The right culture is everything. It determines how happy, productive, and engaged employees are. It allows you to attract and retain high performers. It determines how well you perform financially: not only does a strong culture motivate employees to give it their all, increasingly it impacts consumer attitudes toward your brand.
But culture isn’t static: as the world changes, and as attitudes change along with it, cultures need to shift in response. That’s the point of workplace trends expert Rick Grimaldi’s new FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace.
In a quick conversation, Grimaldi shares insights on what the new workplace culture looks like:
Q: How would you describe the workplace culture of the future?
Rick Grimaldi: I think of it as a patchwork quilt. So many disparate pieces are having to come together so quickly, and the result is sort of dizzying. We’ve got this sudden immersion into remote work. We’ve got amazing technological advances. We’ve got massive social and political changes that are reshaping workplace policies and employee attitudes. We’ve got a huge spectrum of generations and ages working together. All of these factors and more are transforming cultures. Leaders need to understand and respond creatively if they’re to attract talent and succeed.
Q: What are the biggest shifts you’ve seen over the past 15 months?
Rick Grimaldi: Obviously, the biggest change has been where employees do their jobs. Remote work in some fashion is here to stay. As a result of the social movements of the last year, good employers are more attuned to the importance of social responsibility.
Another big one I’d pinpoint is a focus on psychological wellness. The pandemic has taken a major toll on employees’ mental and emotional well-being. It’s now become obvious this is a space that employers do need to get involved in—that’s a major shift from the hands-off approach companies used to take.
Q: As a lawyer, what do you see happening in terms of legal implications for employers?
Rick Grimaldi: Quite a bit. The past year and a half forced companies to walk a tightrope to balance worker safety with individual rights and preferences; for example, they’ve had to figure out where the boundaries are in terms of persuading people to come back to the office.
There are legal issues to navigate pertaining to gig workers and employment status. That’s been heating up for over a decade. There are lots of diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment issues to consider. It’s all very complex. And how you handle these issues, and others has a huge impact on your culture.
Q: What can a company do to shape a culture that creates a competitive advantage?
Rick Grimaldi: You start by knowing what potential employees want. It may be the flexibility to work remotely. Studies show Millennials and Gen Z-ers have a strong preference for good work-life integration, and they’ve gotten used to working this way over the last year and a half.
As an employer, you may realize fully remote doesn’t work for a particular position, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work out a hybrid arrangement or that you can’t let people adjust start and stop times. Solutions have to work for both parties. Companies can no longer just say, “This is how it is here.” They have to say, “Here are our needs but we want to meet your needs too.”
Also, today’s job candidates want to see a workplace that reflects the cultural norms they have come to know. Winning organizations build in rules and systems to remove inherent bias and promote healthy and flexible workplaces where diversity can thrive by embracing a multitude of genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, and disabilities.
In general, businesses must stay nimble, flexible, and embrace not only the disruption of the pandemic but the inevitable and rapid change that is still to come. The market will reward them.
Q: What challenges come with a hybrid workplace?
Rick Grimaldi: People sometimes ask me, “Can it really work to have some employees at home and some in the office? What about having different employees toggling between home and office on different days?” My answer is, yes, it can work, but it’s certainly not easy. Leaders need to get very deliberate about meeting the challenges that pop up. Strong hybrid cultures can be tricky to get right. They require a different way of thinking about leadership.
For example, you have to create conditions that replicate those cool “happenstance” moments of collaboration or breakthroughs that occur at the coffee machine or in the hallway. It’s harder for magic like this to happen when half the team is at home. You’ve also got to make sure working mothers and other employees who are in the office less don’t become second-class citizens. These are solvable problems, though, and hybrid is here to stay—so really, you have no choice but to work them out.
Q: What are the keys to prioritizing employee engagement?
Rick Grimaldi: The big factors are an emphasis on communication, regular interaction, and complete transparency. I’d say another big one is getting intentional about creating a sense of belonging. When you have a workplace that’s a mix of generations, races and cultures, men and women, and LGBTQ individuals, you must move beyond diversity and inclusion. You must move toward what DEI expert Tristan Higgins calls metaclusivity. You need to cultivate a true sense of belonging. Feeling that they belong is what gets people engaged and allows them to do their best work.
Q: How do leaders get everyone aligned working toward the same goals?
Rick Grimaldi: Leaders and businesses that flex recognize the key to getting everyone on the same page is to have them feel invested in the workplace. This can occur through mentoring between more seasoned and less experienced teammates and by constantly providing a seat at the table. The old command and control mindset is gone, and good riddance! An organization that seeks active input from all levels of an organization is a much stronger, more engaged one.
Q: Can you give an example of exceptional workplace culture?
Rick Grimaldi: I think the best story is from my book. Saxbys is the perfect example of what I call the new American capitalism. It’s a Philly-based coffee company that has continuously evolved. The CEO constantly asks himself and his team, “How are we unique?” “What are we truly great at?” and, “What do we want to be?”
It was this kind of thinking that allowed Saxbys to flex during this last, very difficult, year. It actually changed its core focus to better educate its team members on diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as the critical importance of emotional intelligence in leaders. It put these issues front and center in its training programs. It paid off.
After a rigorous qualification process, Saxbys recently earned the coveted “B Corp Certification,” as a company dedicated to reducing inequality and poverty, making the environment healthier, strengthening communities, and creating quality jobs with dignity and purpose.
Q: Can a company truly change its culture?
Rick Grimaldi: Of course! It’s all about being sensitive to trends; keeping your finger on the pulse of employee needs, preferences, and attitudes; and responding quickly and appropriately. It’s not easy. You have to be intentional and relentless about it. You have to stay open to constantly learning. But your culture is everything, so if you want to stay viable into a rapidly shifting, and ultimately unseeable future, you’ve got to be willing to flex.
Rick Grimaldi is a workplace trends expert and the author of FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace. Rick’s unique perspective comes from his diverse career in high-ranking public service positions, as a human resources and labor relations professional for an international hi-tech company, and presently in private practice as a partner with Fisher Phillips, LLP, one of America’s preeminent management side labor and employment law firms. Day to day, Rick works with companies to help them adapt to the ever-changing business environment, achieve their workplace goals, and become better employers. Rick is an internationally recognized writer and keynote speaker, and has been selected through a peer review process as one of The Best Lawyers in America© in three of the last four years.
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