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Culture Insights

The Culture Edit is an ongoing series sharing our approach to the most critical challenge facing every business today:

How do we promote and maintain workplace culture in the post-COVID era?

Culture Insights

Think back to “The Before Time” – when you could go to backyard bar-b-ques, shake hands and meet friends of friends.  Those moments of casual connections inevitably led to a conversation about what you do for a living and where you work.  Which in turn led to, “What’s it like to work there?”

Now think about how others answer that question.  That answer – that description –  – it’s how employees define and perceive your organization’s culture.  

This scenario and others like it are key to our approach and development of an authentic Culture Story and strategy that lasts.

The How

Our Insights approach has three key components: analysis of the total employee experience, quantitative data evaluation and qualitative ethnography.  The last component being by far the most important.

What’s an Employee Experiencing Exactly?

Analysis of the total employee experience is the mechanism of evaluating the process, policies, and communications that employees feel, see and do during the employment life-cycle.  This starts with the external employer brand positioning to candidates through job advertising, content, and reviews on platforms like Glassdoor and Indeed.  

The analysis continues by walking through the employee’s journey: interviewing, onboarding, training, development, goal setting, performance management – all the way through offboarding.  

Typically all these touchpoints have not been considered in their entirety as a whole.  They’re simply the accumulation of years of unrelated initiatives undertaken as the company has grown.  They’ve evolved over time in a vacuum as stakeholders have come into and out of control.  

It’s often an eye-opening experience for Senior Leadership to see the entire journey sewn together.  The Glassdoor reviews alone are a rabbit hole that can wreck a carefully scheduled day!
Quantitative is Easy with an Added Benefit of Not Being that Useful. 

That’s right, annual engagement surveys are not that useful – “IF” – you really want to understand the common behaviors and beliefs of your employees.

It’s the equivalent of guessing your favorite food by asking what you had for dinner last night.  No one’s favorite food is grilled chicken and cucumbers.  The engagement survey is a snapshot in time – the answers to which can be influenced or manipulated by recent events.

A few years ago, we started our Insights approach with a new client.  They asked us to create a survey instead of our preferred qualitative approach.  Luckily we insisted and they moved forward with our recommendation.  

As we started our focus group discussions we learned that an extremely influential leader had recently left the organization.  Upon his departure he had made it clear to everyone that would listen that his demise was part of a larger plan to close several facilities.  

These hard-working, front-line employees had lost their only visible leader – someone they trusted.  They were hurt, paranoid, scared and lashing out at what they saw was a betrayal of their trust. 

It took us a while to get to the core beliefs after a lot of active listening.  In reality, these employees loved working for this organization.  They respected leadership, liked what they were doing, and to this point, had trusted the organization.  Had we simply sent out the survey, we would have never heard their stories.  The results would have painted a picture of a disgruntled and toxic culture.  The impending strategy would have looked much different.

Don’t get us wrong, we certainly evaluate annual engagement survey results as part of our approach.  In fact, much later in our process we promote the use of strategic pulse surveys to measure and monitor culture-related issues frequently.  It’s just that the annual engagement survey is simply not a great tool for understanding what employees really believe.
Qualitative Ethnography is Hard but Aren’t all the Best Things in Life?

If you really want to know how someone feels about a particular subject, they have to trust that you’re genuinely interested.  This takes time, significant effort and some skill.  

A qualitative research approach rooted in ethnography is the key ingredient in our approach.

This method is focused on understanding how people experience different aspects of their lives, how they behave, what they believe and how their organization functions.  The researcher is the facilitator, prober and recorder of this data.  It’s done through meaningful conversations and pointed inquiries.  

This takes the form of individual interviews, small group panels and focus groups.  The participants tend to lean heavier to more tenured employees because they know “how we do things” around here.  We also include less tenured employees because they can draw from experiences with their previous employer to compare and provide a new perspective.

Participants also range in level of hierarchy, position and function.  We are deliberate to get a view from “every lens” – including leadership, middle management, front line, HR, gender and race.  Culture can look vastly different based on these perspectives.

In addition to the “what’s it like to work there,” we dig into topics such as: 

What do you tell your spouse/best friend about leadership?

How do you get important information here?

How does what you do every day connect to what the company is trying to accomplish? 

Do you think this is a fair place to work?

What does the future look like five years from now for you (personally) and the company?

The relentless pursuit of “why” follows each of these.

It’s an intense process, but one the participants truly enjoy because they come to understand its importance.  Tears are often involved.  

And yes, we’ve done this entire process successfully over Zoom.
The Conclusion

The qualitative approach is hard because it takes time and patience.  Combined with any existing quantitative research and the analysis of the total employee experience, this approach leads to a comprehensive understanding of the current culture of the organization from all perspectives and through every lens.  

From here we develop one of the most important and scrutinized deliverables of our entire approach: the Discovery Insights Report.  This report is presented to Leadership and key stakeholders in the project.  We encourage scrutiny but typically what we see are lightbulbs.  

Then it’s time to begin the next phase: crafting the Culture Story.
A Roundup of All Things Cool, Interesting, and Tasty
(Fun Animal GIFs Included)

We spend a LOT of time learning and creating.  We’re fortunate that we live a lifestyle that allows us to consume, evaluate, filter and process a ton of content.  Some of this directly relates to the workplace, and some of it indirectly.  We also know that this is a luxury many don’t have because we get asked all the time for recommendations for books, articles, podcasts, playlists, influencers to follow…you get it.  

It takes a lot of time to sift through all the junk out there to find the real valuable content.  So here’s a few things to check out:


Never Stand Still with Dan Shulman – Nike CEO John Donahoe

This is a podcast by the CEO of PayPal, Dan Shulman.  The fact that the CEO of PayPal takes time to chat with other business leaders in a very transparent and open manner is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.  In this episode, he interviews the new CEO of Nike (a brand we admire).  The range of topics includes COVID challenges, response to racial injustice and general friendly banter.


NICH Officina Here’s what’s typically playing in the background.  It’s a big playlist with mostly obscure but interesting tunes.  Want to impress your kids?  Play this one.


Letters of Note

A fascinating collection of letters between influential, famous, and everyday people.  Covering every imaginable topic, these letters are a glimpse into the thoughts of some of history’s most interesting personalities.  It’s great for the curious individual that struggles to concentrate on a long-form book.  Also, check out their website for more letters and compilations.


Carlo’s Pizza 

You don’t have to step foot outside the house to get a quality pizza. The Accardi Family has perfected the art of frozen pizza delivery during COVID, and has been ranked the best frozen pizza in the nation by OneBite Pizza Reviews.
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