How to evolve corporate culture without losing your core principles

Suman Gopalan Profile picture for user Suman Gopalan May 23, 2022
Corporate culture plays a larger role than ever in shaping the employee experience. Suman Gopalan, CHRO at Freshworks, explains how to keep cultural values intact during changing times.

Infograph top view of team working at a round table © David Arts - shutterstock
(© David Arts - shutterstock)

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Peter Drucker. The legendary management consultant, author and educator was of course implying that it is your company culture that will determine success, regardless of how great or effective the strategy may be.

As we all know, if we’re not feeling happy and supported at work, we don’t engage or perform well. It’s human nature and one of the main reasons employee experience became such a hot buzzword. But knowing how to proactively embrace employee experience and adapt company culture to keep pace is new ground for many organisations.

Until recently, employee experience focused almost exclusively on the workplace. Pre-pandemic, this was most visible in offices with things like ping pong or foosball tables, free food, gym access and crèches on site in some office buildings. But now we’re not working in other people’s buildings as much, employee experience has become significantly broader.

In addition to the physical workplace, it now also extends to the digital employee experience. This is partly due to the shift in hybrid and home-based working but is also largely driven by the current generation of digital natives who want the same ease and fluidity in their work lives as they do in their personal lives. There’s little tolerance for the sharp contrast between seamless engagement via apps for our shopping, banking, health and social lives, compared to the clunky, manual, drawn out processes in our work lives. Employee experience is no longer simply about enhancing where we work, but how we work.

It’s not just the digital experience that matters. It’s also the human experience. Throughout our tenure with a company, there will be significant moments that matter in our lives. How your employer supports (or is indifferent) to these experiences shapes how we feel working for them. It could be anything from how someone is interviewed and onboarded to family challenges or exceptional circumstances.

The pandemic softened many rigid corporate policies, but this is more than just doing the right thing when times are tough. It’s a sea change in how organisations view and treat their ‘human capital’ as human beings.

Employers have woken up to the fact that the physical, digital and human employee experience holds powerful currency.According to the book, “The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspace They Want, They Tools They Need and Culture They Can Celebrate” written by Jacob Morgan, strong employee experience can drive average profit 4.4 times higher and increase average revenue per employee by 2.9 times. Employee experience focused companies are also 4.5 times more frequently listed on Most Innovative Companies lists by Fast Company, Boston Consulting and Forbes, compared to those with no such focus.

If you’re reading this and thinking your company culture and employee experience are ‘fine,’ think again. Culture is not and should not be a static state. Organizations must constantly evaluate what employees want. It’s an ongoing process of evolving and innovating.

There are obvious parallels between customer experience, which organisations have been refining for years, and employee experience. While customer experience has been the battleground for sales loyalty, employee experience is the battleground for productivity.

But how do you keep your cultural values intact while continually evolving?

It’s actually easier than you think. Here are three easy wins.

1) Ask for the answer

Regular employee surveys are an easy and rich internal source of innovation. At Freshworks, we use internal hackathons and ideathons. We have a cultural value called ‘Speak Up’ where everybody has a voice and should be heard. As a growing company, we wanted to make sure we could listen to everybody. We use technology to make it easy for employees to ask questions, upload suggestions and information– we even built an internal app for it. And we always implement the top five or six suggestions. We also have several internal tools we use for candidate recruitment. On average, we receive around 50,000 job applications globally. One of our employee ideas was to use our CRM product with candidates, which was a game changer. Employees won’t just give you ideas to do things better, they will flat out tell you what would give them a better experience, in turn boosting engagement. In this way, employee surveys and requests for input are like gold dust.

2) Ask for involvement

Any time you’re buying software of any kind, ask your employees to evaluate it. There’s a tendency for managers to buy software that will make their lives easier for metrics, reporting or integrating with other corporate systems. But the biggest users of such software are usually your employees. It’s an important but subtle cultural point. We just went through a big launch of a new software package. Before we adopted it, we asked for volunteers to try it. In just one hour, 120 people had signed up to try it out. They tested every feature and functionality and found things we wouldn’t normally notice. Better still, they evangelised its merits to their co-workers when we deployed it. Making employees part of the change, should be woven into the fabric of how you evolve as a business.

3) Constantly question and evolve

Your culture can and should evolve, but your DNA can remain the same. If I look at our own example at Freshworks, our culture has grown and evolved but our first principles — our core DNA such as who we hire, how we hire and how we make decisions– has not.For example, when we were a 20 person start-up, we had a heavy emphasis around ‘craftsmanship’ in our corporate culture (actually, we still do!).However,as we moved into high-growth mode and became a global, publicly listed company, an important ethosbecame ‘don’t wait to get things done.’ On paper, these look in direct conflict with each other, but over time, the emphasis changed because the context changed. Once you have a solid foundation of well-crafted products, you must move faster. It’s so important to constantly question and evolve. Leadership may own the collaborative process, but it should always be shaped by employees.

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