6 Takeaways from Culture Week SF

This month the team attended a couple of great events for Culture Week SF (August 14th-18th). For those not familiar, Culture Week is a collection of events, both physical and virtual, focused on workplace culture.

For those that work in HR, or any one of the growing domains that are focused on the culture of an organization, that did not get to attend – here are some of our key takeaways.

1: The time is now for culture

It was abundantly clear that the time for an expanded focus on culture is now. While those at the very forefront of employee experience have understood and invested in their organizational cultures for a long time, we are experiencing an era where the domain and need is becoming more and more mainstream.

As a follow through, data and analytics have become increasingly more important. As many of the speakers alluded to, organizations needed a business value; and, as we all know too well, business value and business case--regardless of how much clear common sense it makes--comes with a need for data and proof points.

While various facets have been increasing in popularity, the key has now become – understanding the 3-E’s: Employee engagement, employee experience, and employee effectiveness. Not only understanding them, but authentically understanding them, all at the same time, and with enough depth and breadth to make intelligent, proactive decisions about how to spend resources for maximum impact that is beneficial to the employees and the organization.

2: You are your most free to perform when you are comfortable

“There is no doubt that it is a business mistake to not have a diverse culture” - Nate Yohannes, Director of Business Development A.I. and Research at Microsoft.

As Nate Yohannes, Director of Business Development A.I. and Research at Microsoft stated, “you are at your most creative when you are comfy.”

For many of us that work and study the domain of culture this may be clear and obvious. However, for several organizations, they find themselves concluding that this comfort is a physical world element, where enabling a culture of creativity can boil down to bright furnishings and wall to wall whiteboards. While these elements have a role to play, we find that there are several facets to this “comfort” that enable a strong, thriving organizational culture.

Absolutely – there is comfort in the workspaces in which you carry out your daily efforts associated to work – from your desk, to open address spaces, to meeting rooms and break spaces. However, looking deeper we can see several other dimensions of comfort that enable ones most creative self to surface:

  • Comfort in knowing the value you bring – so that you feel good to be open with your thoughts and understand that your ideas and comments have value.
  • Comfort in feeling safe, secure, with a level of trust – so that you can invest fully your ideas and mind in an organization.
  • Comfort in the connections, and quality of those connections, between oneself, their colleagues, manager, and the organization – so that you can feel truly open to share thoughts and concerns knowing that people are there for you.

It is worth remembering that when we look at the meaning of comfort in culture, the meaning is incredibly encompassing.

3: Understand how culture manifests and materializes

Just like brands demonstrating what their brand stands for to their customers – which is built on what customers see, hear and experience, and share through stories--Natasha Kehimkar, Principal at ZEST Talent Advisors, drew parallels to employees and organizational culture.

She spoke to how when you start out at a company, they may tell you what their culture is through, their on-boarding process – using descriptives such as “collaborative”, or, “resilient”. Then, you start hearing stories from people, what they have experienced, what they have been through, and how the company really is through their own lens. All of these pieces, give us clues as to what the culture of the organization is.

Think about it, the same is true for CX. Everything you see, hear, and experience of a brand evokes certain feelings, and makes you form a view of them. The truth is – just like customers -- employees will build their perspective of your culture based on what they hear, see, and experience.

While before, brands may have “brand-washed” their customers, the accessibility to information and reviews, insights and data points now means customers can get a far greater picture of what a brand is all about…and the same is true for employees. Ask yourself, are you putting in the same thought and capabilities toward your organizational culture as you are your customer focus?

4: The importance of data and digging in

Another key theme from the presentations, nicely summed up by Kehimkar was that “in organizations it is important to dig in…you have to check your blind spots.”

While we all have our thoughts based on our own experiences of an organization, it is important to really dig in to understand what is really happening and how the culture is really standing up. You may get perspectives that reinforce what you think, or, as is often the case, you may gather insights that tell you otherwise. We call this the perception gap – and it can happen so very easily. A gap in perspective between leadership and individual contributors, a gap between managers and leadership, a gap between a company and their customers….one fact remains, you will be better off understanding the perspective of others. By looking at data that covers both depth and breadth of insights, you can find the ‘unknown unknowns’. Those things that you never even realized contributed to employee sentiment…not just the things you think are important. Just like in customer experience – assumptions will be the death of you.

Julie Rogers, VP of People and Experience at Culture Amp talked about what’s next, as many can resonate with, “we focus on engagement, culture, and who will lead the company? We need to get more predictive on this.” This rung true as the general sentiment from the people we spoke to at the event.

In telling us stories of how she was as a child she brought forth a point that many forget, that we “flesh out the narratives of people's lives, what inspires them, and what motivates them.” Somehow, the employee arena got left behind. Classic engagement surveys, action planning, annual goals, all get lost and get forgotten, hindering their good intentions to materialize.

She highlighted the very truth of the matter – “we have gotten really good at collecting data, and, while the intention and direction is good, the execution is clunky.”

We would probably take it one step further – we have indeed become very good at collecting data, but in addition to execution, are we collecting the right data in this domain? Data that is actionable? That allows us to really understand the impact of actions, ideas, and solutions before investment?

Why is it that so often, with the best of intentions, employee experience goals get lost in the everyday fight towards an organization’s goals? Well, usually it is separate. Some side team, or side program that is considered “extra” is put in place. When someone on the team has work efforts that are directly related to their “actual” goals of course, understandably, these “extra” efforts can fall to second place.

To have a real impact – culture needs to have a focus, planning, and execution just like any business project. It needs to be a part of the business goals.

So start with bringing data to the table. As Julie reinforced, “bring the right data points to focus on 1 or 2 areas in which you know you will see significant change in how people are feeling about themselves and the company.” Then, we would add – treat execution as diligently as any other business project or initiative.

5: Catering to flexibility

Justin Angsuwat, VP of People at Thumbtack, spoke to the role of flexibility in culture. It is no state secret that the world has moved on from a typical 9-5, that we are always on, connected, and seem to be suffering from an environment of over stimulation. Accepting and understanding this will enable you to best purposefully design strategically, and tactically, a culture that works.

Angsuwat spoke of a study from Google in which they looked at people that had a hard divide between work and life tasks, and those that blended them. They found that there were about 31% “segmentors”, and 69% “integrators”, however, more than half of the integrators, felt as though they wanted to be more like the segmentors.

This really resonated as through our research we have found that organizations with the strongest cultures for performance and engagement enable their employees to have flexibility in how and where they work. They demonstrate a true and authentic focus on managing by objectives. In other research we conducted on optimal positive energy management, we found that employees who have control over how they spend their time contributed to them staying in peak performance states.

6: The importance of diversity

Jill Witty, VP of Talent and Operations at Entelo, spoke to the importance of diversity. She mentioned some interesting statistics. We have 32 out of 500 women leading Fortune 500 companies (yes, that is 6%). We have 20% female representation currently on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Yet, we have 56% of college graduation being female, and over 50% being seniors in science or engineering.

What does that tell us? It tells us we are making huge strides of progress (when I was a computer science student – I was one of 5 girls out of about 100, and in my masters I was the only girl), but, there is still a way to go.

She moved on to tell a story about India, in which an amendment required Indian states to develop rural political bodies at the village, block, and district levels. Each level was required to reserve one-third of all political seats for women. Estimates from the study showed that ~1-2 million girls lives were saved. Witty went on to explain why--because women had an example of success to follow, because girls had something clear to aspire to, and because the female leaders made different decisions.

What does this mean to an organizational culture? It means remember to always have a “diverse slate of candidates, at least 2 or more” as Witty put it. No, this does not mean you hire to meet a quota, it means you have a diverse selection.

What can we learn as organizations that appreciate diversity, and the innovation and spectrum of thought that can come from it? As Witty reinforced, “with diversity data, don’t just look company wide, dig in. Look at all levels, exec level, managers, employees, and see where is your drop off?

Then, you can ask yourself why? Is it your promotion practices? Is it your policies? In closing, Witty spoke of a great leader she had experienced, mentioning that, “everyday I was impressed by this woman” and asked us to keep in mind, “what if everybody felt this way?” This is a core point – role models matter – do you have the leadership leading your company, that employees are inspired by?

In Summary

Culture Week SF was refreshing, and to say the least, it made it clear we have reached a state of general maturity – many organizations are at least starting to measure and wanting to understand. Talking to several people at the event, the general consensus was clear – organizations need a better way to execute, they need a better way to understand, and the data captured has to start having true meaning. The biggest challenge for many was still around taking the time to do all this measuring then not gaining the right insights, or being stuck in reactive modes, rather than knowing what to do for the best chance of moving the needle.

If you are working on your organizational culture, remember:

  • Purposefully design your culture, be intentional in every facet of design – your workplace, your rewards, how you hire, how you on-board, how you enable people to work…
  • Data is part one - you need the right people data and the depth and breadth of insights to lead to the actions that best optimize your resources with impact.
  • Culture, while supported by policies and frameworks, goes well beyond this – people care about what they are doing, the legacy they are leaving behind, and who are they doing it with.
  • Good managers are inclusive leaders - they know names and they know their employee’s stories.
  • Make employees a part of the process - include them in decision making and ensure they understand the outcomes: both how their feedback is actioned, and why it cannot be if it is not.
  • Understand truly the culture you are aiming for - what those descriptions really mean, and how they materialize.
  • Dig into your data – trends are great, but understand the root cause, and meaning behind the numbers to a point where you proactively understand the impact of decisions, ideas, and solutions.

Ending on Katelin Holloway, VP of People and Culture at Reddit, in thinking about your employees, “be inspired by the gap of where they are, and where they want to be.”

Interested in learning how your organizational culture stands up? Contact us to discover how you are performing across over 70 attributes found in cultures that promote engagement and productivity.
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