Making Culture Tangible

April 2, 2020

Making Culture Tangible

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many employees and teams to work remotely as businesses try to maintain operations. This new model of work is putting company culture to the test. Without physical interaction and typical processes, employees may not feel as connected or productive. Leaders need to adapt their culture to accommodate the current reality of working so that employees remain rooted in the culture while teleworking. 

The importance of culture is clear, as research shows culture is a key factor in higher employee engagement, productivity, motivation and collaboration. A 2019 report from Eagle Hill Consulting explains that 63 percent of employees say culture directly impacts their organization's success. More specifically, workers believe culture influences much of their job performance—doing their best work (77 percent), their productivity and efficiency (76 percent) and their ability to best serve customers (74 percent). 

Yet even before this COVID-19 crisis, companies struggled to assess and manage their culture. Here are three ways that leaders can make culture more tangible, even across remote connections.  

1. Avoid widespread culture change; focus on incremental changes.  

While adjustments to parts of a culture may be needed, these changes are not something to be undertaken lightly. Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, co-authors of Primed to Perform and co-founders of Vega Factor in New York City, warn that there are four serious challenges facing any culture change: cynicism, not enough executive engagement, not focusing on the right levers, and not enough follow through. Without addressing those, even small culture changes may be doomed to fail. 

“Instead of culture change, focus on culture add,” said Karalyn Smith, Chief Talent Officer of Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco. “Nudge the culture to grow and evolve. Culture is stubborn and steadfast. It is much more effective to build new habits on top of old ones instead of taking a hard turn in pursuit of change.”

Stephanie Crouppen, partner happiness executive and commercial lead for diversity & inclusion at Humu, a behavioral change company based in Mountain View, Ca., explains that individual behavior change can unlock the potential in company culture. The key to driving a lasting culture shift is to nudge every single person, including leadership at the company, to start doing things a little differently, according to Crouppen. 

2. Ensure that culture measurements are sophisticated and predictive. 

“The missing piece of the culture puzzle is measurement,” said Hannah Lee, director of marketing and communications at Barrett Values Centre, a leadership and culture development firm operating in the U.S. and U.K., “especially when the measurement includes a deeper understanding of what motivates your people, an objective diagnosis of what is and isn’t working, a clear and profitable path forward, and how to support leaders in recognizing their true cultural impact.”

Using culture measurements as a predictive indicator is especially helpful during mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Measuring and understanding the culture of all involved companies before and during a merger or acquisition can predict a successful transaction or reveal areas that need more support. Cultural incompatibility can be used to determine areas needing management’s attention and their effects on financial performance over time.  

3. Involve other stakeholders in managing culture.  

A few companies have begun to use their culture to create the foundation of their consumer brand. One example is Sephora. To create a differentiated experience for customers, Sephora decided to focus on a human-centric brand offering. This strategy uses the employee experience, culture, and company values as the heart of their brand approach. With this approach, Sephora has seen much success, growing from a challenger brand to carrying the largest slice of market share in its industry. 

More and more often, board of directors are recognizing that culture has become more of a risk factor, and by extension, part of their fiduciary duty and responsibility to monitor it. “The reputational risk for the company can extend to them personally, as the media may call them out by name after details emerge about rogue behavior or policies that incentivized behaviors that threatened to undermine the business,” said Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, former senior vice president and CHRO of Symantec in Mountain View, Ca.

Leaders Guide Culture
Leaders play a critical role in guiding culture, especially during this time of distributed teams and remote work. Their role in making culture real at all levels of the organization relies upon finding supporters to move culture forward. 

In an interview about his experience changing the strategy and culture at The New York Times, Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, offers this warning. “The blockers of change tend to be more likely found in the middle and top of organizations than in the bottom. The biggest challenges you have, if you’re a CEO, are the people closest to you. But there is always a constituency for change.” 

For more on making culture real, read the spring 2020 issue of People + Strategy

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at SHRM’s Executive Network, HR People + Strategy.