Resolve to Focus on Culture This Year

By Molly Penn

I have been thinking a lot about the role of culture in the 2021 workplace. One year ago, your organization’s culture was grounded in a different reality—one that included in-person collaboration, opportunities afforded by travel, and an economy boasting a 3.5 percent unemployment rate. COVID-19 disrupted all of these organizational norms in a matter of days, sending organizations reeling through uncertainty and chaos.

Yes, we pivoted. We learned, and we grew. Yet despite the incredible resiliency your people demonstrated in 2020, they endured quite a bit of trauma as well. As a result, many people I talk to today are tired. They are burnt out, and they are checking out.

Harvard Business Review recently published a piece highlighting the “9 Trends That Will Shape Work in 2021 and Beyond.” Among the trends include a move from managing the employee experience to managing the life experience of employees, a shift from flexible workspace to flexible work time, and greater advocacy for mental health support. As I read this piece, a resounding theme stood out for me: Take care of your people.

Below I propose three ways you can focus on culture this year as a means to better engage employees where they are and increase their sense of purpose in life and work.

1. Leverage the positive effects of change

For all the tragedy 2020 brought, many silver linings emerged. A study by Quartz and Qualtrics shows optimistic signs for remote company culture. Thirty-seven percent of the 2,100 people who participated say their company culture has improved, compared to 15% who say it deteriorated. Fifty-two percent report feeling more purposeful in their work since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. A focus on culture correlates with feelings of purpose; of those who report that culture has improved, 77 percent feel more purposeful in their work.

The same study asked participants to choose attributes of their organizations that had increased or decreased since the pandemic, in an attempt to describe characteristics of a positive organizational culture. Supportiveness and kindness emerged as hallmarks of companies with reportedly improved cultures.

2. Transform your mindset about culture

The evidence points to culture as an important key in the employee engagement and well-being conversation. Yet many nonprofit leaders forsake culture change because they assume that box was checked once and for all, perhaps as part of a broader organizational design initiative or three-year strategic plan. But culture work is never finished.

A healthy organizational culture is a fluid reflection of the behaviors and norms you expect of your people from moment to moment. Because everything outside and inside of your organization is constantly changing, so too must your culture. For example, the movement toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is one reason culture must continually progress—to ensure the experiences of all employees are just.  Adopting a growth mindset means that you begin to see your culture not only for what it is, but for what it can be.

3. Revisit the path to culture change

Although your culture is ever evolving, your organization’s values are meant to stand the test of time. Culture ensures you accurately manifest those values; it is about walking your talk. In the 2021 workplace, are your strategies and processes a true reflection of the values you hang on the wall?

Last year we encouraged organizations to explore the path to culture change. This journey includes identifying your values and assessing your culture. Now is a good time to revisit this process and set milestone goals to check in with your culture throughout the year.

Tips for new action

With the above in mind, I recommend you take the following next step(s) to boost employee purpose by focusing on culture:  1. If you don’t have clear values, call us to help you develop strong values to guide your work;  2. Incorporate your values into your performance management system and into a board assessment to ensure they are “lived” every day; 3. Consider whether a deeper culture change process is needed to press reset on how you will navigate the future in a hybrid world.

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