Your culture has changed—here’s how to shape it for the future

As employee expectations around workplace flexibility continue to grow, CHROs are scrambling to ensure their cultures can support such shifts.
By: | September 22, 2021

Kevin Oakes, CEO and co-founder of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, fields inquiries nearly daily from HR leaders looking to understand how to pivot their cultures to today’s new realities, particularly when a CEO is intransigent on allowing the company to move away from more traditional working models.

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One recently told Oakes the company lost four top candidates in a row to competitors based on its decision to not allow hybrid work. On a recent call with 500 talent acquisition leaders, they universally said the No. 1 question they receive from applicants is whether the company allows flexible arrangements.

“How you answer that,” Oakes says, “is going to impact your employer brand long-term—and all of this is part of culture.”

‘It’s all about listening’

Like it or not, every company’s culture has been changed by the pandemic: The values it professes—and the way these beliefs are upheld by company policies, practices and expectations for employees—couldn’t not change in response to the disruptions, Oakes says. Now, companies have to assess those shifts and strategize how to strengthen their culture for the long-term.

Kevin Oakes

The changes have run the gamut: Some companies report their culture has improved over the last year-and-a-half, as business leaders gained new insight into the “whole persona” of their employees, driving a culture centered on empathy, Oakes says. Others are grappling with the cultural impact of mask and vaccine mandates while trying to satisfy the expectations of workers who want to return on-site and those looking to remain remote.

“I think it would be impossible to some degree to go into this [post-pandemic world] and still maintain the same culture,” says Stephany Foster, senior vice president and head of human resources at QIAGEN, a global provider of molecular technologies.

Her company launched what she calls a “cultural journey” last fall—well into the swing of the pandemic and shortly after a CEO change and failed acquisition—that has prioritized employee feedback in the redefining of the company culture.

“It’s all about listening,” she says. “We want to take the feedback we get and create an action plan to give back to our employees so they understand they’re part of building this culture—that it’s not just a top-down view of ‘Here’s what our culture is.’ ”

Related 6 policies to help HR be more strategic about culture

That type of strategic vision is what’s needed for companies to keep up with the constant churn of change driven by the pandemic, Oakes says.

“I’m advising instead of being passive or reactive in letting changes happen to your culture, it’s certainly time to be proactive and shape the culture you want for your future,” he says.

Reconfiguring culture for a remote world

But, culture work doesn’t happen overnight.

Terri Lewis, CHRO at One Call, a provider of workers’ compensation and healthcare management solutions, likens the process to cultivating a garden: Leaders can plant the seeds but have to nourish them, put them in the sun, and pick weeds and prune trees.

Terri Lewis

“You can’t stand in front of the garden and say, ‘Rose, grow now,’ ” Lewis recently told HRE. “Culture needs to grow organically to have staying power.”

Like QIAGEN recognized, Oakes says, employers looking to invest in that process should first measure employee sentiment: How do they feel about the current environment? What’s happening in their communities related to the pandemic? What do they think about new company policies? Attrition rates, demographics and more can all be rolled together with that data for HR leaders to make the case to senior management for strengthening a culture that’s attuned to current employee needs, Oakes says.

Buttressing that data with stories—from employees or even examples of culture work being done at competitors—can help garner C-suite buy-in, he adds.

“Culture should not be the job of HR—it has to be, first and foremost, a CEO initiative,” Oakes says.

Executive support was key to the culture project at QIAGEN, Foster says. After soliciting significant employee feedback, leaders determined that the word “empower” should be at the heart of the company’s retooled culture. They used each letter of the word to describe a different tenet of the culture, ultimately publishing a culture guide that was worked on by the entire management team of 100 people. In keeping with the empowerment theme, the company rolled out financial training for employees, biology-focused workshops for non-scientific employees to help them understand the company’s work and culture workshops for the company’s 5,900 employees, and next they are focusing on leadership workshops through which leaders can learn about and commit to the company’s 2022 empowerment-related goals.

See also: When the office goes, what happens to culture?

Much of this work has happened remotely—QIAGEN has more than 35 locations around the globe, many of which have not yet returned to in-office settings—but that has, in a way, actually fueled interest and engagement.

Stephany Foster

“Of course it’s easier to launch something like this when we have the ability to connect in person but, for us, [being remote] has actually brought us together,” Foster says. The online workshops, for example, were a way for employees to change their at-home routines and reconnect with colleagues outside of their individual teams, whom they may not have seen for some time, she says.

The impact of remote work on employees has been at the heart of how Workforce Software has approached culture in the last year-and-a-half, says Leslie Tarnacki, senior vice president of HR at the workforce management software company. A successful remote or hybrid culture requires a healthy work/life balance, improvement in processes and—again—empowerment of employees.

“Employees need to feel as if their entire team is working hard together, staying productive and that everyone’s opinions matter,” Tarnacki says. “Having consistent communication and collaboration between team members and managers can help companies achieve this.”

In that vein, Workforce has encouraged frequent check-ins with employees. They should be quick and consistent and, when done right, can communicate to employees that the company is prioritizing their wellbeing—as well as keep managers and leaders clued in to potential problems.

Giving employees autonomy has also been key to the company’s evolving culture, she says. Apart from offering flexible schedules, employers should be strategic about getting employees to “unplug” outside of their working hours, she says. This can help create “a positive culture in this new world of work, as it allows them to come back the next day more refreshed and productive, leading to better business outcomes and higher levels of employee satisfaction and engagement.”

Renovating for the future

A recent i4cp survey of executives and employees found significant attrition rates—with many leaders only expecting the problem to get worse. And, with nearly half of respondents citing a stronger organizational culture during their remote period, and only 16% saying the transition weakened culture, researchers cautioned that forcing employees back to the office—even just for a couple of days a week—could be a big mistake for company culture.

Related: 5 must-haves to win the post-pandemic war for talent

Instead, Oakes says, he advises company leaders to embed flexibility and autonomy in their strategies. However, broad, blanket policies relating to when flex work is—and isn’t—allowed can counteract that intention. Instead, he says, empower managers to know what’s best for their individual employees.

Leslie Tarnacki

As the post-pandemic workplace eventually unfolds, employers should consistently revisit their company culture, and the ensuing practices meant to support it. In his book, Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build An Unshakeable Company, Oakes likens the process to updating a home. The healthiest companies, he says, keep the parts of the culture that make their organization great but try to improve its value over time.

“Culture is a living, breathing element that evolves and changes,” agrees Tarnacki.

How HR has approached culture has similarly shifted over the years, she says. Take recent news, for example: HCM solutions provider UKG Inc. just announced the acquisition of the Great Place to Work Institute, which helps organizations enhance their workplace culture.

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“There’s no question,” Tarnacki says, that culture has garnered significantly more HR attention in the last few years, particularly as the function becomes a more strategic business partner in many organizations.

“A company’s culture plays an important role in supporting employee and job satisfaction as well as the relationship between employer and employee,” she adds. “Its evolution maintains all the connections that keep a business running well, which is an all-around win for all players.”

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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