's objectives,” said Schlossberg. “And one of the first things I did is put together a task force to create a company-level objective for the company to be anti-racist, and more inclusive. And make that objective equivalent to our business objectives. Because I believe we have to show our clients that we walk this walk. But also, I think everyone is well aware of all of the research, which shows a more inclusive and  diverse workforce is going to lead to better business results.”

The role of the manager is crucial in shaping company culture. “For me, when it comes to learning, mentorship or sponsorship, during this time it has been absolutely critical that we defined what the role of the manager is now,” said Rosa Santos, a VP of talent management and organization development at PepsiCo. Companies can have “very specific leadership frameworks and models,” she said, “but when it comes to actual leading through these tumultuous times they get completely shaken up,” she said. Her company responded by reframing the directions. “So we define specific meanings or expectations that are very basic for our managers. I specifically said, You need to be a source of optimism and stability for employees. You really need to stay connected and engaged at this moment in time, you really need to lead by example.”

Yet this does not just have to do with mere output and performance. Schlossberg wants to get rid of the ideal of bringing one’s “best self” to a work environment, the idea of hyper-optimizing one’s potential. For a lot of employees, it can mean repressing the rest of their lives. “Tons and tons of people can't even bring their whole selves,” said Schlossberg. “They have to put on a show for the people that they're surrounded by at work,” he said. “[Now, during the pandemic] you can see more of people's whole selves because oftentimes your video is in their living room with them. So, really, our approach has been, what work do we need to do to understand people's lives, their whole selves?”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.