Company Culture is Crucial for Recruitment and Retention Strategies in a Work From Home World
It’s an enormous understatement to say things have changed. Our entire world shifted on its axis overnight and the upheavals continue week in week out. We all hope to ‘get back to normal’. However, there’s a lot of speculation on how long that will take and what it will eventually look like.
The world of work wasn’t immune. One thing most people agree on is the changes we’ve seen in remote working are, most likely, here to stay and not just in the short term. We understand that this virus will not go away overnight and is going to be calling the shots for the foreseeable future, but necessity is only part of the picture. Preference is the other.
COVID-19 might have caused a home working revolution, but it has only really accelerated a trend that has been developing for a long time. Technology made home based working a viable alternative to an office bound life over a decade ago, but most traditional businesses have been reluctant to embrace that fact fully. Now forced into conducting the experiment, everyone knows what freelancers and home business owners have been saying for a long time. Remote working works. And, in a lot of ways, it’s better.
It’s not just employees embracing the work from home revolution. Regardless of the pandemic, employers can see that if you get it right, it’s a good thing to offer this flexibility to your workforce. Many companies are fully onboard and are asking themselves why they ever wanted to limit themselves by only having employees in the office. Some have committed to going fully remote. Others are exploring the potential of having the best of both worlds with a hybrid model in which employees have defined part time office days and work remotely the rest of the time.
It is undoubtedly a very challenging and uncertain time for both companies and workers. However, as we move beyond the practicalities of addressing our new reality, is there room to explore if it can also be an exciting time? What we currently understand about the world of work is in flux and up for discussion. And that presents an opportunity.
For those of us privileged to get a choice, we can redefine what that world looks like. We get to rebuild and create something that is fit not just for our new landscape but long into the future.
The Challenge for Company Culture
From our perspective as a recruiter, culture is the lynchpin that holds companies together. You not only need an attractive culture in order to attract and retain the best talent. That culture also needs to be well-defined so you can choose the one person best able to contribute to your team and behave in a culturally aligned way.
Company culture has been a topic of conversation for a long time. However, in some workplaces it has often been almost accidental or an ephemeral thing mainly bounded by and embodied in the office space. They took it for granted that people were part of the culture because they were physically in it. By not being conscious about it, many companies defaulted to a culture of complacency.
If that’s how it was when we could rely on proximity to hold teams together, the cracks are really going to show with people dispersed to their homes. It will remain challenging as companies transition to an on-off, physical-virtual space when circumstances allow. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to have a great company culture so you can find and keep the people who are the ‘right fit’.
People need to feel that they belong, that they are part of something meaningful, and that their contribution matters. Without a strong company culture to bind us together in a common purpose, we can feel under-valued, become disengaged and demoralised and, ultimately, will leave in search of greener pastures.
It’s often assumed that people come to recruiters like us because they are seeking career progression. They’re chasing a new title, more money, more interesting clients or projects. But often when we ask why they want to move; it is because the company they’re currently with has failed to acknowledge their contribution. They don’t feel valued or that they belong anymore.
Something else we’re hearing a lot currently is that lockdown has given people time to reflect on what they really want. Without a transportable company culture and a sense of belonging to hold them in, being away from the office helped them decide to look for a new placement. While we were expecting a lot of movement in the recruitment market because of the financial impact of the crisis, what we’re seeing is voluntary movement. People no longer feel as tied as they used to to their existing company.
Conversations on how to build team morale remotely are top of the agenda on management Zoom calls across the country thanks to the logistical problems highlighted by the pandemic. But we would argue the importance of a strong company culture is a conversation that is long overdue in any case.
Covid is merely a wake-up call. Culture is important. It doesn’t just happen organically. You have to create it, actively and consciously, nurture it and invest in it.
The Employee Experience
We need to get away from thinking about our work culture as a workplace or office culture. Instead, define it as an expression of the relationship between people who ascribe to a shared set of values and goals in order to solve a mutually defined problem.
We also need to understand that a company’s culture is not something that can be handed down by the management team. Culture building is a process of co-creation between company and employees.
A relationship built on those firm foundations, rather than mere physical proximity or a transactional basis, is better equipped to transcend the barriers of not being in the same location. But it won’t happen automatically. We must do it consciously.
The largest cohort of job changers right now are Gen Y and Gen Z. This generation makes purchasing decision based on values and experience. There’s no reason to believe their attitude to shopping around for employment is any different. Recruitment trends already show that these generations aren’t afraid to walk if they don’t like the workplace they are in. With this in mind, we started thinking about the employer value proposition in consumer terms and we feel it makes sense. Not just for Gen Y and Gen Z but across the board.
If we look at how retail brands have adapted to digital commerce, we can see clear parallels. Long before the pandemic, physical store locations faced a challenge to their relevancy because of ecommerce. They became less about the transaction, which was often made afterwards online, and more about the brand experience. The function of a flagship retail store isn’t to sell you a pair of jeans, it’s allowing you to step into the world of Levis. Brands have also had to address the challenge of extending their brand experience beyond the physical to encompass all the other ways customers now engage.
Likewise, now employees aren’t physically in the physical office and its organisational culture day in day out, we need to think much more about their overall employee experience. Just as we work to understand and improve our customers’ experience, so we need to be thinking about enhancing the employee experience.
We can apply our understanding of the ‘customer journey’ and meeting a clients needs at every touchpoint to the different stages of the employee journey. It might even be useful to undertake an employee journey mapping exercise. Charting how to nurture the relationship from the recruitment search and selection process through to retaining and rewarding your valued employees could highlight opportunities for improvements.
The customer journey starts with your prospective clients searching for information, noticing your brand and increasing their awareness of it.
The employee journey starts with a job search. When hiring people, your recruitment marketing strategy is key. Your vacancy needs to be both findable and representative of the employer brand. It also needs to represent an attractive career opportunity and be a good fit for the potential candidate in terms of values and expectations.
Companies who have a clearly defined culture will find it easier to articulate their employer brand and attract talented individuals who match. While the branding, communication and marketing of specific job opportunities is crucial, the experience of existing employees will also play a major part.
Candidates looking to make a career move do their homework. They check out their opportunities, not just by paying attention to their prospective employer’s social media feeds, but also their employees’ social media channels. While you might be able to fake your Glassdoor reviews, you can’t control the impression people will get from reading your employee’s posts.
The only way to create a favourable impression and attract the talent you want in this social media age is to make sure your employees are happy and satisfied. Happy employees will advocate on your behalf. Your friends’ effusive praise or condemnation of an experience will push you one way or another. Likewise, your company’s online footprint will either lure in or ward off your ideal candidates, depending on what people are saying about you online.
Anyone who has dated implicitly understands the interview process. There’s the minefield of first impressions to navigate. Then the initial ‘getting to know you’ conversation. And, if all goes well, there are a few early dates that are a testing ground for both people involved to decide if they’ve found a suitable match or not.
Your prospective life partner might not be interested in drilling into the details of your skills as a brand strategist. But they will look for signs you share similar values and outlook. In the interview process, both company representatives and the prospective employee are on the lookout for the non-verbal and experiential cues that signify that this is ‘the one’ for them.
The recruitment process has, inevitably, changed in response to the coronavirus. Social distancing measures, localised lockdowns and restrictions on the numbers able to be in the office limits the ability to interview people face to face. With fewer in-person interviews possible, and more applicants for every position, it’s more difficult to narrow the field and make sure the right people go through to later stages.
More than ever, it is crucial to understand your individual. Where cultural fit is a key requirement, database screening of candidates in not enough. In the initial stages, companies might find it useful to employ someone who can do this first round of screening on their behalf.
Using an empathetic recruiter gives you the perspective of an impartial third party who not only understands your culture but can also take the time to get to know candidates. Their expert eye will help to zero in on exactly the right people who are really worth speaking to. That frees up interviewers to spend time with them face to face or via Zoom in later selection rounds.
When you go to a workplace as a candidate, the environment gives you a lot of information about the place and what sort of experience you would have if you were to work there. Whether companies interview physically or virtually, they need to consider this when preparing to help candidates understand them better. How can you convey your culture and values? And how can you energise the experience to excite the proposition on both sides?
You could replicate steps such as dressing the interview room virtually by paying attention to the Zoom background. Perhaps there could be an opening slide deck showcasing the work and awards a candidate would ordinarily see displayed on the office walls. Even the experience of meeting people as you walk through can be reproduced by arranging to have a few people to virtually ‘drop by’ for a pre-interview icebreaker to welcome the candidate.
Congratulations! You’ve made a great new hire and everyone is excited to work together, even if that doesn’t currently mean physically together. At this point, paying attention to the details of how you’re communicating the offer, setting expectations and onboarding your new team member is really important.
Small touches, such as giving due recognition to the landmark of receiving the job offer, can make all the difference. Following up the verbal offer by posting out a premium designed packet makes the formal offer more of an occasion than just sending a PDF attachment in an email. Likewise, you can show that your people matter by going the extra mile to make sure they feel they belong from day one. Something as simple as sending out a welcome kit with the employee’s new devices in a timely manner helps people feel valued. Enclosing a premium branded notebook could add a little surprise and delight while acting as a physical reminder of the company.
Supporting new starters to integrate with the team is also key. This might manifest itself as a full orientation programme with actions throughout the day and social activities to help them get to know people. It might be as simple as balancing points in the day where they can reach out and ask questions, and times in the day when they’re free to get on with work. However you approach it, pay attention to how you can create a foundation of support and trust to your early working relationship.
Where possible, maintain as many face to face, values driven ways of setting expectations as you can. For example, while Shopify have made the mental switch to being a working from home business, they are keeping their old office as an onboarding and training space. Like the flagship retail stores we spoke about earlier, Shopify’s headquarters are now a space for acculturation. The space for work is home.
Retention and Advocacy
While many people enjoy the advantages of working from home, it also poses a lot of challenges that people will struggle with in different ways. How companies deal with those challenges will be a point of differentiation for employer brands keen to compete for the best talent.
Creating a reputation as a desirable place to work considering current restrictions will depend on anticipating challenges to employee engagement and being prepared to find answers. That's going to require a pro-active decision to take action from the top and a willingness to go beyond perks and benefits. What is needed is a process of co-creation with your workforce along several lines.
Embrace the Whole Person
It sounds simple, but it bears repeating. We need to remember there is an individual behind each of the professionals who turn up for work every day.
The employee journey is about creating an experience that delights. This helps companies to not only keep their talent but also create employees who want to advocate for them as an employer. You cannot do this without understanding your employees as individuals and striving to meet them where they are.
People’s needs and wants will differ depending on an array of factors. Younger employees who are just starting out in their careers, for example, are in a different life stage and have distinct challenges to your older team members. The former might appreciate more social opportunities to replicate the network they’ve lost with their shift to working from home. They might be more inclined to take up office working days if they’re available. The latter might be at a higher risk. They might also have parenting or additional responsibilities that make working from home a welcome opportunity when there's additional flexibility. They could also have a home environment that makes working from home a more palatable proposition.
Another way we meet our employees’ requirements is in their training and personal development plans. Some of your employees will be confident in their ability to forge ahead in their careers remotely. Others will have concerns they’ll miss out on development opportunities in the new reality. We’ve already looked at how companies are repurposing office space as a training space, but online learning subscriptions can extend the offer of lifelong learning to their teams at home. The offerings are as diverse as your company’s training goals and your employees’ training needs.
Companies can give people an ‘all-you-can-eat’ subscription that helps them develop both in the workplace and as individuals. There are University led courses on Coursera and FutureLearn, or creative and soft skills training led by industry experts on CreativeLive or LinkedIn Learning. Another way businesses could offer this scheme is in giving each team member a self-improvement fund to spend independently on developing their passions.
Improve Communication and Listen
The first step is to commit to communicating better and listening more closely. Remote teams need to be more organised and part of that includes setting up structures that help people to communicate constructively.
That might mean reinstating the daily or weekly team check-in. While these meetings could fall by the wayside when you could rely on physical proximity, they’re vital in a virtual workplace. It might look like a more intentional programme to democratise the company culture and seek to understand what people want so the company can deliver on it.
We’re all adjusting to working from home together. We're learning on the fly how to work best in this unknown world, and no one person’s experience is universal. Create a business culture that makes room for people's challenges. Some of your staff have circumstances that make working from home difficult. Some are parents, others are in shared houses without a dedicated workspace they can call their own. Everyone’s experience of ‘the new normal’ is different. Perhaps the only thing that is truly unifying is that none of us are finding this ‘normal’.
You’ve employed some of the best creative minds in the business, so why not use them? Ask your people what sort of working practices and methodologies are working best for them and create opportunities for sharing so everyone can benefit.
Build a Relationship Based on Trust
Some companies are going down the route of a work from home policy built around remote employee monitoring and tracking. Others are insisting on their teams being on Zoom throughout the workday. While this might boost employer confidence that they’re getting value for money, we’d urge caution. A relationship based on trust can’t have its foundations in practices that are invasive and controlling.
The alternative is working on the evidence of the quality of your team’s outputs, rather than relying on the number of hours or keystrokes they input. Give your team freedom and flexibility and the remote working tools they need to do their job. Trust that they’ll be online when they need to be in communication with their colleagues and offline when they want to dig into some focused work. We all understand that micro interactions with office colleagues are sometimes the key to unlocking a creative idea. But you can’t replicate that with a remote work policy that demands a seat at your employee’s kitchen table day in day out.
Encouragement, support and modelling the behaviours you expect in our new world of work, rather than making unreasonable demands, is the way forward. One way creates an experience where your employees feel valued and trusted. The other is a transactional relationship built on coercion.
Recreate Social Networks
Good workplaces provide more than just a salary. Going into the office gives people a ready-made social and support network. We meet lifelong friends at work. Some of us met our life partners there. So, what happens to all of that when the office goes solely or primarily virtual?
How do you replicate the office social network and culture of care where people look out for each other and give each other support? In these days more than ever, we could all use the feeling that someone’s got our back.
This might be something the bosses can only lead on by example and encouraging people to make time in the day for non-work-related chats. Informal one-to-one check ins or a more formal buddying or mentorship system might also be appropriate depending on the workplace.
Something as simple as scheduling a weekly team social call could be the boost someone needs if they’re feeling isolated. Arranging the delivery of a lunch or snack box to every employee via a work from home delivery scheme could be a thoughtful gesture. A quick search throws up plenty of delicious options. Perhaps a team of foodies would enjoy an office ‘Bake Off’. Or a cook along made possible with the delivery of a recipe kit box from the range on offer from some of the country’s best restaurants. We also understand that at home wine tastings are becoming increasingly popular.
The key is that people leave business at the door and interact as people, not work colleagues. What that looks like very much depends on your people so democratise the process.
A conscious programme around company culture fully uses the diversity and creative talents of the team. It puts that culture into the hands of the employees rather than constantly dictating it from above. Agree what activities are appropriate and then invite people to make proposals. Alternatively, organise a rota so that once a month a different person organises something for the rest of the team.
Organising your culture like this will ensure a mix of social opportunities to suit all comers. While some will love the now ubiquitous Zoom quiz, it can’t be your only thing. Other people will find it quite invasive or be burned out on the idea if they’ve been in a Zoom quiz spiral with family for the past several months! Encourage low pressure social opportunities. Book, gaming or film clubs will help people feel part of a friendship group without having the pressure of being constantly ‘switched on’ and present.
Which brings us naturally to work-life balance. 20 years ago, when we were asking people why they were looking for a new position, a few were muttering about maybe getting a bit of work-life balance. Now our candidates are screaming about it.
Technology has made a work from home world possible for some. But the downside is we’re all connected 24-7 and everyone thinks they either can or should work all the time. As a result, we are all working harder than we ever did before.
The uncertainty of the world right now only compounds the trend. With so many people afraid for the future, job insecurity could fuel a wave of overwork with physical and mental health repercussions.
When we’re looking to redefine company culture, we need to be building in an expectation of downtime. Let people know that they’re not only being granted flexibility and freedom, but that they’re also expected to take advantage of it and push back if they need to.
As employers, it is incumbent on us to set the tone and make sure we support our colleagues. This could be as simple as encouraging people to take their lunches away from their desks and to get up and move around regularly. You could invest in a corporate membership to a meditation app like Headspace, or gift employees with a wellbeing allowance to spend on the subscription service of their choice. It might also require reorganising account teams if your business is global to ensure that people aren’t working extreme hours because they’re servicing clients across different time zones.
Part of this means finding balance in your work’s social opportunities. Don’t overload people with culture so they can’t ever get away from the office, whether in the physical or virtual space.
An Opportunity, Not an Existential Threat
While necessity has driven the changes we’ve been seeing in the workplace, they also represent an opportunity to re-engage with culture and redefine the way we work. Navigating these changes well is going to be key. We predict that companies serious about building an employee experience that delights will be most competitive and the ones to attract and keep the industry’s top talent.
For us, a robust, well-defined and shared company culture is the core component for success. It is crucial across all stages of your employee journey. You need an attractive culture to court and hire the best people. You need an intentional culture to bring them in and make them feel that they belong. And you need a conscious, proactive culture to keep them for the long term.
Yes, senior management need to grasp that this is a hugely important matter and work to get other members of the management team onboard to address it. But it’s also about empowering your people to dictate their own culture.
Above all, we would issue a clarion call against complacency. As the landscape continues to shift and as we continue to face this challenge together, don’t assume that you’ve got it right. Keep questioning and keep looking for innovative answers.
Spark* is a boutique recruitment firm that understands cultural fit is the secret to an excellent match.
We work in a more in depth and personalised way to get to know candidates more carefully and make satisfying, fulfilling placements.
If the human approach to recruitment is important to you too, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com or call Lucy on 07958 202 983 to set up a time to chat.