Workplace culture — where employee behavior meets business outcomes — changes constantly. Think about it: as employees come and go, each brings or takes their beliefs and behaviors. As company or departmental goals change and as industry landscapes shift, workplace culture changes in response.
But when it comes to larger culture overhauls, the driving force is usually one of three situations, says Shawn Overcast, partner at Gotham Culture, a boutique consulting firm: An event, such as a sexual harassment or fraud scandal; a change in leadership, market strategy or a merger or acquisition; or a desire to continue work that’s going well.
This means that managing culture requires a two-fold approach: those responsible for implementation must keep an eye on the day-to-day shifts while also being able to lead a shift to a new culture when necessary. They also need to be able to measure culture to understand whether initiatives are working.
The growing need to manage culture
Workforce trends — both internal and external — are making culture management an imperative. Digital transformation, for example, affects every organization, and is one of the great drivers of culture change. In addition to that disruption, businesses face increased global competition, a need to be agile and a war for talented employees, including those that are part of a new generation with their own ideas about how work should look.
For ongoing culture management, business leaders need to identify how culture can align with and support the business’ goals. “They really have to ask if what we’re offering today is relevant to the company we have or aspire to be,” says Christa Degnan Manning, vice president, solution provider research, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting. Culture change is not just something that happens, she says. “Every company has a culture. They must identify the culture they want and continuously work on that.”
Another key requirement for ongoing culture management is good employee engagement — a factor studies have shown many businesses lack. When employees want to work collaboratively, be innovative and meet business objectives, culture maintenance becomes easier.
Implementing a culture change
When it comes time for a major culture shift, employers need all hands on deck. Because a culture change affects every area of the company, buy-in from leadership, mid-level managers and HR is necessary.
A culture change must begin at the top, but can’t end there. Once business leadership has determined what the desired culture is and how it aligns with the business, the rush may be to rollout the plan. But before that’s done, leaders need to develop self-awareness, says Linda Culliton, senior partner and global account lead at Korn Ferry. “Leaders lead the way through behaviors and actions,” she says. “Are they all on board? Are they aligned in what it means around their change, behaviors and actions?”
Leaders may need support need to lead change, added Overcast. That may mean coaching to help them with their behavior, to learn new skills to articulate the new vision and provide feedback, and to build capacity for managing change, she said.
And remember, change can be difficult, even for those who lead it, Culliton said. “Especially if they’ve acted in a way that has been successful for them for 30 to 40 years and now are asked to change because of business transformation.”
Additionally, not everyone will want to make the change, Overcast noted. Leaders may have to recognize this and make a tough decision to let that person go. If leadership fails to get one employee on board but allows them to remain, it could derail the entire effort, she said.
Mid-level employees are also critical to a culture shift. Businesses need to enlist culture champions, Overcast says. These are people who can exhibit the new cultural behaviors and are identified as role models.
Other effective advocates can be those who were skeptical about the change, but who have turned around. Leaders should be sure to communicate clearly to the “frozen middle” — those who may have received mixed messages and are stuck, not understanding what their role in the new normal should be. Coaching also can help resisters who are valued for their expertise make the adjustment, Overcast says.
HR should focus on the employee experience and make sure that core HR service delivery is stellar, says Manning. “Are you running day-to-day operations in the way that supports productivity of every worker?” It may sound daunting, but as more and more traditional HR responsibilities become automated, HR should be able to spend more energy helping connect employees and driving change, she says.
HR also can ensure that the talent lifecycle supports the new culture, says Overcast. Recruiting, performance management, rewards and incentives should be aligned with the desired behaviors, she recommends.
HR should pay attention to employee wellbeing, too, Manning added. This involves a focus on helping employees adapt to the changing realities so they can maintain their own wellbeing. For example, “once you adopt technologies, are you also enabling human contributions in a way that is sustainable and humane?”
Beyond individual roles, HR should consider how the organizational structure supports — or doesn’t support — change, says Culliton. Is the same department asked to reduce risk but also innovate — a task that is inherently risky? Are the same people expected to invest in a long-term strategy, but judged on short-term results? The structure of an organization and its policies will need to change to reflect the new expectations. “Look for the need for new roles and new capabilities,” Culliton says. Most organizations underestimate the need for system and structural changes that reinforce the desired behaviors, she said.
Those responsible for implementing and maintaining culture will also need a way to measure the results Leaders often underestimate the amount of time it takes to create change, Culliton says, adding that the shift can take years, so that’s something for which they’ll need to account.
And while some organizations measure change more formally than others, signs of a culture shift are often universal, Overcast says. Factors to consider include:
- an intangible feeling from employees or customers;
- anecdotal stories gleaned through interviews, focus groups and surveys;
- turnover rates;
- time to fill positions;
- employee satisfaction ratings;
- external reputation (such as Glassdoor reviews);
- productivity, quality or safety; and
- quantity and quality of new ideas or products.
Finally, it’s important to remember that culture is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, Overcast says. Creating the right culture means cultivating the one that transparently supports the business needs in a way that helps both the business and the employees perform their best.