EventsRoundtableRoundtable ReportHRD Roundtable Report: Cultural Erosion and The Digital Workplace

HRD Roundtable Report: Cultural Erosion and The Digital Workplace

Culture in any given organisation should not be a victim of the pandemic. Culture is a fundamental business asset. Numerous studies have indicated that managers are incredibly worried about the erosion of culture. This is rightly a primary concern and has been exasperated through working remotely and the lack of physical contact. Nevertheless, some organisations have thrived through remote work. How do we overcome cultural erosion? How do we build and maintain a sustainable remote work culture?

Led by Ruth Kudzi, Founder & CEO, Optimus Coach Academy, and supported by further insights from Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Director, Workforce Strategy Services, Workday, this discussion with senior HR leaders was conducted under Chatham House Rules. This report will contain the key discussion areas and all participants will be anonymised.

A note from Ruth Kudzi:

It was clear from the conversation that creating a culture is about supporting all staff members to engage in ways that work for them, technology has a role as does in person connection and it is clear there are differences across different groups in organisations.

A note from Nicolai Chen Nielsen:

The long-term trends are clear – we will continue to move towards more tech-enabled, hybrid/remote, flexible, and globally distributed organizations. Creating a culture for this new world of work will not be easy, but winning organizations will lean in and take bold steps today.

How do we identify whether our culture is eroding or thriving?

There were a variety of experiences across the group, with different pockets of challenges. Some feel their culture has taken a hit, some that they have managed to hold onto the core parts that matter. Initially, some organisations found that engagement increased with the switch to working from home – many people had more free time, and a lot of organisations invested heavily in wellbeing. The group also discussed the alternative point of view that cultures have not eroded exactly, we have just uncovered the true cultures that we have had all along. We are now able to see what works vs what we just thought was working before.

Different generations/seniorities for example may experience cultural erosion differently. Newer or more junior employees will not be so established within the business and will have to work harder to feel part of it. Their more senior counterparts, however, are more likely to be comfortable with their place and relationships.

Another pain point is the relationship between teams and their managers, which has been a frequent point of discussion over the last few months. One participant shared their challenge with individuals feeling left to manage on their own while remote working and missing the previous support they had from their managers.

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So how are organisations currently establishing the health of their cultures? The first port of call is of course employee listening and actively creating opportunities to hear from people. One participant shared their success in mobilising a network of culture champions to connect with people on the ground and make sure that the HR team is hearing from everyone.

Indirect feedback can also shine a light in unexpected areas – how colleagues feel about their health, wellbeing or inclusivity all impacts on the overall culture.  Creating forums for sharing personal stories openly for example, not only provides insight into sentiment, but also can help create new cultures where sharing experiences is the norm. One participant shared how focussing more on wellbeing highlighted concerns around the grievance process. Monitoring those kinds of stats more closely opens new insights into patterns of unhappiness.

Listening (and acting on feedback) should be seen as a key leadership skill moving forward. We heard about one carrot and stick approach to getting managers to take more ownership, by setting goals that they are rewarded for achieving and held accountable when they miss them.

Collating all this information into dashboards helps contextualise the data and makes patterns more clearly visible and planning easier. Where can we set metrics on the changes we want to see?

How do we get clear on the best parts of our company culture?

First, we must accept that the best parts of the culture will not be the same for everyone. A sense of community is important, but that does not make everyone the same! For example, when talking about working patterns, for some being at home is the best possible choice. But for many, a balance with time together in the office is better. How do we create that choice for people without sacrificing either experience? At the start of the pandemic, many organisations put a heavy focus on spending time authentically connecting and asking how people are – how do we maintain this in hybrid?

For some organisations, the pandemic highlighted the best bits of their cultures quite clearly. A purpose and impact that can be positively traced into the real world only grows connection (for example supporting the Nightingale Hospitals or vaccination programmes). How can we continue to support external challenges in ways that make sense for the organisation, and empower colleagues to tell their stories?

We heard from a leader whose organisation has just undergone a second acquisition, after being acquired not too long ago by someone else. In these circumstances, it is naïve to expect people to remain connected and concerted efforts need to be made. In this case, they undertook a large scale pay review as a way of showing their commitment, thanks, and recognition of the cost-of-living crisis. We cannot expect people to be well engaged if they are worrying about paying their bills.

From Dan Pink – ‘The best use of money is to take the issue of money off the table.’

HR should also seek to create organisations that are resilient to turnover and be able to work through people that leave. We should only want people that want to be here! Exit interviews are also valuable sources of information, and if the culture around leaving is healthy, then ex-employees are more likely to be candid and changes can be made more effectively. If we can create cultures that respect when it is the right time for someone to leave, it will open wider, more honest conversations about growth. This in turn, allows the organisation to plan more effectively.

How do we cultivate a culture of belonging on tech platforms?

This is really hard to do! Much like how everyone experiences culture differently, everyone will react differently to technology implementation. We must acknowledge the difficulty in recreating the same kind of buzz you get in person. Is it actually possible to recreate this, or should we be setting different goals? Do we continue to try and make something that works for everyone? Or do we define who we are as organisations, and look for people that that works for?

It needs to be a balance, and we need to work harder to understand the nuance between what people say they need and what they really need. We heard from one participant who is in the process of leaving their organisation – they work fully remotely and find being fully virtual really fatiguing. They have struggled to feel connected to the culture and why people love working at the company. But they acknowledged that if asked, they would say they want and value the opportunity to work from home.

There is a real concern that the pandemic has split workers into two tiers – those that can work from home and those that cannot. The group discussed how perhaps organisations with different kinds of workers need to think carefully about where the most value is created. Often that is in the factories and production lines – that’s skilled work that can’t be interchanged. Are we ensuring our policies and organisational designs give those employees their due and implicitly put them on a lower tier? While there is the danger of attrition, for some jobs the flexibility of remote working opens many other options. Where else can we hire now? Can we be more diverse in geographies and accessibility?

Who takes accountability for holding to the policies we make? Is it HR, managers, individuals? Team-based agreements are where many organisations are landing, setting frameworks and principles but leaving the day-to-day choices at the team level. Accountability needs to be accompanied by a mindset shift. We should go to the office for different kinds of work than working from home and make it an experience that people enjoy and value. The office is not for quiet deep work (for the most part), but there is productivity in other kinds of work, and in building connection and comradery. We need to empower people to choose where to spend their time based on the work they need to do. Some examples from the group to create that positive office experience: creating the role of a ‘culture chivvier’, someone whose responsibility is the culture growth and atmosphere; creating specific days per month where the office space is purely a social space, to come in and be together and recognise everyone’s hard work. As one participant put it, organisations are now facing the same challenge as the high street, when online shopping became popular. What reason are we creating for people to come?

One participant shared their journey with Yammer, a social-networking platform. It has taken years to get properly up and running, with an ongoing concerted effort from the people team and leadership to set the example. The goal was to create FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) – the platform had to become THE place where people shared news and fun as well as important organisational updates. They invested in on-site screens where the platform is up all day, increasing visibility. Now, people post un-prompted about all kinds of things, big and small, creating a new culture of sharing and connectivity.

Remaining questions

Do our organisations still have one culture? Or are we finding that different pockets are springing up, for people that want different ways of working or enjoy different things. Organisations need to decide whether to try and be everything for everybody or define their culture for everyone else. We have heard again and again that people reflected on what they wanted during the pandemic – organisations should be taking the same opportunity.

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