In our post-pandemic world of work, talent leaders’ approach to developing corporate culture may never be the same.
by Anne Jacoby
December 20, 2021
The future of work landed in our laps in early 2020. As talent development leaders pored through the list of skills to make teams future-ready, they suddenly realized the time to not only build these skills, but practice and live them, is now.
With an estimated 65 percent of the workforce seeking new employment, skills that enhance culture may be more than merely a nice-to-have, they could be the key driver to retain top talent. As high growth companies navigate their future workplace structures, talent leaders have a unique opportunity to enable innovation, while authentically building human connection.
Many future-of-work competencies have been part of talent development’s curriculum well before the global pandemic. We have navigated VUCA, our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, for at least a decade. Talent teams have absorbed rapid technology transformation, integrated artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, synthesized the disparate needs of our multigenerational workforce and curated career development paths to attract and retain scarce talent.
But technical capabilities alone do not create corporate culture. Today’s teams need skills that nurture our humanity. How adept organizations are at cultivating power (formerly known as “soft” skills) significantly impacts their ability to thrive. Creativity, communication and connection are now mission critical.
Using creativity to inspire innovation
MIT Sloan revealed 43 percent of surveyed companies list creativity or innovation as a core value. But there’s no correlation between stated values and corporate culture or how team members relate to each other day-to-day. Talent leaders have an opportunity to help build the underlying mindsets that lead to more creative workplaces to enable innovation.
A growth mindset, understood as the belief that our abilities are not fixed but instead can be developed through effort, can be the first step toward enabling a culture of trying new things. One way to address the gap between desiring innovation and innovating is to get out of our comfort zone, experiment and learn from failure. By destigmatizing failure through the celebration of effort and learning, team members can flex their creative thinking, try new ways to solve problems and ultimately drive better business results.
Cara Brennan Allamano, senior vice president of people at Udemy, explains how embracing learning is core to the high-growth company culture. “We work within our organization so that people feel really supported in taking that time to learn.” Once a month Udemy has a “Drop Everything And Learn (DEAL)” session where the entire company learns.
“The definition of innovation is about connecting disparate things and making new things. When we do our DEAL hours, it’s giving people permission to think outside of their day-to-day work and bring some new ideas to the table and then hopefully apply that type of thinking to their day-to-day jobs,” Allamano says.
Aaron Mitchell, director of human resources at Netflix Animation, has managed similar rapid growth since March 2020, scaling from fewer than 1000 people to close to 2000 across 35 countries. Mitchell, who attended an arts high school and views his leadership role akin to playing the saxophone without a reed, has a unique perspective on the power of creativity at work.
He reflected, “If you set the expectation with people that every one of us is a creative, you will let people unleash their creativity to solve problems. If you think about creativity as a ‘now is the time for creativity and now is not the time for creativity,’ we’re going to be stuck in this thing for the rest of our lives.”
To enable more creativity at work to strengthen culture, consider:
- Virtual hackathons to rapidly develop new ideas.
- Perspective taking exercises across the organization. (For example, one of my clients assembled cross-functional groups to brainstorm key performing indicators to foster fresh ideas about measuring progress.)
- Empathizing with the customer experience. Try inviting different parts of the organization to hear directly from clients and customers when possible and invest significant time connecting to their problem before jumping to a solution.
- Committing time to learning both work skills and non-work skills to invite new insights.
- Celebrating risk-taking by honoring ideas that didn’t work in their first iteration.
Ramping up communication during high change
Practicing more creativity in isolation isn’t enough, however. Throughout the pandemic, leaders have relied on ramping up communication to stay close to their colleagues. In distributed or hybrid work environments, this will continue to be a sought-after strategy. Communicating through storytelling is the optimal way to inspire talent to seek individual development and grow.
Mitchell recalled a powerful example where the black colleagues at Netflix Animation came together to brainstorm ways to celebrate Black History month. One of the more junior members sparked an idea to highlight the impact of having more diversity in every role by highlighting stories that showed the impact of their presence in contribution in not so obvious ways, including nuanced cultural expressions captured through personal and lived cultural experience.
Although Mitchell helped coach her to pitch the idea to business leaders, it was initially met with scrutiny by the studio heads due to a concern of not being celebratory enough. She then persisted in researching, refining and developing an irresistible format called the Unlearn Series.
Mitchell reflects, “She helped the studio to see all of this authentic work that we’re doing to try to create authentic stories, but the real story is that this was not her job – but she was supported and able to do it anyway because she asked the right questions, did the research, connected with the right people. Communicating that part of the story – that’s where people realize… oh, I could do this too. We wanted people to change the way they look at their own career development. ‘No’ doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. It means that maybe I need to do it a bit differently.” The studio heads later greenlit the idea, publicly and humbly sharing that they had originally been against it. They also highlighted that they were glad to have been wrong.
Tapping into human stories of growth and learning isn’t solely for a remote-first or hybrid workforce. High growth company Relativity Space, which has scaled 333 percent throughout the past eighteen months, has teams primarily onsite in one of its locations.
Karin Kuo, vice president of people, shares, “As a company that is disrupting 60 years of aerospace manufacturing by designing, building and launching the world’s first 3D printed rocket, highlighting our employees’ experiences, perspectives and motivations helps convey how everyone can be a part of our journey.”
I had the privilege of getting a personal tour of Relativity’s Long Beach headquarters, which is bursting with creative energy, momentum and a sense of shared purpose. By regularly communicating goals, values and their multiplanetary mission, there’s a spirit of relentless pursuit of the seemingly impossible. Relativity’s culture feels magnetic.
To build communication that strengthens culture, consider:
- Highlighting all parts of greenlit initiatives. Mitchell points out, “You have to explain the good and the bad that contributed to the outcome. Many people are only focused on telling the good part of the story. And it’s all the failures, the missteps [and] mistakes that really make up the thing that you want to capture.”
- Anchoring to the mission. Create a drumbeat of “why” your business exists and the impact you can have on the world – not just your immediate customers.
- Regular storytelling. Be poised to share moments of vulnerability and rethinking old patterns.
Building authentic connection to scale
Across industries, location and company size, one thing is consistent: we crave connection.
The pandemic has impacted our workforce in myriad ways. To develop talent and encourage people to be vulnerable, leadership needs to model that vulnerability. Bringing empathy and being fully present may be the most potent way to build connection.
When we hear people share they’re surviving, we may instinctually try to push. After all, don’t we want people who thrive, not simply survive? But in today’s workplace culture, the opposite approach may be more highly valued and effective. Mitchell shares, “Seriously, let me survive. Don’t try to fix me. Just let me be. That’s what I need right now.”
Early in the pandemic, Allamano offered the Remote Work Canvas tool by Itamar Goldminz with her managers to build more connection, particularly for remote teams. It sparked new ways of asking questions to tap into how talent is navigating these persistent challenging circumstances. She’s also in the throes of evaluating new ways for virtual working teams who will likely choose not to return to working in the office 100 percent of the time.
Allamano shares, “We’re trying to empower and enable employees with a growth mindset and say, hey, things have changed in my cohort of people that I spend most of my time with – we can choose to have different work hours if that’s what works for us – and it’s about revisiting that and being conscious about it, rather than just assuming that these things are going to happen.”
Authentic connection breeds the cultural outcomes many organizations are fiercely protecting and prioritizing. As more companies recognize belonging as the number one driver of employee satisfaction, fostering a culture that promotes belonging, diversity, equity and inclusion can be a powerful lever to spur talent development.
Allamano adds, “The fact is, employees want to be in a workplace where they’re valued for who they are and what they can bring to the table. And we need to do better than we have. The relationship with employees has evolved and I think a lot of organizations haven’t gotten there yet in terms of giving employees what they need to be successful and really allowing for the full spectrum of knowledge, skills, and abilities that employees can bring.”
To foster connection, consider:
- Encouraging dedicated time for non-work-related team building.
- Celebrating and learning about the unique and diverse qualities of your workforce.
- Establishing new rules of engagement that meet the specific needs of each team.
- Investing in the development and practice of power skills.
- Resisting the urge to fix or push, instead focusing on letting people be – even if that means simply surviving.
Company culture doesn’t care where you work. Allow people to be imperfectly human. Commit to learning. No matter where your workforce sits, you can tap into improving creativity, communication and connection. And in today’s workplace, developing those skills will help build the team culture we’re all after.