Engaged Workforce

New Building Blocks of Work

Recent research reveals four drivers critical to building company culture in today’s environment.

By Gary Beckstrand

When normalcy left the building with millions of employees in March of 2020, many HR leaders had a feeling it wouldn’t be coming back. Now, a new landscape of work and business is emerging from the pandemic. The days when employers seemed to hold all the cards, dictating working conditions and benefits, are gone. In many industries, employees now call more shots, insisting on flexible work environments and leaving jobs if necessary. But after a year and a half of remote or hybrid work and social distancing, the need for organizations to rethink old practices, reconnect with employees, and strengthen workplace culture is paramount.

To help in this effort, the O.C. Tanner Institute assembled and analyzed the perspectives of over 38,000 employees, leaders, HR practitioners, and executives from 21 countries around the world. The research identifies the following challenges to building culture in the new workplace, including:

• adapting to a hybrid model of work;
• creating new, meaningful employee experiences;
• focusing on what impacts business outcomes; and
• improving employee interaction, recognition, and development.

Hybrid is Here to Stay

The pandemic convincingly clarified that how work gets done is more important than where it gets done. That said, data confirms the office is more conducive to certain types of work than remote locations, and vice versa. Having experienced remote work, employees now want the best of both worlds. Seventy-three percent of employees want the option to work remotely while 67% of employees want more in-person interactions.
As part of the research, respondents were asked these two questions:

1. What part of their jobs was harder to do from home?
2. What part was easier?

Respondents said that it was harder to collaborate with colleagues, advance their careers, and make those vital social connections from home—they needed the office. Conversely, they preferred to think creatively and do the work to meet deadlines from home.

Leaders have an opportunity to reshape the work experience to hit on all the highpoints of these locations: Completely design those days in the office to brainstorm, network, and connect; and then let employees conduct focused work and creativity with minimal interruptions from home. It’s not about dividing up days and trying to do everything the same in the office as it would be done at home, or vice versa; it’s about designing a personalized work experience that’s most conducive to employee and cultural success.

The Anatomy of Peak Employee Experiences

Finding new ways to create meaningful or peak experiences in the context of employees’ everyday interactions will be critical to building a workplace culture where employees thrive and stay. Peak experiences profoundly shape the positive feelings employees have about their work, team members, and the organization. The formula for creating peak employee experiences starts with meeting three basic needs, including:

1. autonomy;
2. connection; and
3. mastery.

When employees feel a strong sense of ownership in their work, a connection to others, and a sense of achievement and expertise in their role, they’re far more likely to do their best work. Organizations that satisfy the three psychological needs increase several important cultural outcomes (see Figure 1), including employee experience (655%), great work (1245%), thriving culture (795%), and employee net promoter score (316%).
Leaders play a key role in delivering peak employee experiences. Those leaders who coach, recognize, and connect their people to purpose, accomplishment, and one another, dramatically reinforce autonomy, connection, and mastery.

Engagement Revisited

For over two decades, organizations have focused on improving engagement that’s rife with conflicting meanings—and without much to show for it. By nearly any definition, engagement does not reliably indicate the future performance of either individuals or businesses. Despite the billions of dollars organizations have invested to “drive” engagement, the best assessments of this concept haven’t shown much improvement. As tracked by Gallup, over the past 18 years, engagement increased from 26% to 34%, an average of less than half a point each year.

Engagement is highly associated with the employee’s disposition, which makes it even more complex and less helpful. O.C. Tanner’s latest research shows work output is a better metric than worker sentiment, and increasing it yields far greater individual, team, and organizational results.

A near-singular focus on employee engagement has distracted organizations from what matters more: the production of great work. Research shows employees and leaders relate to engagement through the quality of their work. Plus, the behaviors and practices associated with great work are more specific and easier to define, measure, and train. They’re also more reliable and predictive of business success because they directly affect business outcomes.

The research indicates that organizations that prioritize great work see better results than those that focus on engagement have better organizational growth and revenue growth (see Figure 2).

Organizations will be best served by rethinking how they prioritize the use of ambiguous metrics such as employee engagement that don’t directly produce or predict business success. Measuring great work leads to more innovation, higher retention, and stronger workplace cultures.

The Impact of Recognition

This year’s research found a causal link—hard evidence that personalized recognition directly impacts the strength of the connection between employees—which subsequently affects culture and business performance. When employees recognized a peer for their help, there are two significant improvements, including a 55% increase in the strength of connection between the two employees and a 52% increase in the likelihood of helping their colleague with work in the future.

Recognition that’s tailored to individuals can have an even greater impact across the organization, especially when it creates employee experiences that reflect and support an intentional workplace culture.

Recognition that includes both a public and a points-based component proves to be far more effective. The research shows that when organizations integrate both public and monetary recognition into their cultures, the probability of employees doing great work increases 18 times.

HR: A Rapidly Expanding Role

During the pandemic, HR’s role has dramatically expanded as it communicated changes, upheld health and safety protocols, and helped employees who got sick or needed extra leave to care for family. HR leaders also navigated layoffs and furloughs, and now they shepherd the return to offices. HR now plays an even more pivotal role in the employee experience, workplace culture, and business prosperity.

But the scope and complexity of HR today is only a fraction of what the future holds. Those companies that support HR will take large steps toward ensuring business success. Here are a few steps to consider.

1. Deliberately redefine HR’s role as a strategic, workplace culture champion.
2. Treat culture initiatives as company initiatives, not HR projects.
3. Utilize data and insights to make better decisions.
4. Empower HR leaders to make changes that are long overdue.

As the workplace continues to evolve, so does the role of HR. The responsibilities and influence of HR will continue to grow as it meets new challenges, many of which will require a more thoughtful and deliberate approach. The organizations that take the right steps to genuinely champion the new era of HR will reap the rewards.

Gary Beckstrand is vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute.

Tags: Engaged Workforce

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