The last few years have been a proving ground for lenders in a major way. The market has swung from record-low mortgage rates and high purchase volumes to a refi boom to lower volumes and rate increases alongside inflation. Lenders have had to adapt quickly not only to the market conditions but to adjust their company culture to survive, implementing policies like remote work.
“The last four years, being flexible and adaptable has probably been one of the core pillars of the culture,” NRL Mortgage CEO Mewael Ghebremichael said. “[During] those swings or dichotomies — if your company was not adaptable or flexible, you’re probably not here today.”
As lenders adjust to the current down market, they’ve taken a hard look at expenses and even layoffs. These topics can lead to issues with employee morale, which is why it’s more important than ever to focus on company culture and fostering a supportive environment.
“You have to invest in your current employees that are still there,” Ghebremichael said. “If you’re not investing in your employees as much as you can, leaning into that culture, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. It’s really important to do that now.”
When NRL Mortgage took a look at its culture this year, the first thing the leadership team decided to do was focus on reconnection. After a long period of everyone working from home, the company has moved to a hybrid model of working three days a week in-office and two days a week from home. As a result of the work-from-home policies, there were many people who worked together but hadn’t seen each other in person for years.
NRL Mortgage decided to host a reconnection event in the second quarter of 2023, which was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, despite some initial reluctance at the idea of returning to the office, Ghebremichael said.
“It allowed everyone a moment or opportunity to reset, refresh and refocus,” he said. “It gave us the spark we needed for 2023.”
The reconnect event highlighted the changes leadership needs to make to the work environment in the post-COVID-19 pandemic world.
“How we worked pre-COVID is going to be different than how we work post-COVID,” he said. “We have to be a bit more focused and realize that instead of calling things meetings, maybe we’ll call them an event. We have to make it more interesting, fun and collaborative than we ever did before.”
By creating these opportunities to reconnect, leadership can push the company culture, which will hopefully lead to growth.
The second step to reconfiguring the company culture was to emphasize inclusivity and allow collaboration across the entire company.
“Once you reconnect, you have to allow for a mechanism or an outlet to have your voice heard,” Ghebremichael said. “We asked our people what they would like to see in the future from the company and gave them a survey to be able to tell us.”
The key to inclusivity is not only allowing feedback from employees but acting upon it, he said. Even if you can’t act upon some of the ideas that are presented, employees want to hear that you’ve at least considered it and even shared some reasons why it’s not feasible.
“If you tell them that, you’ve really completed the loop of inclusivity. You’ve got to be able to close that loop,” he said. “Being able to hear suggestions and voices and then determine whether we are going to do that with reasons why kind of puts the bow on it.”
The most important part of company culture, though, is transparency.
“Transparency is the No. 1 thing that lenders have to do to push the ball forward, letting everyone know where we’re at,” Ghebremichael said. “It’s very easy to talk about the good times, and it’s obviously difficult to talk about the tough times, but you have to talk about both.”
One way to promote transparency between leadership and employees is to create touchpoints throughout the year, whether that’s a quarterly email or monthly call. Employees want to hear from leadership about what’s going on with the company, especially during difficult times in the market.
“If you’re open and honest — if you say, ‘Hey, the company is not doing well and here’s what we’re doing to fix it,’ or ‘The company is doing fine, we’ve made it through that quarter,’ or whatever it may be, I think that transparency resonates with a lot of folks,” Ghebremichael said.
Ultimately, focusing on reconnection, inclusivity and transparency can help bolster employee morale during difficult times, which can improve productivity and lead to business growth.
“It just goes back to being transparent and having your voice heard,” Ghebremichael said. “It’s really easy to [be negative] when it’s over the phone, email or chat — it’s a little more difficult to live in that world when we’re seeing each other face-to-face. You’re like, ‘Oh, it actually really isn’t that bad.’”