Company culture: why employee experience can't exist in a vacuum
As the focus shifts from employee engagement to employee experience, HR practitioners must not forget that the deeply ingrained culture of a company – whether good or bad – will hugely impact how employees feel about their working environment.
Imagine walking into a factory of a family-run business. In the reception area, along one wall, hangs a long line of photographs of the men who owned it over the past few hundred years.
In the factory, all the women are sewing and all the men are type-setting. When the managers walk in, they are all men too, but they don’t touch machines.
Now imagine your employee experience in this setting: it is completely constrained by the culture and social expectations of men’s work and women’s work.
What I haven’t mentioned is that the women sewing and the men typesetting are also depicted in photographs, which have been put up to illustrate what the company had been like 50 years ago.
There are no longer seamstresses and typesetters in the publishing industry, or at least not as such. Materials have changed, and so much has been automated.
Here in the UK, you’d hope that this kind of gendered work would be a thing of the past.
And yet, I saw it again when I recently ran a workshop on unconscious bias where we were talking about power. There were people from every level of the organisation there.
At one table sat the personal assistants of the senior managers. They were all women. They tried to tell us that they had the power as they were the gatekeepers. I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “if it’s such a powerful role, where are the men?”
In anthropology, we call this kind of analysis ‘thick description’. It means reading the human relations through behaviour and context. When you’re a member of a culture, it’s often hard to see it. But with things like hindsight, in my first example, and being an outsider, in my second example, the structure of culture becomes very legible.
What has this got to do with employee experience?
The recent transition from a focus on employee engagement to employee experience is rooted in the recognition that engagement is not just about the individual, but about how that individual plugs into the culture of the workplace.
Every workplace culture constrains its employees in some way or another. Culture is a set of values, behaviours and tools that provide structure, and employee experience is what happens at the intersection of individual personality and organisational culture.
In the examples above, gendered work was clearly written in the culture’s values, behaviours and tools. But culture can be shaped around different values, behaviours and tools, creating an employee experience that is freeing and expansive, rather than limiting.
An organisation’s values tell you a lot about what an employee’s experience will be like within that company.
For example, one client of mine designed the interior of their building to be inclusive for both introverts and extroverts. They designed a space that encouraged different behaviours, reflecting different personalities. The building was full of little protected spaces, where one person could work, or two people could chat. But equally, walls could be moved to create big open spaces as necessary.
Since there was quite a bit of hot-desking in this organisation, there were also welcoming areas for people to come and work for some time without making it their permanent space.
This says a lot about the organisational culture, and I think their employee experience reflected this: people felt seen and welcomed for who they were. This organisation consciously chose to challenge structural bias in the fabric of their building.
How company values impact employee experience
An organisation’s values also tell you a lot about what an employee’s experience will be like within that company.
Think about two workplaces, one where mistakes are punished, and another where mistakes are countered with training and support.
Now think about employee experience in each of those contexts. In the first it won’t matter if you’ve got a great team or manager, you will be less likely to take risks, make suggestions, admit to mistakes or ask questions. Whereas in the latter, as you can imagine, the opposite will be true.
No matter how much an employer says “our people are our greatest asset,” if this is not reflected in the lives of their employees, then it’s not truly the culture.
A recent Quartz article looks at the psychologically safe culture of air traffic controllers, where the consequences of mistakes are training and support, rather than being punished or job loss. This is called ‘just culture’. “This enables employees to grow and improve,” the article points out. “Mistakes become tools, not problems to downplay or ignore, and it’s not only the employee who was involved in the snafu who benefits from its instructional side effects.”
A culture that is lived and breathed
Whether you create an environment where employee experience is positive or negative is very much linked to culture – to have a positive culture, the spoken rules have to align with lived experience. No matter how much an employer says “our people are our greatest asset,” if this is not reflected in the lives of their employees, then it’s not truly the culture.
Tips for doing your own ‘thick description’
- Talk to different types of employees – look at how people in different roles experience the organisation. Listen to the stories of women, BAME and LGBTQ+ employees. Is everyone telling the same story of their experience?
- What story does your use of space tell? I work with one organisation where it’s common knowledge that the second floor is where the power is. In others, it’s those departments that do the ‘glamour’ work. For companies spread across geographical locations, what happens when one site is seen as the centre of the company’s universe, and others are seen as mere satellites?
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Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of...