Cultural Free Fall, When to Pull the Cord?

The COVID-19 outbreak is pushing people and businesses to operate in new ways as we are faced with responding to unplanned and unregulated global change. As organisational leaders consider what to do in order to survive and thrive, our very culture which underpins us is in free fall and we are left wondering when to pull the parachute cord.

During these unprecedented times of pandemic relations, routines, jobs, communities and companies are in a state of flux. Through operating in this fluid business environment, some leaders are encompassing challenges many have never experienced before. However, with this uncertainty come opportunities on a daily basis.

The New World

The new norms are bringing people together to face a single challenge on a global stage. Our knowledge, belief systems, habits and values, globally diverse, are in a state flux following the outbreak, with little indication that we will return to what once was. This threat has not just been directed at individual groups, communities or religions, but at humanity, as we now look to our knowledge in technology and research, collectively and collaboratively to find a solution.

The once slow-moving culture of corporate values and behaviours has leapt forward as a result of the disruption of COVID-19; effectively taking on a new guise as it becomes an ultra-fast-moving culture. Corporate leaders manage the ‘now’ with rapid decision making, ensuring critical business and frontline support operations protect the health, safety and wellbeing of people with the constant urgency to stay relevant and keep a breadth in a state of quick moving change. Tools such as adaptability and flexibility are key in this new pandemic world alongside shorter planning cycles as these attitudes and beliefs change daily. The need to remain safe has become embedded as a core belief, attitude and value for all humanity. Who would have thought 6 months ago that PPE would be essential equipment for the weekly shop? Demonstrating the importance of a safety culture as part of corporate values and belief systems will ensure alignment of people and business success.

Human Factors

The term ‘Safety Culture’ was first used in the ‘Summary Report’ of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when writing of individuals’ characteristics and attitudes in an organisation and the importance of safety issues to the nuclear plant. All too often we have heard statements like ‘it’s the way we typically do things around here’ or ‘we’ve always done it that way’, and in infancy of safety culture, unfortunately the effect on human life is often a direct consequence. Safety culture arose from major organisational accidents, but vulnerability is not limited to just human error, we must also consider environmental factors and pandemics such as COVID-19. Safety culture has been a learned response and we adapt and evolve with appropriate measures and safety behaviours. Shortage of PPE? No fear, we have all seen the various creative models of ‘how to’ make your own face masks on social media.


A safety culture addresses how safety is embedded in an organisation. How Leaders address commitment and where safety is perceived to be in the leadership’s priorities; how leaders show this, demonstrate this, talk about it and ‘walk the walk’. Providing trust in their commitment. These behaviours are well known and used in industry sectors where product reliability and performance are dependent on safety measures. Now as a result of COVID-19, we look to our leaders to provide a safe workplace irrelevant of our industry sector. We are putting our lives and trust in policies and procedures to ensure our wellbeing in a post lockdown workplace.


A key aspect of safety culture is communication, ensuring open two-way communication channels, in all directions. As many begun working from home, managers and colleagues checked in to ensure you had ‘what you need’ to work from home; but how often are safety issues discussed and what is the safety programme for the organisation as we emerge from lockdown? Whilst direction and commitment do come from leadership, employee involvement and self-regulation are essential, responsibility for our own safety to identify and report near misses support the cultural responsibility; my personal favourite during lockdown ‘no baking whilst Mum’s working’!

Know How

Risks and hazards are abundant today, we find ourselves operating in highly unusual circumstances, following daily government advice. We have all seen, data models of a sneeze in a supermarket. But how accurate are our perceptions of the hazards and risks around us? What training do we need to return to work? What information will be available? Will I have to wear gloves and scarf for the office and who will tell the chap with the cough, to go home? A safety culture addresses training and information to ensure needs are addressed confidently and people feel the workplace is a safe place to work. With a new cohort of graduates released early, attraction to safe workplace environments will be a prime consideration.

Human performance, results, will be influenced by safety related tasks and the overall performance of the organisation. With this new norm comes opportunity as a present time to plan, act and do, in context of a conscious safety culture. Steering away from wait and see, it truly is the time now to utilise the disruption as opportunity for adaptation and cultural fitness by understanding the need to flex around the conditions presented as they evolve and change, to shape the future. Innovation leader Paul Taylor writes that “We must selectively forget the past. That means not accepting current practices but challenging underlying assumptions, our solutions and mindsets, and the way we tackle the problem.”

Safety First

Organisations that have built safety first into their cultural operating models are adapting quicker to this ultra-fast cultural shift. Those organisations that require high precision and performance have already inbuilt safety measures and metrics running through the core of their business models, from production to office, now incorporated into homes. These businesses have embedded a safety culture and are able to ride the turn with robust process frameworks that can be easily adapted. However, for those businesses where safety has been a second item agenda topic, now face the demand for a cultural shift to place this into the heart of their organisational models and quickly adapt to promote and protect.

The UK Government continues with ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe, Protect Lives’ or more recently ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’, UK businesses are gradually lessening the first law, as back to business plans emerge with financial constraints and performance targets not abating to the pandemic.

In this new housebound business arena, businesses that have responded to the new reality and need for safety with relevance, have made provisions for PPE equipment and ventilators; rethinking methods and frameworks to form culturally relevant strategies, demonstrating the need culturally to response proactively and apply short term planning cycles outside of their norms, with adaptable methods and frameworks.

Fit For Change

It is the time now to be clear on your company’s mission, strategy and values and ensure you have a safety culture at the top of the agenda. By maintaining a clear direction and purpose, incorporating safety into the everyday and controlling the journey will ensure leaders are not only able to shape the present but prosper as a result, both financially and in the talent they attract. Organisations demonstrating flexibility to the changing environments, embrace opportunity and gain a competitive edge.

The successful leader’s response to this fast-moving business culture is to be adaptable, not freefall, but steer the journey with decisive decision-making; continuing to drive forward with execution plans that support the company’s strategy by ensuring alignment to vision and values with an underlying corporate safety culture, will realise that the disruption of COVID-19, is just that, a disruption, as like recession, acquisitions and cost performance pressures, that leave organisations vulnerable.

Organisational optimisation opportunities present the opportunity to address competitiveness. Organisations that utilise the disruptions, become fit for change, can emerge from disruptions to drive innovation and growth to shape the future; drive organisational fitness and flexibility, recognising threats and becoming adaptable to today by:

  • Clear vision, strategy and values
  • Align the business strategy
  • Safety first
  • Response to trends and short-term cycles
  • Clear, safe, decision making

As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said, ‘An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, has the ultimate competitive advantage.’

TORI are trusted advisors to C-suite and senior management executives and can work with you as an individual, or with your team, to help you initiate and lead change. We will help you to engage effectively at all levels so that you achieve the alignment and commitment you need: we can help you to drive your vision and values through your people management processes and organisation development agenda and effectively drive sustainable change that helps your organisation execute its defined outcomes and goals.