We need an ‘us and them’ work culture for the future

Tomorrow’s corporate culture is one in which employees feel more valued and trusted.

Until a few months ago it seemed like employees held all the aces in the job market, able to name their terms, refuse a return to the office and maybe get away with some quiet quitting. 

How quickly the pendulum swings. Now we’re seeing big tech layoffs and more employers reasserting their power by demanding workers show up in person. The Great Resignation has turned into the Great Regret for a significant number of those who quit during the pandemic. 

The shifting power dynamic behind the headlines reflects an “us versus them” culture that has played out in tempo with U.S. economic cycles for decades now. Employers hire workers in the good times and treat them as expendable when the economy hits trouble. It’s hardly surprising that many employees have come to treat any single job as temporary and not worth a major commitment. That in turn is a drag on companies’ long-term productivity and success.

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Successful companies are beginning to realize they need to build an “us and them” culture in which employees feel more valued and trusted, resulting in higher productivity and talent retention over time. 

Take the big debate right now about whether companies should require workers to get back to the office. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has personified the hierarchical corporate view, arguing that remote work is antithetical to “hustle” and spontaneity. He has a point that too much remote work may be counterproductive to some job roles and some types of employees, especially new hires who really benefit from in-person interaction to integrate into company cultures.

But making a top-down, blanket decision to ban remote work is a classic “us versus them” move. In an “us and them” culture, companies would take a more flexible, individualized approach, recognizing that different workplace arrangements suit different workers, giving employees leeway to make their own decisions. 

At University of Phoenix, managers have had deep conversations and cascades of feedback on the optimal amount of time they should spend at the office. Employees have been engaged individually on the optimal solution for them, considering any personal circumstances. The result has been a wide range of working arrangements and a consistent uptrend in retention and employee satisfaction rates.

Moving decision-making lower into the organization is a key element of building a more sustainable culture. It has the benefits of empowering front-line employees while increasing customer satisfaction and freeing up managers to focus on higher-level decision-making. We’ve probably all felt the relief that comes when a call center agent circumvents the usual bureaucracy and takes the initiative to solve a problem. 

A recent McKinsey report found that the most successful companies are more likely to delegate decisions down to lower levels, while high-quality, quick decisions are more likely at organizations with fewer reporting layers. 

Organizations should base the decision-making level on the risk and complexity of a problem. Decisions involving a high number of people or with a potentially big impact should be kept at a senior level, but many of the other decisions can and should be pushed down.

Any cultural transformation today must go hand-in-hand with digital transformation. The latter is happening whether you embrace it or not, and employees need to be given the training and guidance to adapt to a different way of operating. 

Companies need to build the workforce culture to ensure employees can be agile, flexible and deliver the digital services that customers now expect. As AI takes over more grunt work, employees will need help to upskill and acquire the digital dexterity needed to master new tools and shift into higher-value work. Skills development needs to be aligned to both your needs as a company and deliver a clear long-term upside for employees to really stick.

We recently started using analytics software to tell our student-facing staff which individuals to contact — a change that employees initially saw as undermining their autonomy. As their employer, we needed to invest time and effort in explaining the big positive impact of the change — that the technology would allow them to spend more time speaking to students rather than poring over a database.

Any company that wants to move to a more sustainable culture should first come up with a set of objectives by which to measure their progress. Staff engagement and satisfaction levels are two good metrics to follow because they tend to be strong leading indicators of productivity and retention. Organizations can then assess which practices they have today that run counter to those objectives, eliminating or adjusting them so they become supportive.

If 95 percent of your workforce wants to work from home, it’s a strong sign that you should be accommodative. Rather than turning it into a fight, why not work on addressing the ways in which remote work can be more productive? That could mean supplying more workers with laptops or contributing to their Internet bills or giving them ergonomic chairs. Gestures like these may seem small, but they can have a big impact on gaining employees’ trust and making cultural transformations stick.

Despite the growing rash of layoffs, more companies will need to make this shift. The prospect of slower economic growth and demographic pressures combined with rapid digital change means it will be in companies’ best interests to have employees who stay longer, develop more quickly and feel more valued.