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Navigate Market Challenges by Shifting Workforce Culture

November 15, 2015

Fluctuating economic conditions around the globe are presenting companies and their leaders with unique challenges as they attempt to successfully respond to dramatic market shifts. With leaders looking for fresh strategies to gain an edge on the competition, it’s more important than ever that businesses find ways to maximize the development, productivity, and overall well-being of those who actually drive and cultivate their business: their employees. At the same time, these employees (and their companies) have been hard hit by this new reality. Impacted by a tightening of hiring budgets and a mounting pressure to downsize, not to mention the corresponding move toward expanded roles and responsibilities, workers are increasingly stressed and weary. So what’s the silver lining?

For the company that is courageous enough, these mounting challenges can actually present an opportunity to rethink many aspects of how it handles and engages its most valuable resource. In fact, intentionally shifting its internal workforce culture is one of the primary tactics through which a company can stimulate growth even in the face of real difficulties. Armed with a holistic, well-balanced approach to employee development, support, and utilization, it can then develop a vision for how to recognize, adapt to, and even get ahead of change.

The key factor in such a shift is found in creating internal momentum that propels the company—and its business—purposefully forward. Beyond requiring both planning and execution, this also calls for buy-in, commitment, and right attitudes from key stakeholders in the business—all of which emanates from your company’s internal culture. The good news: with a detailed process in view, you can begin to make cultural changes that will set your company up well for all that lies ahead.

Phase 1
Secure the Data That Will Drive Your Brand Forward
As with any business venture, the best place to start is to perform a realistic assessment of the company—identifying exactly which business goals aren’t being met (and why) and conducting internal and external brand reviews. A vital part of this is pinpointing gaps in, or opportunities for, training employees against current growth strategies—evaluating whether it will actually improve their skills and ability to achieve goals—while also appraising employees’ overall well-being.

A critical element in that assessment is direct employee feedback. Too often overlooked, surveying their real-time mindsets and behaviors can uncover both barriers to and opportunities for developing employees professionally and personally—while also revealing their perceptions of HR policies and employee assistance programs. Likewise, it can also get at their views on the company, its growth, and its leadership. By taking an entire company’s pulse on its values, beliefs, and attitudes, it can clarify where the business is relative to internal goals, identify employee motivators, and illuminate why a shift is needed. With this in hand, leaders can most effectively diagnose its health and select its treatment plan—i.e., the best next steps for driving the organization forward.

Phase 2
Craft a Master Strategy That Will Outline the Path Ahead
The next step, once armed with company and employee data, is to establish a master strategy—outlining the nature of the intended culture shift and what it could mean to the company going forward. As part of this, it’s important to clearly identify the processes that will be needed in order to effectively refresh or shift the company’s culture, as well as drive brand performance.

Emerging out of this strategic process is the “culture manifesto”—a document that clearly illustrates the core values that will anchor and drive future internal and external branding efforts. Serving as both a rallying cry and target, its aim is to reinforce the core attitude shift that will be necessary to change the company’s operating style and impact performance. Linked to and highlighting support data from the earlier brand review, it will also lay out the company’s plan for implementing cultural change. Ultimately, it’s a document that leadership, and all employees, will come back to throughout the process in order to keep the broader vision in view.

Phase 3
Reignite Employee Passion for the Brand
Beyond the form a culture campaign takes, its business objective ensures that employees stay positively focused on productivity and innovation. Generally, it's innovation that excites employees. In fact, it might be what attracted them to their role and/or the company. Often, however, simple fatigue can set in. To combat this, they’ll need encouragement and modeling by company leaders that directly addresses the issues identified in the employee surveys. This is not a one-step process. Nor does it derive from an executive team driving culture change from the top down. Rather it necessitates rethinking how all leaders are serving as culture ambassadors—envisioning and empowering them to demonstrate new attitudes and procedures that stem from the new culture manifesto.

> Create, Build, and Sustain Momentum 
Leaders can, and should, increase their face-time with employees, perhaps in new settings that will encourage thinking and operating differently. They can also offer resources that promote the desired cultural shift: team bonding exercises, fresh visuals, and messaging that uphold culture, case studies on the company’s latest round of wins, and key insights from employees who are embodying the cultural shift.

Changes to the physical workspace can help—from freshening color palettes and artwork, or adjusting lighting and buying new furniture to reorganizing workstations strategically in order to increase productivity and innovation—as can engaging employees by inviting them to take part in remodeling decisions. Related to this, it will be important to ensure that materials are interactive—inviting feedback through Intranet portals such as Yammer—as well as to continually update communication channels to be lateral, spontaneous, and creative.

> Utilize Employees as brand and Culture Ambassadors 
Perhaps the most essential tactic will be to identify positive employees and invite them to be part of a culture shift steering committee. The best ambassadors can be those who are talented, motivated, and moved by positive input. Resource them with tools, talking points, and visuals that showcase company goals—helping them to demonstrate, from within the ranks, the potential impact of the culture shift that’s underway.

Ultimately, such tactics can dramatically affect how your brand performs in the marketplace by significantly altering the mood of your entire organization.

Phase 4
Evaluate and Update Your Plans for Sustained Effect
Once a culture campaign is underway, it’s critical to assess its adoption throughout the organization as well as to keep lines of communication open with employees. On one hand, it’s necessary for management to intentionally check in with employees post-launch. Are they making contributions to business success? Have they engaged in development programs? How have they been participating to fulfill the manifesto, as well as career goals? On the other hand, it’s essential to encourage employees to offer feedback on the company’s performance, to comment on their work experiences, and allow culture-specific issues to be vented.

Including this vital data will pinpoint areas that need to be addressed through updates to the original plan and highlight others where the culture is indeed shifting. In the end, such intentional and ongoing assessments will ensure that the new culture not only takes root but also that it continues to foster the productivity and innovation that’s critical to success in today’s market.

> Modernize Benefits to Win the Talent War
Benefits that accommodate the changing needs of employees help improve both retention and recruitment. On one hand, you may be able to identify creative options that the whole company can rally behind. On the other, you may try to boost individual employee contributions through unique benefits that have been designed according to functional area and performance achievement categories. The key is to pay close attention to employee interests. A PTO day for volunteering with a cause or charity might just be their No. 1 pick—rather than a shared bonus. Don’t be afraid to tailor benefits for success.