Your organisation’s approach to culture has a significant impact on retention. But let’s clarify something before we dive into the practicalities: retention is not always the be-all and end-all:
Sometimes it’s important that someone does not stay in your organisation. Perhaps your culture is the thing that will help them choose to leave, not stay, because they just don’t fit. They may just need to move on, for their own benefit as much as for your organisation.
Today’s employees typically move organisation several times during their careers. Long tenure shouldn’t necessarily be your goal. Instead, allowing people to leave whilst staying connected so that they might want to come back for another stint may be the focus you need, rather than trying to keep talent at all costs when it’s not what they want right now.
However, let’s assume that you are trying to retain a number of talented people, and that you’re looking for some tips around your culture focus to help that.
Don’t confuse your employees being happy and content with having ‘a strong culture’. Furthermore, you should recognise that the workplace culture you have is not simply the words on the wall, or what senior leaders say it is. It is also made up of less tangible, informal factors: the way employees work because of who they are working with, the habits and practices they have grown to find effective, as well as the way decisions are made, by whom, and who the key influences are upon these decisions.
You also shouldn’t be overly purist and expect everyone to show equal enthusiasm or engagement with the culture. Typically, a third of employees will be enthusiastic and lead the charge, a third will be sceptical and may challenge the workplace culture, and a third will passively observe until they see what cultural elements are working and whether they will last. It’s this last group that you need to get on board to really get things humming.
So, be practical when thinking about how to use your culture for retention. Be clear what you mean by culture. Have your eyes and ears open to how it’s really working – clarity, commitment and consistency underpins identity, belonging, engagement and productivity. You should also remember the many aspects that contribute, including legacy culture or a sense of threat. Don’t dismiss any as irrelevant, as they are all vital ingredients in your culture’s recipe. The weakest link in your culture can undermine retention.
Businesses are run by people, and how they behave impacts what is delivered. In short, if you want to unlock the best opportunity to deliver your business strategy, align your culture to it. For example, it’s no use having a culture focused on stability if your strategy is about innovation and disruption.
But how do you know if your culture is aligned to your business strategy? Treat culture the same way you treat your strategy: keep it on the regular management agenda as a core performance item, give it an annual review, a five-year plan and an opportunity for a re-set.
Therefore, when it comes to retention, be sure your culture is encouraging those your organisation truly needs to stay – and that you are not inadvertently working hard to keep the people you feel comfortable around even if they are not living the culture your business strategy needs.
Remember, workplace culture should not be treated as a one-off campaign or marketing gimmick, and there are no silver bullets or quick solutions to ‘fix it’. All employees can see through these approaches when they occur. It may lift the mood, boost the spirits and raise engagement levels for a short time, but the deep habits remain underneath, and when the bright light shone on culture is switched off, things return to how they were – with perhaps a dollop more scepticism.
If you want to be able to influence retention and have your culture work for you, it needs to be treated differently. In short, it’s the whole system that needs managing: a set of dials all lined up to create an environment where what we say the culture is, is truly what employees are experiencing, channelled into and incentivised by, and where stepping outside the boundaries of it has consequences.
That means rolling your sleeves up every day to make a difference, and building consistency and trust in the culture so that people experience what they signed up for. It takes everyone to do their bit, because the culture is the amalgamation of everyone’s interactions. It’s a whole system effort, and it’s never done – it’s a constant part of how you run your organisation.
To discover more about how to hone your workplace culture to keep existing employees loyal and engaged in your organisation, request a copy of the Hays Diversity & Inclusion 2019 Report here.
Kirsty is a Non-Executive Director and also runs QuayFive, who advise organisations on how to oversee their culture to improve business performance and strategy delivery. She is also the author of Culture Shift – a practical guide to managing organisational culture (Bloomsbury 2019).
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