It is more critical than ever for organizations to engage employees in new ways through compelling, authentic modern workplace cultures. What engaged and retained employees in the past doesn’t resonate with the current workforce. Today’s employees expect more – more development opportunities, more coaching, more collaboration, more authenticity and transparency, more flexibility, a more profound sense of purpose and meaning – and they are ready to leave their current jobs in order to find it.
Gallup’s 2018 State of the American Workplace report tells us more than half of employees are searching for new jobs or watching job openings. Ninety-one percent of employees say the last time they took a new job they did so while actively employed. In other words, they weren’t looking for a new job because they were unemployed.
Actively disengaged employees are almost twice as likely as engaged employees to seek new jobs. Employers looking for new ways to engage employees are focused on creating a workplace culture that engages and inspires employees.
What is a modern workplace culture?
Organizations looking for new ways to engage employees recognize the key role of workplace culture. Workplace culture is the comprehensive experience employees have in their work environments. Workplace culture impacts how it feels for employees to come to work every day and establishes norms for how they interact with one another and their supervisors.
Traditional workplace culture, which is often rooted in hierarchy, an authoritative communication style and strict policies (e.g., set working hours, formal dress code, inflexible work arrangements), is being replaced with a new, modern workplace culture. Modern workplace cultures engage employees in open dialogue, inspire them to think creatively, trust them to manage their work schedules with autonomy and empower them to collaborate to reach business decisions.
Factors driving change in workplace culture
Three key factors are driving this shift toward a modern workplace culture. First is the rising expectations employees have of their employers — driven, in large part, by the millennial generation. Millennials, which are now the largest generation in the workforce, differ from previous generations in that they expect executive leadership to genuinely seek out and consider their opinions and ideas, and they expect to find purpose and meaning in their work.
Part of finding this purpose is working for employers whose values reflect their own, including alignment on environmental and social justice issues. Executive teams are taking note of these increasing expectations. More than a third (38%) of executives see their organizations taking on more responsibility for societal issues as something that will impact the organization over the next couple of years. Employers must adapt to meet these workplace expectations, as they are becoming the status quo among all generations in the workforce, including Generation Z, Generation X and Baby Boomers.
Technology is the second key factor impacting the shift to a modern workplace culture. Digital messaging platforms (e.g., email, instant messaging), sophisticated conference and video call systems, and mobile devices enable more flexible work arrangements because they allow employees to get work done from almost anywhere.
Employees expect their employers to respond by offering flexible work arrangements. According to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2019, the one factor that all workforce segments agreed on when asked what influences them to stay at an organization is if the employer offers flexible work schedules.
Technology also plays a significant role in the third key factor driving the shift to modern workplace culture — the expectation of transparency. With everything documented online and on social media, organizations cannot get away with hiding things from employees. Employees expect transparency and authenticity — and are quick to call out a lack of it.
Transparency matters because it has a direct impact on trust. Employees need to trust their organizations to be engaged and take ownership of their work. If there’s distrust, it hinders the organization’s ability to innovate and grow. Proactive, consistent and genuine communication is at the heart of transparency. When leaders are honest with employees, share both the good and the bad and are clear on expectations, it creates a culture rooted in trust versus fear.
A modern workplace culture embraces technology, cares less about where and when employees get the job done and, instead, creates a culture built on mutual respect, trust and accountability to meet rising employee expectations.
Why companies should care about workplace culture
Rising expectations and technology trends are driving change, but, ultimately, business performance is what determines a true cultural shift. And the data supports the positive impact of a modern workplace culture. Numerous workplace studies show that an organization’s culture has the power to affect business outcomes and key organizational metrics and initiatives, including:
- Attracting talent. Nearly all executives (97%) predict an increase in competition for talent over the next 12 months. When an organization can put its positive workplace culture at the center of its talent acquisition efforts (especially during a talent shortage), it reduces the cost of attracting new talent and increases its ability to bring in top performers.
- Retaining talent. Twenty-seven percent of employees voluntarily left their jobs in 2018 and 35% will leave jobs each year to go work somewhere else by 2023. Employers must respond to increased employee turnover by creating a workplace where employees want to stay. Employees are more likely to remain at an organization if the workplace culture empowers their professional development, aligns to their values and supports their personal well-being, among other factors.
- Employee engagement. Employee engagement is how committed workers are to their job and it’s often correlated to critical business metrics like revenue and customer satisfaction. Organizations should look for opportunities to provide employees with greater ownership of their work if they hope to improve employee engagement rates. Trust and respect are cornerstones to building a workplace culture that allows for this autonomy.
- Productivity, profitability and business growth. When employees are engaged, they are also motivated and inspired to accomplish more work at a higher quality, with better results. In studying employee engagement, Gallup found that organizations in the top quartile of engagement have significantly better customer engagement, higher productivity, better retention and 21% higher profitability.
- Competing and differentiating. Organizations increasingly leverage talent to create a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. If workplace culture is essential to attracting and retaining talent, it is also critical to helping organizations compete, especially amidst an increasingly tight talent market. With a healthy workplace culture, organizations can attract and retain top talent, solidifying their competitive advantage.
- Creativity and innovation. If an organization strives to be innovative, employees must be supported and empowered to take risks without fear of repercussion. A workplace culture built on trust and creativity inspires fresh ideas and innovation. Executives who say they value creativity and innovation but, then reprimand mistakes or failed ideas, lose credibility and trust and fail to truly support innovation.
The business case for implementing a modern workplace culture has never been more clear. Successful organizations should be taking steps to evaluate, measure and invest in a culture designed to bring their purpose, values and growth goals to life.
It’s one thing to talk about the importance of workplace culture, but it’s another to invest the time, resources and talent necessary to make it a reality. Creating a new culture or changing an existing one requires thoughtful planning and consistent execution. The next chapters detail the steps organizations should take when creating a workplace culture that engages employees and empowers growth. These steps include:
- Starting with purpose, vision and values
- Aligning leadership and communication
- Evaluating existing culture and the vision for the future
- Engaging employees
- Measuring culture and planning for culture initiatives
An organization’s purpose or mission, vision and values create a powerful framework for nurturing a culture that supports both the business and its employees. Together, these statements summarize the organization’s reason for being, what it’s trying to achieve in the world, and how it will go about doing it.
An organization’s workplace culture should consistently align with its purpose or mission, vision and values. If these are misaligned, the workplace culture is not providing the environment needed to enable the success of the business.
Why an organization’s “why” matters to its workplace culture
An organization’s “why” — whether purpose or mission — provides clarity and focus to employees, customers and partners about what the organization stands for and its reason for being. It serves as the organization’s “North Star,” setting clear expectations, guiding business decisions and unifying employees. Organizations that know why they exist, how they will achieve their goals and what to focus on are more successful by every measure.
According to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2018, 75% of thriving employees say their company has a strong sense of purpose that resonates with their values. A well-understood and clearly communicated purpose is essential to a modern workplace culture because it helps employees visualize how their day-to-day work supports a larger, more meaningful contribution to society. When employees believe in the reason for the organization’s existence, they’re more likely to be engaged and motivated.
A compelling purpose also increases the effectiveness of talent acquisition. It helps attract the candidates who are most likely to thrive in the organization because their values align with it. Organizations that can bring in the right talent for the purpose create stronger workplace cultures that drive positive business results.
Making the vision possible through workplace culture
A clear and differentiated vision sets an organization apart from its competitors and illustrates what the world will be like once the organization advances its purpose or achieves its mission. The vision is aspirational and should provide long-term direction.
However, in Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report, only 22% strongly agree that leadership at their company has a clear direction for the organization. Organizations must use their long-term vision to shape workplace culture in a way that promotes the skills and workstyle needed to achieve it.
For example, if an organization needs collaboration to achieve its vision, it must create a workplace culture that nurtures collaboration. Rather than having a work space with closed-door offices, the organization should consider a workspace that fosters collaboration through a more open concept floor plan and shared space for brainstorms and impromptu work sessions.
Knowing and articulating a vision is not only crucial for clarity among employees but also because it enables organizations to create the workplace culture necessary to succeed.
Bringing values to life
An organization’s values guide how it will achieve its business goals. Values also play a critical role in shaping workplace culture by setting clear expectations for how the organization promises to interact with its employees, partners and customers, and how employees are expected to behave in return.
Organizations that don’t have values in place or have outdated values that are misaligned with its desired culture should complete an exercise in defining values. Senior leadership should unite to answer questions like:
- How do we want to show up in the world?
- What do we believe and what are the behaviors we agree to live by?
- What behaviors will enable our vision and our strategy?
Once the organization selects its values, it should activate them by:
- Clearly defining each value and proactively communicating to ensure understanding
- Consistently reinforcing values through communication and modeling behaviors
- Establishing hiring criteria and interview questions based on the values
- Incentivizing and recognizing employees who embody the values
- Correcting employee behavior when it doesn’t match values
- Tying rollouts of new products or policies back to values
- Making values come to life in the workplace (e.g., posting them on walls, providing access to meditation rooms or fitness discounts if “wellness” is a value)
It is also critical for leadership to model the values through both words and actions. They should be woven through all internal communications. When leadership promotes its values and models them effectively, it builds trust among employees. Increased trust results in more committed and engaged employees who are more likely to embody the values they see reflected in leadership’s behavior.
Workplaces built on human relationships, interaction and problem-solving — all defining factors of a modern workplace culture — help employees thrive. Yet only a quarter of employees strongly believe their organizations are doing a good job with team-building efforts, and 40% believe management at their organizations are “not at all transparent.”
Traditional workplace cultures often operate under a “command and control” model. Leaders tell employees what to do without asking for input or ideas. Messages are delivered from the top-down, often creating an “us vs. them” mentality between employees and their supervisors or the executive team and disincentivizing creativity and collaboration.
Engagement, communication and collaboration are necessary to build a modern workplace culture, and that takes a bold, new leadership style grounded in openness and transparency.
A new type of leader and communication style
Modern workplace cultures call for leaders who are accessible, authentic and inspiring. They must also have strong communication skills, strong listening skills and an openness to two-way dialogue. Studies find that most leadership teams aren’t succeeding at this.
The 2019 Employee Engagement Report from TinyPULSE found that only 22% of employees strongly agree that their organization’s management is transparent and only 25% strongly agree that their organization takes their feedback and suggestions seriously. Leadership style and communication need an overhaul.
To effectively deliver a modern workplace culture, leaders need to engage in frequent two-way communication with employees. An honest back-and-forth dialogue between leaders and employees is a crucial element to modern workplace culture because it builds a foundation of trust and strong working relationships. It engages employees by giving them a central role in problem-solving, and it provides clarity on goals and expectations (both of the employees and the organization).
When employees are told to do something through a one-way channel (e.g., email), they may or may not engage with (or even read) the message. However, when leaders engage employees in open dialogue, listen to their feedback, and consider how to make organizational changes based on those conversations, employees have a direct impact on the business. They feel heard and valued — resulting in more empowered employees who are inspired to take ownership of their work.
Embracing two-way communication
There are a variety of two-way communication methods that organizations can adopt, including employee feedback tools, surveys to get a sense for how employees are feeling, and town hall meetings where employees are invited to ask leadership questions directly.
Two-way communication can only be effective if organizations have a process for reviewing and responding to feedback. If employees submit feedback and ideas but never hear back or see any action taken, they will quickly view the open line of communication as inauthentic. This can result in employees feeling frustrated, resentful, disengaged or even hostile.
When leadership listens to employees, the benefits are two-fold. First, it helps leaders get a better sense of how employees are feeling and what is happening within the organization. Listening gives them perspective on areas of the organization where they don’t have a direct line of sight. This perspective gives them the insight needed to determine what steps should be taken to move, grow and nurture the workplace culture.
Second, listening develops trust between leadership and employees. Employees want leaders to consider their input. When leaders ask employees for feedback, they feel valued and empowered. Even if leaders cannot act on the feedback from employees, the simple gesture of asking, listening and acknowledging input strengthens trust between leadership and employees.
The power of consistent, strategic communication
A well-developed internal communication strategy aligned to the organization’s purpose and values is a fundamental element of modern workplace culture. Leaders should align on key culture messages to avoid sending mixed messages to employees that result in distraction and mistrust.
Internal communications should also be consistent, transparent, and focused on providing understanding and clarity to employees. Clarity helps employees understand what the organization is working towards, why and the role they play in it.
Communication should be frequent and delivered across multiple channels to appeal to a variety of learning styles. The plan could incorporate videos, infographics, written documents and in-person events. A documented communication strategy is key to ensuring messages are consistent across all channels. A strong communication strategy is vital to workplace culture success.
Recent research shows that when employees are happier at work, 85% say they take more initiative, 73% say they’re better collaborators and 48% care more about their work. Creating a workplace culture that puts employee satisfaction at its core creates more engaged and productive employees — essential drivers of business results.
Despite this, less than a third of human resource leaders strongly agree that their business executives prioritize human capital risks like employee engagement, diversity and development. Research continues to tie these human capital factors to productivity and profitability, making them no longer nice-to-haves, but critical business necessities that make or break the organization’s ability to compete for and retain top talent to achieve its mission. A modern workplace culture puts employee engagement, satisfaction and well-being at its center.
Creating a growth culture
A central tenet of modern workplace cultures is professional development for employees. As jobs change rapidly with emerging technology like artificial intelligence, employees are looking for ways to sharpen skills or develop new ones. When growth opportunities aren’t presented clearly to employees, they often think the only way to grow is to find a new job outside of the company. Creating a growth culture is as much about nurturing employees as it is about retaining them.
The 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report identified the need for learning and development as the top trend for the year, with 86% of its survey respondents rating the issue as important or very important. Yet only 10% feel their organizations are “very ready” to address learning and development.
Organizations need to incorporate learning and development into their workplace culture by having professional development frameworks in place that provide financial support, time allocations, coaching and internal advancement programs. Providing growth and development opportunities contributes to higher employee engagement and retention. Employees feel more empowered and committed to the organization that’s supporting them, and they are less likely to look for opportunities outside the organization.
Cultures focused on growth also result in higher rates of innovation. When an organization encourages its employees to learn new things and take risks, they are more likely to feel safe doing so. Employees who have less fear look for new ways to solve problems to move the organization forward.
The power of appreciation
Recent research from O.C. Tanner found that 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving — and 65% said they weren’t recognized even once in the last year. Appreciating employee contributions isn’t just the right thing to do, but it also affects an organization’s ability to retain talent.
It may not come as a surprise that only 11% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report said their organization aligns their rewards strategy to organizational goals. Employee recognition programs should be in place to reward employees in specific, personal, authentic and meaningful ways. Otherwise employees may feel underappreciated and seek out other job opportunities.
Modern workplace cultures demonstrate appreciation for employees through rewards, recognition, compensation and benefits. Beyond providing competitive salaries and traditional benefits, organizations can demonstrate appreciation by rewarding employees who embody the organization’s values.
Well-being as a business driver
There is no longer a clear separation between who someone is at work versus at home in today’s always-connected digital world. Work blends into employees’ personal lives, and employees bring personal challenges with them to the office. The goal of well-being should be about supporting employees to be the best version of themselves. When employees show up to work at their best it creates an energized culture that inspires creativity and growth — both elements that support retention, acquisition and innovation.
When well-being is not prioritized it can create a burn-out culture. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently recognized burn-out as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” In its International Classification of Disease, WHO characterizes burn-out as exhaustion, cynicism toward one’s job and reduced professional performance. Burn-out is a workplace problem, and employees experiencing it are 30% more likely to leave their jobs because of it.
Employees are also making decisions on whether to take or leave a job based on whether the organization offers flexible scheduling and work-from-home arrangements. Modern workplace culture mitigates burn-out with added flexibility and a focus on well-being. If talent is a competitive advantage for an organization, it should invest in taking care of employees.
When organizations have cultures grounded in holistic wellness, employees perform better and are more resilient in challenging times. When employees can adequately care for their needs, they can handle conflict at work with more clarity, resolve and positivity.
The role of diversity, equity and inclusion
More than 44% of the millennial population are minorities, making it the most diverse generation in history. Simply focusing on increasing diversity in the workplace is no longer enough. Millennials expect diversity to raise at higher rates and they demand equity and inclusion from their employers. In one study, Mercer found that thriving employees are four times more likely to work for companies that promote equity — suggesting that employees perform better in environments with equity.
Research continues to show the positive impact of having a diverse workforce. Organizations that are more diverse are more competitive and experience higher productivity, profitability and engagement. According to a McKinsey diversity report, organizations in the top 25% for ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to lead their industries in profitability. Employees representing a wide range of races and cultures, gender and gender identities, religions and more bring a diverse set of talents, skills, strengths, points of view and experiences to the table, improving creativity and innovation.
Organizations should only promote diversity, equity and inclusion as part of their workplace culture if it is authentic. If an organization promotes the importance of women leaders but then has a predominantly male C-suite, the organization is not demonstrating an equitable culture. The promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion will come across as inauthentic and potentially create resentment between employees and leadership. Instead of promoting the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion, it should invest time and resources to evaluate and correct the barriers preventing a diverse and equitable culture.
How an organization creates and nurtures its workplace culture depends on the type of culture needed to achieve the organization’s mission. Despite the individualized nature of workplace culture, organizations can follow best practices to build a healthy one. Best practices include effectively measuring the existing culture, engaging employees in culture initiatives, and aligning efforts to business objectives.
Keeping a pulse on workplace culture
Creating an optimal workplace culture starts with understanding the current culture. To keep a pulse on its culture, employers should regularly check in with employees and monitor organizational metrics that indicate the health of the culture.
Organizations are changing and evolving at faster rates than ever before. Extensive annual employee feedback surveys that could take months to evaluate should no longer be the primary employee engagement tool. Often, by the time employers review survey results and implement changes, the organization has already changed significantly.
It’s also not enough for organizations to just collect employee feedback. Even though organizations evaluate workplace culture and employee engagement on a more consistent basis than ever before, studies show that only half of employees feel their organization considers their feedback when making business decisions and only a third of employers are actively analyzing the key drivers of engagement in their organization. Employers must identify more efficient and actionable ways to assess engagement and culture and proactively communicate its efforts back to employees.
Methods for assessing workplace culture
There are many data points and measurements organizations can use to evaluate the health of its workplace culture. These include:
- eNPS (employee Net Promoter Score). This one-question survey asks employees how likely they are to recommend the organization as a workplace.
- Pulse surveys. Short pulse surveys that are frequently sent to employees can help assess the health of the workplace culture. These survey questions can be designed around the organization’s values to evaluate how well employees embody them in their work.
- Employee engagement metrics. These measurements based on standard questions assess how engaged employees are in the workplace. Questions are frequently about relationships employees have with colleagues and how happy they feel at work.
- Values alignment assessment. Employee reviews that evaluate how well employees embody organizational values in their day-to-day work can be effective culture measures.
- Productivity. Metrics around productivity, output and overtime hours are telling measures for engagement and indicators of potential burn-out syndrome.
- Retention and recruitment metrics. Organizations should have retention and recruitment targets in place for the length of employee tenure and how long it takes to fill an open role.
- PTO and sick time utilization. A look at how many employees are using their PTO and sick time. High PTO usage can be an indicator of healthy workplace culture, while high sick time usage can indicate problems, like burn-out.
- Reputation in the marketplace as a place to work. Regularly evaluating what people in your industry and community say about the organization as a place to work.
Employers should choose the metrics that align to their organizational goals — whether that’s identifying problems in the existing culture, making improvements to what exists today, or maintaining and continually evolving the healthy culture already in place.
Engaging employees in creating workplace culture
Employees are ultimately responsible for bringing the workplace culture to life, so it’s logical to involve them in shaping the culture. When organizations engage employees in something as important as workplace culture, they are more apt to participate with openness and positivity. This collaboration and mutual respect is the essence of modern workplace culture.
Organizations can collect informal feedback from employees by engaging managers and supervisors to learn how things are going on their teams. They can identify influencers in the organization — those with the power to affect how others in their peer group feel — who are willing to share how things are going from an individual contributor’s perspective. Informal feedback mechanisms often uncover insights that can’t be found using more formal methods.
Involving employees in workplace culture planning helps leaders see the changes that are needed and uncovers when there are gaps between what’s promised at the leadership level and what employees actually experience and perceive to be true. When it’s time to launch new culture initiatives, organizations can enlist the help of employee ambassadors to embody the key elements of the culture.
A SWOT analysis for workplace culture
A SWOT analysis, which evaluates strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, is a useful tool for workplace culture evaluation, planning and prioritization. Organizations can use employee feedback and organizational metrics to outline the strengths and weaknesses of the culture and identify the opportunities and threats.
SWOT analyses are useful because they help leaders prioritize workplace culture initiatives by outlining areas where the organization excels and where it needs to improve. These insights challenge leaders to think about how they can do more of what they do well and how these strengths can be pulled through into the culture and internal messaging. When leaders shape culture messaging around organizational strengths, the messages are more authentic.
When choosing which culture initiatives to prioritize and implement, organizations should ask themselves these guiding questions:
- Do the priorities support the purpose or mission, vision and values?
- Is the workplace culture one that can help the organization achieve its business objectives?
- Do culture initiatives equally benefit the employer and the employees?
Activating and sustaining a modern workplace culture
Employees are ultimately responsible for bringing a workplace culture to life but organizations can play a significant role in influencing it. Modern workplace culture is activated when organizations respond to employee input and expectations, align the culture to organizational values, put leadership in place that embodies the culture and involve employees in modeling the ideal culture.
Culture ambassadors can be effective activators because they are influential in their peer groups. Organizations should identify ambassadors who are naturally influential, regardless of whether they’re formal leaders in the organization. Culture ambassadors can be leveraged to motivate other employees across the organization to model the desired culture. These ambassadors can be helpful not only as a source for feedback but also as an employee enlisted to help make the culture a success.
Recognition and rewards are critical when activating changes in workplace culture. Organizations should take time to recognize employees across the organization who are embodying the culture. This reinforcement will help the culture grow organically from within as employees shift their behavior to meet what’s being rewarded and recognized.
Organizations with modern workplace culture recognize that culture initiatives are not a one-time investment. Culture needs sustaining. It is fluid, ever-changing and evolving — requiring organizations to check in regularly. Culture should be nurtured to evolve in ways that are best for employees and the business. Organizations should continually ask themselves if the culture is working effectively in support of the company’s purpose.
Embracing modern workplace culture
Organizations face increasingly complex challenges. The competition for top talent is fierce, employees expect more from their employers, and rapid advancements in technology are changing how businesses get work done. The rate of change is unlike anything the modern world has experienced. Regardless of these trends, employees remain the most crucial factor in an organization’s success or failure.
Today’s employees are looking for purpose, inspiration and connection in their professional lives. They demand a modern workplace culture that breaks down hierarchical models of authority and instead promotes transparent leadership and team-based collaboration and connection. Organizations need to adapt — and quickly. Where will you begin?
Beehive doesn’t just talk about modern workplace culture. We live and breathe it each day. Are you interested in transforming your workplace culture into one that energizes employees and values well-being, creativity and growth?