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Microcultures in the workplace: What they are, and how to capture their business value

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Mary Rusterholz
Mary is Chief People Officer at Constant Contact, where she leverages her extensive human resource management experience to build a forward-looking, scalable and sustainable platform for growth. This includes integrating new systems, enhancing existing professional development programs and amplifying the company’s commitment to an inclusive and engaged workforce. Prior to joining Constant Contact, Rusterholz served as Chief Human Resources Officer for LightBox, a leading provider of due diligence, risk management, location intelligence and workflow solutions.

Microcultures in the workplace—some employers might perceive them as a threat to the idea of a unified company culture, but that is based on a misinformed assumption that subdivisions of groups, whether by geography, identity or common interests, inherently divide us. In reality, they have the power to forge stronger interpersonal bonds in the workplace, which can greatly impact your employees and organization as a whole. There is measurable business value in not only allowing microcultures to exist but nurturing them with company resources and incorporating their insights into the culture.

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There are lots of ways to observe, measure and maximize the opportunity of microcultures in the workplace, but first, let’s define what a microculture is.

Defining microcultures in the workplace

Workplace microcultures form when employees with common identities, challenges, job functions or even geographical locations formally or informally gather together, sharing in how their specific commonalities play a role in defining their experience at work and in life. People traditionally understand microcultures as groups explicitly defined by teams or departments, but this definition has evolved; in fact, microcultures often form organically with colleagues that don’t frequently collaborate professionally. Employees can form strong relationships with anyone if they can connect on a deeper level, which is the foundation for microcultures.

In recent years, we’ve seen microcultures form around more personal topics like identity, sexuality and lived experiences. They may include those who identify with such topics, or those who have a genuine interest in allyship. For example, over the past few years, there has been a rise in violent crime against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. As a result, people who prioritize protecting this vulnerable group have formed or reactivated a microculture in their workplace environment.

Microcultures are not just a cultural phenomenon but rather a manifestation of company culture. Data from Blue Board shows an overwhelming majority (nearly 80%) of employees want to work at an organization where they feel connected to the purpose and the people. So, in many ways, microcultures are a way for employees to build into the company culture.

The business case for microcultures

In an increasingly complex labor market, it is critical for HR leaders to continue learning about and from microcultures to understand how employees see their role in the company, how they understand the values of the company and what their motivators are.

What many will find is that connectedness drives retention. The same Blue Board survey found nearly three in five employees would consider leaving their job if they didn’t feel connected at work. This, again, highlights how critical it is for them to feel a sense of belonging in connection to the business—if they don’t, they will go somewhere else.

The use case for this is evident in offices and work sites, but also in a hybrid (or remote) work environment. Since we entered the era of hybrid work, it has been difficult for HR leaders to replicate a well-connected environment without direct, interpersonal connection in a physical space. Microcultures are a purposeful way to create space online (e.g. channels on Slack) for conversations about things that matter to employees. This fuels their sense of belonging and has been proven to increase productivity and engagement.

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Creating a culture where people want to work has a positive effect on retention, which, in turn, means less time and resources spent on backfilling roles and training employees. This frees up time to create opportunities to innovate and expand on the programs and initiatives that are already implemented internally.

See also: Embed employee wellbeing in your company culture and enjoy the payoff

Best practices for optimizing in the workplace

There are various ways HR leaders and executives can prioritize microcultures to reap all of the benefits, but here are the top three:

  1. Capture team feedback. The best way to understand your employees is by communicating with them. By making a concerted effort to source their feedback, you can find out what they like and what they feel is missing from their work experience. For those seeking stronger connections at work, for example, you can point them to groups with shared personal experiences or identities. You can also identify if there’s a microculture that doesn’t already exist that people might want to be a part of, and help organize it. This shows you are taking a proactive role in building company culture and demonstrates to employees that you care about their individual needs and interests.
  2. Provide autonomy and ownership. Embracing microcultures, especially those formed around personal topics, enables the group to lead and manage itself—knowing you are there to support them as needed. Microcultures are a space in which employees can feel empowered to talk about difficult topics not just within the group, but more widely. This fuels a sense of belonging, but it can also have many other benefits for professional growth, such as providing a safe space for more junior staff to speak up or present ideas without fear of failure.
  3. Ensure two-way communication between microcultures and leadership. At Constant Contact, we call them “affinity groups,” and we’ve established a process for a self-appointed leader or “champion” to advocate to leadership on behalf of the group. Instituting a process like this can yield impactful results that, consequently, boost retention. For example, you might find that a microculture or “committee” of parents of LGBTQIA+ children might require different levels of flexibility and even different healthcare options. Appointing a champion from within that committee to be a voice to leadership could affect changes in benefits plans, what the hybrid work schedule looks like and more. This, in turn, will prove to employees that you care about their voice and unique set of needs.

There is immense value in introducing and nurturing microcultures in the workplace. HR leaders must embrace and learn from them in order to elevate their organizations.