Build a Culture To Fit the New World of Work


Who on your team is spending the lunch hour scrolling the job sites? I can guarantee that someone is seriously searching for their next opportunity. And, the most likely candidate is probably one of your rising stars. If that thought gives you an uncomfortable shiver, read on.

In a world where the office, as we know it, is being redefined, Jamie Notter has advice for leading a successful workplace. On my recent Association 4.0 Podcast, Jamie shared strategies for making culture the glue that keeps those valuable employees from being tempted away by fancy perks and a fat paycheck.

Jamie is just one of the thought-provoking presenters who will be on hand at .orgCommunity’s Innovation Summit on June 9 at the OLC Education and Conference Center in Rosemont, IL.

Jamie and his partner Maddie Grant have been defeating the status quo and advancing the future of work for decades. Their company Propel helps organizations achieve “ridiculous levels of performance” by integrating culture, strategy, and execution.

“Workplace culture is the biggest source for differentiating yourself as an employer today,” Jamie advises. “The organizations that do it well, are surviving and thriving even in uncertain times. And the groups that ignore their cultures are struggling.”

“Culture,” Jamie explains, “is what is truly valued within your organization. It includes both the tangible parts of work like a dress code or the office design as well as intangibles like values, assumptions, and expectations.”

Because culture drives employee behavior, there isn’t room for fuzzy definitions, mixed messages, or lip service to unlived ideals. For example, if employees see that making the CEO look good creates a more positive response than providing outstanding member service. That reality will trump the organizational goal every time.

Take a Pause

Pause to assess the pandemic’s impact on your culture.

We can’t talk about culture without talking about the pandemic. Although there are leaders who would prefer to believe that we’re going back to the “Merry Old Land of Oz” and that the tornado changed nothing permanently. Wearing the Emerald Glasses is a many-layered mistake.

“I wish more organizations had found a way to take a pause and ask themselves how disruption impacted their culture,” Jamie advises. “We’ve been running at full speed for two years and people are burned out. But this is a huge opportunity.”

I agree with Jamie. We made unprecedented changes to manage exceptional circumstances. Now is not the time to lose that momentum.

“It was exciting to see associations operate like entrepreneurs,” Jamie recalls. “Let’s try to extend that adaptability beyond meetings and consider how we can improve governance, member strategy, non-dues revenue, and culture.

“Culture changes along with the world,” Jamie explains. “You can hold on to your core values. But you should be shifting and morphing around the edges. Immobility causes friction. Culture must stay front and center. The world of work has transformed. We must decide how to redesign our culture for this new environment.”

Prepare to Adapt

In my experience, the area most leaders are struggling to rethink is in-person, versus remote, or hybrid work. I understand why this is hard. Where and how work gets done is fundamental to every other business function. A switch to working from home means that other areas also must change. Time, money, creativity, and additional resources will be required to make those shifts.

“As entrepreneurs, we learned this a long time ago,” Jamie notes. “It’s efficient, productive, and satisfying to control your own schedule. We gave that power to employees. Now, they are not going to give it back.

“At a minimum, you need to offer your team options. If you choose to return to traditional patterns, you will lose your best people. Flexibility is a new signing bonus. Organizations should consider how to get the maximum potential from their office space and try to plan with those goals in mind. Be intentional about redesigning. Configure the workspace and your culture to match today’s reality.

“That new environment will vary, depending on each organization’s ability and willingness to change.  My best advice is that the idea of personally owned office real estate is out of date. Those spaces, individualized with pictures and plants, are going to give way to multifaceted work areas so that everyone can be comfortable and productive in the office. It will take innovation to find other strategies to give people a sense of ownership.”

Discover New Ways to Connect

Space is the most tangible challenge to redefining culture and the work environment. There are other less apparent but equally significant areas to consider. One of my arguments for going back to the office has been that we need time together to build the relationships that make work meaningful. Jamie had interesting observations on that topic.

How we collaborate will require flexibility and creative thinking.

“How we collaborate will require some flexibility and creative thinking,” Jamie observed. “I divide collaboration into at least two parts. One is task-focused, and the other is relationship-building. We’ve underestimated the amount of time needed to establish good working rapport. People miss those watercooler conversations.

“But there are ways to connect casually online. You can create a break room on Zoom and encourage people to have lunch or a refreshment with colleagues there. It won’t be quite the same, but it’s easy to do. We’re so focused on the in-person piece that we haven’t thought about alternate ways that we can be together. To our earlier point, we’re never going to have the same number of people in the office again. It’s critical to make the time we do spend in-person more meaningful and to find new ways to grow relationships online.”

Initiate Change

A Zoom breakroom is easy. Other resets are more complex. Culture is a work in progress. Don’t keep your plans for improvement under wraps. “The Great Resignation isn’t going away,” Jamie notes. “People can work anywhere in the country now, which means there are more opportunities than ever.

“Remember that employee who is surfing the job boards. They are looking at an organization whose culture is unproven. They’re nervous about that. The competition will try and sell their awesomeness. Your culture, on the other hand, is a known quantity. And, for better or worse, your employees know whether or not it is also a priority.

“Anyone in the C-suite should be able to explain how you are improving the work environment. I advise leaders to have a culture elevator speech. We’ve been reeling for the last two years. No one can claim perfection. You can’t change everything overnight, but you can identify quick wins and make them happen. Admit where improvement is needed. Get feedback from your team. Then, broadly share your roadmap for progress. Let those people who are considering other options see that you have a plan and are working in the right direction.”

Leverage Talent

When you’ve convinced employees that their own pastures are the greenest, it’s still a new world of work. Flexibility is on every agenda. Workers are forging unique business identities. Some are ready to venture into the freelance market, others don’t need as much money and are willing to work part-time, or the more courageous, are prepared to undertake a completely different professional venture.

“One of the dominant culture patterns I see in associations,” Jamie observes, “is we’re very collaborative as individuals, but we are not accustomed to partnering across organizations and groups. Employees tend to be defined by their functional areas and there isn’t much fluidity.

“Associations should leverage the smorgasbord of expectations and talent that is currently available. Consider how you can restructure roles or responsibilities to take advantage of opportunities, fill gaps, and make life easier for your employees. Maybe one full-time job can become two part-time positions, or someone in the marketing department, who is also tech-savvy, can take on additional tasks.”

Show That You Care

“This summer is going to be a time to put culture on display and show employees that you care about their needs,” Jamie advises. “During the pandemic we were, literally, considering life and death issues. That put a focus on employee well-being.”

Culture is centered on the group. But I urge you to also consider individuals. Of course, you can’t please everyone. But you can demonstrate that your goal is to be people-friendly and flexible. Show that you make decisions for the majority but value the minority perspective. When you move the needle forward, employees will pay attention. You might still occasionally lose a star performer, but you will have a stronger team.

Hear Jamie Notter present in person at the Innovation Summit on June 9, in Rosemont, IL.

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