Strong Organizational Cultures Attract and Retain Top Talent
Employee expectations had already begun to intensify before the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees expected more authenticity and transparency, a more profound sense of purpose and meaning, greater schedule flexibility, more professional development opportunities and a genuine commitment to diversity, inclusion and well-being.
Then the pandemic struck, and a global uprising against racial injustice took shape simultaneously. These historical events dramatically accelerated shifts that had already begun to emerge, driving significant and permanent change to organizational culture.
Nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed by McKinsey in 2021 said the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to reflect on their life’s purpose, what is most important to them and what is worth prioritizing. While work is a significant part of people’s lives, today’s employees are no longer willing to stay in unfulfilling jobs or work for employers that don’t treat employees, people or the planet well.
This reflection on work’s role in life has led to The Great Resignation, the largest mass exodus from the workforce in history. The United States experienced record-high job quit rates throughout 2021. Still, 23% of people said they planned to quit their jobs in 2022, according to a CareerArc/Harris Poll Study.
But employees aren’t quitting their jobs to leave the workforce or taking new jobs solely for a higher salary. They’re leaving to reassess why they work in the first place and how work fits into their life and goals. Then, they’re coming back with a renewed sense of purpose to find a role within an organization that aligns with their values. They are seeking out organizations with effective leadership, transparent communication, flexible work arrangements and a strong organizational culture that prioritizes well-being and inclusivity.
Employees — not employers — are now in charge.
Businesses thrive when they put people first
Smart businesses are considering what they can do to attract and retain values-aligned employees. Organizations will thrive when they focus on cultivating people-centered cultures that are healthy, inclusive and grounded in trust and appreciation. Not only will they attract and retain top talent, but these companies will reap the business benefits of having engaged, innovative, productive, collaborative and curious employees. Their employees will be more passionate about the organization, its purpose and the role they play in its success.
Now is the time for organizations to respond to the changing landscape. Businesses that prioritize their employees and lead with open and authentic communication can more effectively nurture an organizational culture compelling enough to convince existing employees to stay and new employees to join them.
Organizational culture is the comprehensive experience employees have with their employers and colleagues. Culture shapes how it feels to work for a particular organization and establishes norms for how employees interact with each other, their supervisors and customers.
Strong organizational culture relies on trust: trust in leaders and managers, trust that the organization will do what it says it will do and trust in colleagues. Organizations can build trust through transparency, accountability, authenticity and respect — foundational elements to any healthy work culture. Distrust, on the other hand, hurts retention and slows the organization’s ability to innovate and grow.
Proactive, consistent and genuine communication is at the heart of cultures built on trust. Communication is most impactful when it’s a dialogue that engages employees by proactively asking them for feedback, ideas and input. It should also clarify and reinforce what the organization stands for and demonstrate how the organization is taking action on its promises and values.
Communication is particularly important for building connections and fostering a healthy culture in today’s work-from-anywhere environment. Companies must be mindful of how they reach and engage employees, regardless of whether they work on-site, remote or hybrid.
Culture in a work-from-anywhere environment
Hybrid and work-from-anywhere environments present new challenges for organizational culture. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees had flexibility in ways they never had before, and they’re not willing to go back to daily commutes, hectic travel schedules or strict office hours. There is no going back.
Organizations and industries that were once resistant to remote workers have been forced to evolve and will need to continue to offer their employees flexibility and autonomy to retain them. Recent research from Microsoft points to a hybrid work model becoming the norm to balance employees’ desires for flexible remote options and in-person interactions.
Culture was never about “place,” but workplaces often served as an anchor for culture, providing spaces for collaboration and camaraderie and generating a sense of belonging through daily connections. This sense of belonging matters; Qualtrics’ 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report found that employees who feel a sense of belonging at work are also more engaged.
Organizations must be intentional about how they cultivate and encourage collaboration and establish a sense of shared identity when employees are working across different geographies, time zones, schedules and environments. Creating new moments for culture to thrive and opportunities for connection in today’s hybrid environment is as crucial as refreshing physical spaces that accommodate hybrid work. Internal communication takes on increased importance as organizations identify new ways to engage and connect geographically dispersed talent.
Attract top talent with employer brand
Work from anywhere meets employees’ expectations for flexibility and autonomy, and it also offers employers significant benefits in today’s labor-constrained market. Remote work widens an organization’s talent market by eliminating geographic barriers to recruitment. Companies can attract geographically dispersed, diverse and values-aligned talent when their employer brand is strong and accurately reflects what it’s like to work for the organization.
Employer brand is everything the organization does to become an employer of choice. It considers the holistic employee experience (i.e., the organizational culture) and strategically packages it to tell the story of what it’s like to work for the company.
An employer’s brand communicates why an employee would choose to work for the organization, which is especially important as more people seek purpose and meaning from their work. It can also help improve retention by strengthening the bond between the organization and its current employees.
Strengthening an employer brand starts with looking inward to assess the organization’s culture and identifying opportunities to improve it. A stronger culture not only shapes a stronger employer brand but also drives a significant and lasting business impact.
Why is organizational culture important?
Rising employee expectations are driving changes to organizational culture. Numerous studies show that an organization’s culture has the power to impact business outcomes and key organizational metrics and initiatives. Below are some outcomes that demonstrate the importance of organizational culture.
- Attracting talent. The competition for talent is fierce. According to a 2021 survey conducted by Vistage, 67% of CEOs stated that hiring challenges are impacting their ability to operate at full capacity. Organizations must keep a pulse on the type of culture their employees and prospective employees are seeking and identify ways to meet their expectations. Companies that meet employee expectations through a positive, healthy culture can more effectively attract top performers. Strong organizational culture reduces the cost of attracting new talent by serving as a magnet for purpose and values-aligned employees. It also makes it easy for organizations to authentically market their employer brand.
- Retaining talent. When asked about employee retention, 53% of employers said they are facing higher voluntary turnover than they had in previous years, according to a fall 2021 survey from McKinsey. This trend isn’t letting up any time soon, with 64% of those same employers saying they expect the problem to continue or worsen. Many leaders assume people are leaving their jobs because of compensation or poor emotional or physical health – and some are. However, the top reasons employees left jobs, also according to McKinsey, is because they didn’t feel valued by their organizations or managers, and they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work. Employers must respond to increased turnover by shaping a compelling culture that empowers employees, celebrates successes, creates connection points between employees and leaders and prioritizes inclusion.
- Employee engagement. Employee engagement — a critical business and human resources metric – indicates how committed workers are to their job. Organizations should look to provide employees with professional development opportunities and greater ownership of their work if they hope to improve employee engagement rates. Trust, open communication and respect are cornerstones to building an organizational culture that allows for this autonomy.
- Profitability, productivity and customer loyalty. When employees are engaged, they are motivated and inspired to accomplish more work at a higher quality, with better results and more innovation. Research conducted by Gallup has connected higher employee engagement with numerous positive business results. These results include a 23% increase in profitability, 18% increase in productivity, 10% increase in customer loyalty and engagement, and reduced turnover in both high and low turnover organizations. Healthy organizational cultures keep employees engaged, and engaged employees help a business thrive.
- Competing and differentiating. Organizations increasingly leverage talent to create a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. If organizational culture is essential to attracting and retaining talent, it is also critical to helping businesses compete, especially amidst an increasingly tight talent market. Organizations can attract and retain top talent with a strong culture, 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 healthy organizational culture built on trust inspires creative ideas and innovation, creating a safe environment for employees to take risks. Executives who say they value creativity and innovation but then penalize employees for creative thinking or reprimand mistakes or failed ideas lose credibility and trust.
The business case for investing in organizational culture has never been clearer. The businesses that succeed will be those that are intentional about cultivating a culture that prioritizes its people and brings the organization’s purpose and values to life.
Today’s employees decide where to work based on much more than salary and benefits. Unfortunately, too many leaders overemphasize salary to attract and retain talent because it’s a factor they can easily control in the short-term. So, while high salaries may draw or keep some employees, organizations lacking the foundational culture employees desire aren’t likely to keep those employees happy and engaged in the long run.
Investing in the following six elements of organizational culture is a genuine, longer-term strategy that will help companies nurture a strong culture that attracts and retains today’s purpose-driven talent.
Cultural shifts require significant organizational change, and leaders are central to the success of change. Leaders who have ignored or delayed responding to the cultural changes that stem from heightened employee expectations can no longer afford to do so. The path toward a healthier culture starts with leadership self-awareness. Leaders must reflect on the organization’s current culture and pinpoint where it’s failing to meet employee and marketplace expectations.
This honest reflection requires empathetic leaders who understand employees’ needs, wants and fears and can imagine what it would be like to be in employees’ shoes. Leaders gain trust and credibility when they can humanize themselves through relatability and empathy, two skills that emerged as particularly valuable when leading through the pandemic. Research increasingly ties empathetic leaders to business impact, including innovation, retention, engagement and inclusion.
The importance of dialogue between leaders and employees
In addition to empathetic leaders, strong organizational cultures call for accessible, authentic, open and transparent leaders who have strong communication and listening skills. Listening has always been important, but it is especially so in remote or hybrid work environments where organizations must be more intentional about creating connection points between leaders and employees. Leaders must remain present — perhaps even more so — despite fewer opportunities for in-person interactions.
They should initiate frequent two-way communication with employees to effectively nurture and maintain a strong culture. An honest back-and-forth dialogue between leaders and employees is crucial to culture because it builds a foundation of trust and strong working relationships. Two-way communication 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.
Leadership’s role in purpose and values
An organization’s purpose or mission defines why it exists. Its organizational values define what the company believes and the behaviors it agrees to live by every day. Leadership is responsible not just for communicating the purpose and values but also for modeling them through action.
Leaders build on trust with employees when they use the business’s purpose and values to inform their decision-making and guide their behavior. Increased trust results in more engaged employees who are more likely to commit to the purpose and embody the values they see reflected in leadership’s behavior. Effective leadership helps engrain the purpose and values into the culture, ultimately shaping purpose-driven culture where employees and the business thrive.
Leaders must be willing and able to lead culture change through transparent communication and by modeling the behavior changes they expect of employees.
2. Purpose and values
Employees increasingly seek purpose and meaning in their work. Yet, organizations continue to disappoint their employees. According to Gallup, only four in ten employees strongly agree that their company’s purpose or mission makes their job feel important. And only 18% of respondents to a McKinsey survey believe they get as much purpose as they want from work.
Building an organizational culture that is purpose-driven starts with the business recommitting to or shifting their purpose, mission and values to better align with employee expectations and all that’s changed in the world. Together, these statements embody the organization’s reason for being (purpose/mission) and how it will bring its purpose/mission to life through actions and behaviors (values).
Root purpose, mission and values in authenticity
Purpose, mission and values should never be empty promises. They should genuinely reflect how the organization operates and what it aims to achieve. Employees will be quick to call out or leave employers that fail to turn promises into action. Lip service just won’t cut it.
For example, if a consulting services company says it values collaboration, it must focus on building an organizational culture with a collaborative work environment. If employees are working from anywhere, this could mean investments in digital technology that enable teams to hold workshops and brainstorming sessions virtually or dedicating one afternoon each month to team ideation sessions. When employers back up their promises with action, employees are more trusting and more likely to embrace the organization’s purpose, mission and values.
This authenticity also applies to how an organization addresses societal and social justice issues. Stakeholders, including employees, want to know how the organization takes a stand on issues, including the climate crisis and racial justice.
Gartner’s Reimagine HR Employee Survey found that while 40% of respondents were considered highly engaged employees, this number increased to 60% when the organization took action on the social issues of today. However, an organization can cause significant damage to its brand and hurt its ability to attract and retain talent if it says, for example, that it values diversity in the workplace or prioritizes sustainability but acts otherwise.
Why purpose-driven culture matters to a business
An organization’s purpose, mission and values create a powerful framework for nurturing a culture that supports both the business and its employees. An organization’s “why” 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,” guiding business decisions and unifying employees. Values help the company set and meet the expectations of its stakeholder communities, including its employees, customers, partners and investors.
A well-understood and communicated purpose is essential to strong organizational 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, especially in our post-pandemic, purpose-driven world. If a culture doesn’t align with the organization’s purpose, mission and values, the company can’t provide the environment needed to enable its success.
A compelling purpose also increases the effectiveness of talent acquisition and retention. People are 78% more likely to want to work for an organization that leads with purpose, according to Porter Novelli’s 2021 Purpose Perception Study. When an organization clearly communicates and acts according to its “why,” it will more effectively attract employees inspired by that purpose. Purpose-aligned talent will help organizations create organizational cultures that thrive and drive positive business results.
3. Employee empowerment
Employees want to contribute to business outcomes. They want the work they do to matter and serve a greater purpose, and they want to feel seen, heard and recognized. Employers empower people to do their best work when they meet their employees’ needs for flexibility and autonomy and recognize how their contributions matter.
Empowered employees feel appreciated and know they are trusted to make decisions, think differently and work when, where and how it works best for them. This trust, flexibility, autonomy and respect fuels creativity and innovation and is critical to strong organizational culture.
Flexibility is table stakes
Employees don’t just want flexibility; they expect it. Recent trends have shown that flexible work arrangements can even impact whether an employee chooses to stay at an organization. Mandating strict schedules or requiring knowledge workers to work on-site signals a lack of trust, negatively impacting employee empowerment and making employees feel unappreciated.
The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated and solidified this expectation. The proven ability for many employees to work from anywhere has expanded career choices and put employees in control. Employees now want options for location flexibility (e.g., remote, hybrid and work from anywhere) and schedule flexibility (e.g., flextime, compressed work week, shifted start-stop times, part-time schedules, job sharing and more).
Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey found that nearly half (42%) of employees who worked remotely during the pandemic planned to leave their job if their employer didn’t continue to offer remote work options for the long term. According to Owl Lab’s 2021 State of Remote Work, 71% of employees want a hybrid or remote working arrangement — even after the pandemic is over. Employees expect flexible work options. And they’re leaving jobs that won’t offer them.
Salesforce is an example of a company prioritizing flexibility to recruit and retain its talent. The software company released “Work From Anywhere” guidelines that offer employees options for how they work: flex, fully remote and office-based. In its release of the guidelines, Salesforce said:
“As employers, we have an opportunity to create an even better workplace — one that allows us to be more connected to each other, find more balance between work and home, and advance equality — ultimately leading to increased innovation and better business outcomes.”
Under its new guidelines, Salesforce acknowledges changing employee expectations and embraces them by offering flexible arrangements.
The power of appreciation
Showing appreciation for employee contributions isn’t just the right thing to do. When employees feel appreciated, it’s also easier for organizations to engage and retain them. Recent research ties appreciation at work to better performance and higher employee engagement and retention rates. High-performing teams not only receive appreciation at higher rates, but they also express appreciation more often.
When employees feel appreciated and recognized for their valuable contributions, they are more connected to the company’s purpose, more productive and more engaged. Appreciation and gratitude also increase overall employee wellness and reduce stress.
Organizations can demonstrate appreciation for employees through rewards, recognition, compensation and benefits. Beyond providing competitive salaries and traditional benefits, companies can show appreciation by rewarding employees who embody the organization’s values and creating recognition programs.
Employee recognition programs should reward employees in specific, authentic and meaningful ways. This genuine display of appreciation positively impacts employee morale, increases the likelihood that employees will stay at the organization and ultimately empowers employees to do good work.
Employees crave feedback
In addition to appreciation, employees also want feedback from managers and peers about how they’re performing. Recent research from Gallup shows that when employees receive meaningful feedback, they are almost four times as likely than other employees to be engaged. The same research advocates for creating an organizational culture that makes it easy and commonplace to provide feedback. This approach — coined “Fast Feedback” — makes giving and receiving feedback less intimidating and overwhelming, leading to greater agility, better work performance and higher retention.
Employers that demonstrate through their actions that they trust and respect employees will have more empowered and engaged employees who contribute to a healthy organizational culture.
4. Holistic and inclusive well-being
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted people’s well-being. In addition to the serious health implications of the pandemic, people have faced intense and prolonged mental, social and financial stress.
A Stress in America™ survey conducted by American Psychological Association found that stress caused by the pandemic has made it difficult for many U.S. adults — particularly millennials, parents and Black and Hispanic adults — to make daily, basic decisions. Hispanic and Black adults were also less likely than white adults to say they were faring well during the pandemic. Work and money were the two most significant sources of stress among all survey respondents.
The role of an employer in their employees’ well-being had increased long before the pandemic. Now, investing in the holistic well-being of employees, particularly in the well-being of diverse employee groups, is a critical business necessity.
Reduce burn-out through well-being initiatives
Burn-out cultures happen when organizations don’t prioritize employee well-being. Burn-out has increased drastically among employed U.S. adults due to the pandemic, recent political strains and social justice issues. More than half of survey respondents to Indeed’s Employee Burnout Report said they were feeling burned out, and 67% believe burn-out has worsened over the course of the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which officially began recognizing burn-out as a syndrome in 2019, characterizes burn-out as exhaustion, cynicism toward one’s job and reduced professional performance. Organizations can mitigate burn-out by investing in the resources and tools that support their employees’ physical, emotional and mental health. Employers should also help enforce work boundaries for employees by creating an organizational culture that respects the need for employees to sign out from work to rejuvenate. Businesses can promote a happier and healthier culture by:
- Reinforcing business hours, encouraging employees to stick to them and having leaders model the behavior
- Making one day of the week meeting-free
- Encouraging employees to schedule breaks and providing recommendations for how to let colleagues know when they’re unavailable
- Sharing ideas for how employees can informally connect with their colleagues via digital channels, similarly to how they would have in the office environment
- Providing education, tools and resources to encourage self-care
Employers who invest in employee well-being will reap business benefits too. Gartner’s 2020 Reimagine HR Employee Survey found that employers who support their employees more holistically will experience a 21% increase in high performers. Organizations with cultures grounded in holistic wellness have employees who are more inspired, creative, strategic, productive and resilient. If talent is a competitive advantage for an organization, it should invest in taking care of employees to avoid burn-out.
Recognize and support the whole person
In today’s always-connected virtual workplace, there is no longer a clear separation between who someone is “at work” versus “at home.” Employees are humans balancing multifaceted lives, and they bring aspects of their personal lives with them to work. This reality has never been clearer than now as people continue working from home offices, often sharing their spaces with kids, pets and other family members while navigating the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic.
This shift has elevated the employer’s role in employee well-being and the need to nurture cultures that support and include everyone’s authentic selves. Black and Latino workers in the U.S. reported greater challenges in building relationships, feeling included and bringing their authentic selves to work compared to the broader population in Microsoft’s hybrid work report. Employers must evaluate their diversity, equity and inclusion programs from a new lens to better support Black, Indigenous and people of color, especially in hybrid work environments.
When employees show up for work at their best and feel supported to be their authentic selves, it creates an organizational culture that is energized and inspires creativity, connection and growth. Employees perform better and are more resilient in challenging times when they work for organizations that prioritize holistic and inclusive wellness. When employees can adequately care for their needs, they can handle conflict at work with more clarity, resilience and positivity.
The critical role of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)
In 2020, we experienced a global reckoning for racial justice. Employers play a critical role in achieving this justice, but focusing on increasing diversity in the workplace through recruiting more BIPOC employees is not enough. Employees expect equity and inclusion to be ingrained throughout all business practices and reflected in the organization’s culture— including equity regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, age and more.
However, organizations should only say they are diverse, equitable and inclusive if it is authentic. Organizations that tout the importance of DEI but don’t back it up with meaningful action will come across inauthentic and likely create resentment between employees and leadership. This was the case at Glossier, a consumer beauty company.
Glossier donated significant funds to racial justice causes after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Meanwhile, Black employees at the company experienced everything from microaggressions to aggressively racist behavior at work. Organizations that are not yet authentically delivering a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture should invest time and resources into their internal DEI efforts, remaining open with stakeholders about their shortcomings and progress.
Investing in DEI is the right thing to do, and it also supports business. Research continually points to better business performance when there’s more diversity in the workplace. McKinsey has conducted extensive research on this topic and has found that the most ethnically and culturally diverse companies outperform the least diverse ones by 36%. Further, companies with the most gender-diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than those with the least gender diversity.
Employees representing a wide range of races and ethnicities, gender and gender identities, religions and more bring a diverse set of talents, skills, strengths, points of view and experiences to the table. Ultimately, these diverse experiences contribute to a more inclusive and thriving culture.
CASE STUDY | Beehive Strategic Communication
Creating a company culture to attract and retain purpose-driven talent
Leading with people and purpose for business growth. Read more →
5. Professional development and growth opportunities
Today’s employees want to sharpen skills or develop new ones, especially as we emerge from the pandemic and technology continues to accelerate how we work. If employees don’t see opportunities for professional growth and advancement within an organization, they’re more likely to leave. In fact, the top reason employees changed jobs in 2021, according to Owl Lab’s 2021 State of Remote Work, was to pursue a better career opportunity.
Employees want clarity on advancement paths and support for professional development and growth. To meet employee expectations, organizations must incorporate learning and development into their culture by activating professional development frameworks that provide financial support, time allocations, coaching and internal advancement programs.
Business benefits of a growth culture
According to the July 2021 Monster Job Index, 80% of workers believe their current employer doesn’t provide growth opportunities. Meanwhile, almost half (49%) of workers expect their employer to play an active role in their career growth. That’s a big gap.
Providing growth and development opportunities isn’t just good for employees, it also benefits the business by contributing to higher employee engagement and retention rates. Plus, cultures focused on growth also result in higher rates of innovation because employees are encouraged to learn new things, take risks and look for new ways to solve problems.
Growth considerations for work-from-anywhere environments
Before the pandemic, employees who worked in traditional, on-site work environments relied on regular in-person connections to develop relationships, form mentorships and learn, grow and advance. Today’s hybrid and remote work arrangements have largely stripped away those organic, in-person connections. Now, organizations must intentionally create growth and connection opportunities for their employees, particularly for junior employees who may need more hands-on mentorship to learn, grow and feel supported.
Generation Z and those new to their careers are struggling the most in the post-pandemic workplace. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index, 60% of this generation say they are merely surviving or flat-out struggling right now. A quote from Hannah McConnaughey, a Microsoft employee, aptly summarizes the growth challenge that these employees face:
“Networking as someone early in their career has gotten so much more daunting since the move to fully remote work — especially since switching to a totally different team during the pandemic. Without hallway conversations, chance encounters, and small talk over coffee, it’s hard to feel connected even to my immediate team, much less build meaningful connections across the company.”
Younger generations are critical to bring a fresh perspective to organizations and develop talent pipelines for future leadership roles. Organizations must invest in this talent by evaluating how they can encourage mentorship connections and create strong onboarding and professional development programs that will be effective for the virtual workplace. Organizations should be mindful about intentionally developing young talent, including more in-person meeting time when possible.
Organizational culture is continually evolving as the world experiences changes and employee expectations shift. There are many things an employer can do to influence the type of culture they offer their employees, but ultimately, organizations don’t “own” organizational culture; employees do.
Through strong communication, organizations can engage their employees and keep a pulse on the culture and employee experience. Communication with employees is foundational to how companies activate new policies, offerings and programs that influence the culture, including the factors covered in this guide.
The following chapter will address the critical role communication plays in activating, sustaining and nurturing healthy organizational culture.
Stress, fear and uncertainty created by the pandemic reaffirmed the need for frequent, transparent and empathetic communication from employers. When employers fail to communicate well, employees lack the clarity needed to be informed, confident and engaged. In the absence of information, employees are also far more likely to assume the worst, which can create an organizational culture that is toxic, fearful and unhealthy. Communication has always been critical to building trust and empathy with employees, and that has never been truer for organizations than it is today.
Leaders build trust and empathy when they first ask their employees questions, provide space for employee input and take time to reflect on what employees have to say. After listening, organizations and their leaders should activate an internal communication plan aligned to their purpose, mission and values.
Two-way communication: Listen, reflect and empathize
Organizations today need leaders who are accessible, authentic and relatable. They must also have strong communication skills, active listening skills and an openness for two-way dialogue with employees.
When leadership listens to employees, the benefits are two-fold. First, it helps leaders get a better sense of how employees feel 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, which is especially critical in a virtual workplace. This perspective gives them the insight needed to determine what steps to take to move, grow and nurture the organizational 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 immediately act on the feedback, the simple gesture of asking, listening and acknowledging employee input strengthens trust between leadership and employees. This trust and mutual respect help shape a healthy culture of engaged employees.
To build trust broadly across the workforce, organizations should ensure they have tools and channels to frequently reach out and listen to all employees, whether they work on-site at commercial locations or manufacturing plants, on-site at corporate offices, in a hybrid structure or fully remote.
How to engage employees in two-way communication
When organizations or leaders communicate 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 directly impact the business. They feel heard, appreciated and valued — resulting in more empowered employees who are inspired to take ownership of their work.
There are various two-way communication methods that organizations can adopt to get a sense of how employees are feeling and invite employees to ask leadership questions directly. Organizations should give employees the opportunity to provide feedback and ask questions through digital and traditional channels, including surveys, “stay interviews,” virtual town hall meetings, anonymous comment forms, direct mail and an always-open email inbox.
However, two-way communication is only 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 lack of follow-through can result in employees feeling frustrated, resentful, disengaged, or even hostile, negatively impacting the organization’s culture.
Internal communication designed to engage today’s employees
Work-from-anywhere and hybrid work arrangements have created new communication challenges for employers. Employees thrive in organizations built on human relationships, interaction and problem-solving. Yet, none of these occur as naturally in hybrid and remote work models.
As organizations continue to embrace work-from-anywhere models, there are fewer opportunities for in-person and face-to-face interactions. Employees and organizations now largely rely on digital communication and tools to get their work done and collaborate with managers and colleagues. This reliance on digital tools has created communication challenges and caused digital fatigue for many employees.
Internal communication must break through more digital clutter than ever before to capture employee attention amid overwhelmed days and waning attention spans. To do so, messages must be relevant, succinct, meaningful and delivered on the right channel and at the right time. Organizations must intentionally create opportunities for connection, engagement and collaboration through strategic internal communication.
The power of consistent, strategic internal communication
A well-developed internal communication strategy aligned to the organization’s purpose and values is fundamental to strong culture. Internal communication should be consistent, transparent and focused on providing understanding and clarity to employees. Clarity helps employees understand what the organization is working towards, why and their role in it. Making this connection is vital to attract, engage and retain today’s purpose-driven talent.
Effective internal communication:
- Is frequent, clear and developed with the recipient in mind
- Accounts for the various work arrangements of an organization (e.g., on-site at offices, on-site at commercial locations or manufacturing facilities, hybrid, fully remote)
- Considers which channel(s) delivers the message to the recipient most effectively. Channels include digital and traditional channels (e.g., company intranet, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, surveys, in-person meetings or events, direct mail flyers, posters, mailed letters and pay stubs)
- Appeals to diverse learning styles by using a variety of communication formats, including videos, infographics, presentations and written articles or documents.
An internal communication strategy is key to ensuring consistent messages across all channels. Leaders should align on key messages to avoid sending mixed messages that result in distraction and mistrust. Transparent, consistent and authentic communication is vital to strong organizational culture.
Involve all levels of the organization in communication
All levels of an organization have a role to play in internal communication and culture. Leaders may be the ones initially delivering key messages, but employee influencers are critical to reinforcing messages across teams.
The communication role of managers and leaders
Leadership plays a critical role in change, including culture change. Leaders must be consistent and present, communicating frequently, transparently and with empathy for employees. Their words and actions must align with the organization’s purpose and values and support any change initiatives underway.
Managers, like leaders, also play an important communication role in organizations. An employee’s manager has a significant influence on whether that employee trusts the organization and its leadership. Managers have a more direct line of communication with their employees and are also responsible for reinforcing key messages and desired behavior changes.
However, communication is not always a natural skill for leaders and managers. In fact, many need communication guidance and coaching. Communication teams too often task leaders and managers with communicating key messages but fail to equip them with the tools, skills and training they need to be effective. This can lead to organizations sending mixed or unclear messages, which can impact the culture because employees begin to lack confidence in the organization.
Investing in communication training for leaders and managers not only helps them become more effective communicators, but it also makes them feel valued. It shows these leaders that they are impactful and have a critical role to play in the organization’s success. When leaders and managers feel empowered and impactful, it contributes to a positive organizational culture.
The communication role of employee influencers
Culture change isn’t possible without active participation from employees. When organizations engage employees in something as important as culture, employees are more apt to participate with openness and positivity. Collaboration and mutual respect are vital to strong organizational culture.
Part of a manager’s role in enabling two-way communication with employees is identifying the employee influencers who can help champion the culture and its values. Involving employees in culture planning helps leaders see the changes that are needed. It 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, companies can enlist the help of employee influencers as culture ambassadors to embody the key elements of the organization culture
Conducting an organizational culture assessment
Creating an optimal culture and a strong internal communication program starts with understanding the current culture. Organizations are changing and evolving at faster rates than ever before. Extensive annual engagement surveys, while still a critical measurement tool, can take months to evaluate and should not be the only tool used by organizations.
To keep a pulse on culture, employers should regularly check in with employees and monitor organizational metrics that gauge the health of the culture. In addition to collecting employee feedback, employers must use the feedback to inform changes and communicate back to employees how their feedback made a difference.
Methods for assessing organizational culture
There are many data points and measurements organizations can use to evaluate the health of their culture. These include:
- Anonymous feedback channel. Every organization that strives for a strong organizational culture should have a way for employees to provide anonymous feedback. Organizations sometimes build this into their Intranet or have an open forum. An anonymous channel helps uncover insights that employees might otherwise be uncomfortable sharing.
- eNPS (employee Net Promoter Score). eNPS is a one-question survey that asks employees how likely they are to recommend working for the organization.
- Pulse surveys. Short pulse surveys that are frequently sent to employees can help assess the health of the organizational culture. Organizations can design survey questions around their values to evaluate how well employees embody them in their work.
- Employee engagement metrics. Employee engagement measurements assess how engaged employees are in their work through standard survey questions. 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.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. An analysis of how many employees use their PTO and sick time can indicate whether the organizational culture is healthy. High PTO usage can be an indicator of a healthy culture, while high sick time usage can indicate problems, like burn-out.
- Reputation in the marketplace as a place to work. How people perceive what it’s like to work for an organization reveals a lot about the culture. Organizations should regularly evaluate what people in their industry and community say about what it’s like to work for them.
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. Having these feedback methods in place will also help organizations evolve as the world, talent markets and businesses continue to experience rapid change.
Organizations face increasingly complex challenges. The competition for top talent is fierce. Employees demand more transparency, authenticity and commitment to social justice from their employers. And the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how — and where — 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. The ability to attract and retain today’s purpose-driven talent can be the difference between an organization that thrives and one that struggles.
Today’s employees require human-centric cultures that prioritize their well-being and include open dialogue, autonomy, professional development opportunities and flexible working arrangements. They expect open and transparent communication and input on decision-making. They expect organizations to lead and be vocal about their role in racial, social and environmental justice movements.
Organizations with strong organizational 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 through two-way communication. Culture should be nurtured to evolve in ways that are best for employees and the business.
Organizations need to adapt quickly — while leading with transparent, authentic and empathetic communication. Where will you begin?
Beehive doesn’t just talk about the importance of organizational culture. We live and breathe it every day. Are you interested in transforming your culture into one that energizes employees and values well-being and growth?