Workplace and culture considerations
Attracting and retaining the best and the brightest talent costs money.
The Great Resignation has added a new set of data to consider in the value of the workplace. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, used by The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), reports that this “quitter market” has increased throughout the age of COVID. By November 2021, 3 percent of the U.S. workforce voluntarily resigned their work, topping 4.5 million individuals who quit their job in one month. The cost of losing employees is profound. Gallup estimates that, “The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary – and that’s a conservative estimate.”
Consider the potential of losing and replacing 3 percent of your people next month. If you are an organization of 100 employees, and if you were to estimate your average salary at +/- $50,000, the potential value loss for the coming year could be a million dollars or more in productivity. People choosing to not belong to their organization is expensive.
The social, economic and psychological drivers for what we call the Great Resignation phenomenon are many, and the complexity of why people leave their jobs can be unpredictable. The pandemic taught us that working from home can work. Many in leadership are driving people back into the office for “cultural reasons.” But for many, working from home is a benefit they do not want to give back.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once wrote that he always expected that 10 percent of the employee population was not a good cultural fit; he was fine with this. In fact, he said he expected his leadership to have an idea of the 10 percent they were always helping move out of the company. While at first this thought might seem rather harsh, the reality is that cultural fit is complex. The social dynamics of a team are influenced by cultural norms, and the individual psychology of the person is impacted by the daily social dynamics of the team.
So, the question is: What is it about culture that is impacting all of work?
Organization culture: often elusive, always vital
Culture drives the common behaviors that are deemed right and good in producing business results. It also drives the sense of vitality people experience within their work. Culture is slow to change but must change when influenced by business change. Cultural change is one of the harder experiences for a company to embrace.
Why is a culture change difficult?
Culture is the memory of what is supported and rewarded between people. For example, a cultural behavior like interrupting a teammate to address a fire-drill need can begin as a rewarded behavior when focused on customer service. However, interrupting a colleague might evolve over time to include even minor needs, such as if you have not submitted your fantasy football team. Another example is a cultural trait that is encouraged by a team’s desire to “keep everyone in the loop” on work advancement (i.e., copying the whole team on an email). But copied emails might evolve over time into filling inboxes unnecessarily to cover all contingencies, such as CYA-style self-preservation.
These are simple, behavioral examples of a complex set of belief systems that every organization develops over time. Often, drivers are forgotten or are carried over without question and reinforced by workplace design and use. I once worked with a contact-center group who reported that the culture was not healthy.
They related stories of not being allowed to talk to each other in public areas such as an elevator lobby. While their belief was resolute that they would “get in trouble” if they talked while waiting for the elevator, deeper memories recalled that a decade earlier, a past CEO had sent a mandate to all staff that talking in public spaces was discouraged. This mandate was developed after an incident when a customer was riding between floors as a group talked negatively about their workday. One event created a cultural expectation.
Unfortunately, sending out new mandates – that talking at the elevator is encouraged, limiting email copies is desirable, and/or having a legitimate business reason to deliver an interruption is preferred – is not likely to have a short-term impact on behavioral changes. In business, people watch for what is supported and rewarded as a natural part of their human need to belong and to create positive results. The root of cultural change begins with figuring out what is right and good for business.
Diagnosing desired culture
There are numerous cultural tools in the market that can create value for work and the workplace. Some are proprietary, but all involve survey, data analysis, and interpretation, while the good ones include action towards change. For the past two decades, the competing values cultural assessment tool has been used to identify potential gaps between existing cultural traits and preferred future ones. This open-domain tool unveils macro cultural qualities that, when designed, can propel a lacking culture toward valuable change that generates positive transformation.
Diagnostic investigation of a company’s culture is akin to drawing blood at a yearly medical exam. Checking cholesterol levels uncovers issues that may impact future health, even though in the present there is no pain. The advantage of measuring cholesterol levels is that evidence-based medicine predetermines the best range for ideal health. Measuring culture is more dynamic.
Consider the following cultural description
Today, our work is directed by established processes and procedures, and clear chains of command. We are focused on winning, team competitiveness, and advancement awarded on individual results. Our leaders are good organizers who appreciate each of our drives for results.
There is nothing bad about this cultural assessment. For that matter, there is no such thing as a bad culture when considering the core purpose of a business – economics.
Business works on the precedent of financial stability and gain, dependent on their people, tools, and technology to deliver products and services of value to their customers. Culture is the human force that drives behaviors to achieve business success.
The challenge is that business change is always in play. New markets, mergers, customer expectations, employee engagement, etc., are human variables that shift and switch in waves over time. The experience people have in their work directly impacts critical considerations like a sense of belonging, relationships, social cohesion, and cultural connectivity.
Consider the following cultural vision for the future:
Tomorrow, our work should be directed by high-performing teams, adaptive leadership, and cross-functional learning. Our work must anticipate the needs of our customers before they know they have such a need, and these results can no longer be based on our past processes alone.
Change is constant. Kim Cameron, author of ”The Competing Values Framework,” stated that, “The frightening uncertainty that traditionally accompanied major organizational change has been superseded by the frightening uncertainty now associated with staying the same.” With change in mind, the questions in business must be redirected to “the cost of not changing.” For this to take place, a return to the idea that 10 percent of your people might not fit in your cultural change has a different value.
The impact on the workplace
Imagine a workplace that is designed for 100-percent hierarchy. The entire workforce benefits from the values of process adherence, sign-off, chains of command, and other procedures that generate predictability and clear expectation. While no culture purely fits such a description, it is possible to align workplace design with spaces for leadership rank, places for ordered meetings, areas of command and control, and a workplace that generally represents each individual. If such a place is aligned with such a culture, the results should be good for business. But, if organizational culture is mapping toward the individual initiative, entrepreneurial spirit, trial-and-error experimentation, and a generally creative atmosphere where new ideas rule the day, then the workplace might be redesigned to encourage and promote new work behaviors.
Engaging with change through workplace design
Using workplace design as a cultural-evolution lever in the change process has value for business. Consider children’s experience with learning how to swim. Their learning experience can impact their attitude toward the water for the rest of their lives. There is a big difference between splashing in the water at the very shallow end of the pool and walking to the deep end for the first time and jumping in. Some kids are daring; some, cautious. Some react well to challenges while others’ positive experiences come from play. Culture change can have a similar impact.
Clearly identifying the value proposition of culture shift and engaging people physically in that process can ensure the change process is approached with a renewed spirit of innovation and confidence. Facilitating healthy conversations with leadership on current and ideal culture is the right place to start. Further, using workplace design tools to make new behaviors visible allows people to “try on,” react, challenge, and experience the change in physical space – gaining feedback and buy-in that ensures the new cultural values and behaviors are aligned with the new environment. Not only will the new space align and enable a culture shift, but you will also have deeper employee engagement and all the social and economic benefits of talent that wants to stay and contribute more, all of which creates a retention and recruitment flywheel.