Can HR predict and shape corporate culture for a new era?

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Like most aspects of the HR profession, corporate culture has been disrupted by the pandemic. Years later, it is clear that HR teams are still trying to put the pieces back together.

About 59% of respondents to HR Dive’s 2022 HR Identity Survey said culture – an umbrella term for functions such as mentorship, engagement and team camaraderie – was one of the biggest challenges their organizations were facing as a result of COVID-19. Culture not only attracted the largest share of respondents out of all the challenges listed, but it was also the only answer chosen by more than half of the 388 HR professionals surveyed.

This discovery may come as no surprise to HR teams tasked with maintaining some semblance of continuity in a rapidly changing world. Among other things, the forced pandemic movement of jobs and people away from the office requiring managers to adopt a new skill set if they are to succeed in delivering a cohesive employee experience.

“Your readers are right to be concerned, because it’s not easy,” Lynne Oldham, chief human resources officer at fintech company Stash, told HR Dive in an interview.

The balance between flexibility and culture is particularly difficult for managers who are new to their role and for long-serving managers who have never worked with a remote team, Oldham said; “You really have to wrap your arms around these people and give them extra attention.”

Oldham is a relatively new arrival to Stash herself, having previously served as director of human resources at Zoom. His tenure coincided with a period in which Zoom’s product became the go-to platform for remote work. Once at Stash, Oldham said she assembled a task force to create instructional guides and timelines for flexible workforce managers. In addition to the guidance provided there, Oldham conducted audits and surveys of managers to assess their progress.

Note: Percentages are not rounded to 100%. Respondents were allowed to select up to two answers.

Ryan Golden / HR Diving

There are specific lessons that HR teams can pass on to managers to improve their effectiveness in a hybrid or remote work setup. Reggie Willis, director of diversity at Ally Financial, said in an interview that his organization’s primary focus is on communication and, specifically, managers being as transparent as possible with employees at every opportunity. As an extension of that, managers should listen to employees’ concerns while sharing their own without being inflammatory or disruptive, he noted.

“If you as a leader aren’t transparent enough to share your issues or discomfort in a hybrid work environment, it gets a little hollow when you’re trying to build a culture,” Willis said.

Similarly, Oldham noted the role of empathy in these conversations. Managers, she said, can identify employee issues, while HR helps recognize where certain teams may “run into a wall” in terms of productivity. Adjacent advice regarding day-to-day tasks such as holding inclusive meetings can also be helpful.

Key to these practices is making sure employees know exactly what to expect from the manager, Oldham said. Employees, she added, “don’t leave companies – they leave managers,” which makes this element of culture all the more essential.

Security in uncertainty

Managers need to create an environment where employees feel safe sharing with their managers, Willis said. Ally has sought to do this in part by leveraging its employee resource groups and creating safe spaces for difficult conversations in the workplace, including those dealing with pressing social topics.

Psychological safety emerged in the HR lexicon as a term to describe the type of work environment that encourages openness. Such cultures must be built on trust, Willis said, and employees must know and understand that an organization has their best interests at heart.


“If you as a leader aren’t transparent enough to share your issues or discomfort in a hybrid work environment, it gets a little hollow when trying to build a culture.”

Reggie Willis

Head of Diversity, Ally Financial


There are a number of things that help employees feel more secure within their organization. In its mid-year 2022 Human Workplace Index, the HCM Workhuman platform found that 55% of employees said they had a good relationship with their boss or manager. would help them feel safewhile 52% said the same about being recognized for their contributions.

“Recognition and appreciation make a difference,” said Meisha-ann Martin, senior director, people analytics and research at Workhuman. When employers focus on these things, “it serves to connect people with each other,” Martin added.

Managers can also assess whether psychological safety is integrated into existing practices. For example, having weekly check-ins can be a good practice, but HR might want to consider whether managers ask how their reports are doing, Martin said. She described it as hosting a “generous recording”, which conveys that managers care about employees beyond work.

Beyond the manager-employee relationship, HR teams can explore levers such as benefits strategy to positively impact culture. Willis said Ally has been looking for benefits options that allow employees to be resilient in a turbulent economic and social climate. Access to meditation, therapy and others mental health resources are some examples.

“We do a lot of things that historically weren’t expected of a company,” Willis said. “All this mixture of work and life [has] got HR departments thinking about how we can help people. »

The flexible connection

HR Dive’s survey found that a majority of respondents across all organization size categories offered remote or hybrid work. While flexibility has become an important aspect of many workplaces in 2022, it can challenge HR teams to determine the right balance between in-person time and off-site time. Some commentators have questioned whether certain jobs will ever be successfully separated of office concept.

Ryan Golden / HR Diving

For Willis and others, however, the office can be viewed more as a resource or tool that allows an organization to do its job. Employers, Willis said, need to understand how proximity influences their cultures. Ally identified “big buckets” of tasks and processes that could benefit from in-person gatherings or asynchronous work, Willis said, but he noted that “I don’t know if we’ve found that silver bullet.”

Martin said Workhuman research showed that remote employees report the least connection to co-workers and their culture among the types of workers surveyed, but those workers were also less likely to feel stressed or overworked compared to their colleagues on site.

“It’s up to us to be really thoughtful about how we design these experiences to retain the pros and avoid the cons,” Martin added. “It’s time to think about how people connect with each other.”

Connecting in person doesn’t need to focus solely on finding opportunities to bring teams together just to get more work done, Oldham said. On the contrary, it can allow teams to connect and find common ground with each other in ways that may not be possible in a virtual space.

An integration experience rather than an arrival

Although respondents to HR Dive’s survey most often listed culture as a top challenge, hiring wasn’t far behind; more than a third of respondents said hiring is the top priority for their HR department today.

This finding is perhaps not surprising given that the The U.S. talent market remains ultra-competitive, but hiring is deeply tied to culture, Oldham said. She noted that Stash has sought to improve its onboarding experience by focusing on cultural values ​​such as putting workers in the shoes of the company’s customers so it can better serve them.

“We need to reach people in their hearts, not in their heads,” Oldham said. “We need to do a better job of getting people to feel Stash and experience Stash, instead of just getting to Stash.”

Many of the same frameworks that help managers connect with existing teams can also help onboard new team members, Oldham added. Stash turned to team-building activities such as group personality quizzes so that team members had a better understanding of their colleagues.

Willis said Ally focused on what the next generation of talent will look like, given that Gen Z contains so much diversity. This led the company’s human resources team to redouble their efforts to create a psychologically safe environment that welcomes difference and understands the needs of different workers. At the same time, he noted that the culture will need to meet the expectations of new workers for how work is done.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Willis said of those expectations and their impact on the culture. “As someone who sees himself as an ambassador and a cultural carrier, I always worry about the impact two years from now.”

Employers will need to make clear and compelling what their employee value propositions are in an increasingly competitive market, Martin said; “It has to be more than a salary. What is the culture of your organization like, and how do you communicate it to people interested in joining us? »

Martin said this issue was critical given Workhuman’s findings that new hires onboarded virtually during the pandemic struggled and were likely to return to their previous organizations. This, she added, may indicate the need for greater integration within and beyond the integration process.

Returning to the topic of recognition, Martin said employers can help new hires better understand organizational values ​​by highlighting instances in which new hires are living those values.