CASE STUDY: Sustaining Culture Through a Year of Upheaval and Beyond

May 20, 2021

CASE STUDY: Sustaining Culture Through a Year of Upheaval and Beyond

Without question, the way we support employees and sustain a cohesive corporate culture has changed. The shift to a greater and deliberate focus on humanity is one that has enabled our company of approximately 120 to stay focused, united and productive these last 14 months and also one that I believe is here to stay.

I believe the mandate of any HR function is to help build the strongest organization possible by empowering employees so they can give their best. What’s different today is the tools available to execute that mandate and the intention with which we as HR executives seek to foster connection among our employees: connection to each other, to teams and to the vision of the company. Achieving these goals requires inventive reimagining, resilience and collaboration.

Hiring with a Focus on Values

One of the greatest challenges facing companies today is hiring and onboarding in an entirely virtual world. Critical here is hiring for fit with corporate values. To do so requires restructuring the interview and onboarding processes to enable evaluation and support of each new hire as a person—to see their human side—not just an evaluation of academic pedigree or skills.  

At Syros, we have onboarded more than 45 new hires since March 2020, even marking our 100th employee over the summer. To do this effectively in a virtual world, we make a very conscious effort to recruit for our values. This includes an entirely revamped interview guide for all hiring managers that structures each exchange with a candidate within the context of our values. Once hired, each new employee develops a 30/60/90 plan with their manager that includes goals tied to our values. This onboarding tool became mandatory in 2020 in order to ensure a smooth transition into our company and teams. We also instituted onboarding buddies to be an informal support mechanism to a new employee, often someone who is in a different team or part of the organization. As a result of these changes, our annual turnover rate for people hired during the pandemic was eight percent, which we believe is well below the national average for the healthcare industry.

Providing Options

A second dynamic of our world today is that each person is experiencing the pandemic and the unfolding social and political events all around us in their own way. Failure to recognize this threatens an organization’s ability to maintain connection to employees and have employees stay connected to the work in front of them.

Consequently, the mechanisms used to support organizations have to be flexible, tailored and adaptable, taking into consideration the needs of individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution anymore. Tactics that we have employed at Syros with success include:

  • Making any group event or activity optional—think all-employee meetings, social events like game nights or holiday celebrations.
  • Virtual, small-group CEO lunch dates—the goal here is to connect on a personal level with each person in the organization. 
  • Focus groups and surveys to gauge employee sentiment and provide venues for each person to contribute their voice.
  • Dedicated channels where people with shared personal interests can just chat, like dog lovers, parents, aspiring musicians or book clubs. 

Each of these tactics recognize the individual needs of each person and seek to foster that personal connection between individuals that creates a sense of togetherness essential in a productive organization.

Showing Leadership as Humans

Lastly, especially in a time of great upheaval, it is critically important to show the leadership as just as human as everyone else in the organization—people who are vulnerable, compassionate, approachable, transparent. This means demonstrating their humanity, not just once or twice at key moments, but consistently and continuously. For example, we have instituted weekly emails from our CEO that touch on wide ranging subjects from race, current events and the importance of self-care to business goals and performance reviews. 

We also started a series of emails called “origin stories”—the personal journeys of each member of our management team that led them to the roles they have today. These turned out to be so popular that we are now expanding them to our extended leadership team. We’ve seen that transparency and empathy emanating from leadership has translated to transparency of individuals, so that employees feel comfortable sharing what may be going on in their personal lives that is impacting their ability to deliver on work commitments and, in turn, team members stepping up to help.

The return-to-work world is still taking shape. Some people will be in the office, others will not, and it will vary from week to week, day to day. This new reality will present its own set of challenges, including sustaining the dynamic energy of being in the office in person while allowing for flexibility in how and where the work gets done. As we navigate this new normal, one thing is clear: by focusing on humanity, we can cultivate an enduring corporate culture that supports each employee as an essential and valued individual working towards a collective mission.

The Authors: 

Lisa Roberts is Director of Human Resources at Syros Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.