HR360 European Summit: Three lessons on workplace culture

Speakers on day two of the HR360 European Summit shared their journeys to creating strong organisational cultures

The key lessons shared were:

Lead culture change from the top

Culture shouldn’t be left only to HR but should also be the most senior leaders' responsibility, according to Reinhard Nissl, HR director central and eastern Europe at Microsoft.

Nissl shared the digital and cultural transformation Microsoft has gone through. He explained that when the company launched in the 1970s, its mission was to have a computer on every desk, which “sounded crazy then but became the reality ages ago”.

“This speaks to the need to reinvent and [that it is] critical to stay relevant as a company in a fast-changing environment,” he said.

This meant the company needed to update its culture, which started with a new leader; Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2015. “Many would say 'why did we need a change?' as the company was doing amazingly,” Nissl recounted. “Sacha said 'our industry is an industry where you don’t get credit for tradition, you only get credit for innovation' and we weren’t very innovative in our field at the time so had to change something to enable innovation.”

Nissl explained that the new CEO made culture a key part of his role, rather than expecting it to sit solely with HR.

This led to a new company mission to ‘empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more’. “This is a superpower statement to an HR person as it’s a diversity and inclusion statement as it’s about everyone on the planet,” said Nissl.

Key to this cultural change was researching internally and externally to gather data and learn about the firm's culture, Nissl explained. His function had to look at whether the “things we drive in HR is enabling that culture or if they are a blocker”, he said.

“[We are] making sure we do everything we do through the lens of cultural transformation,” he explained.

Nissl pointed to 10 key things the organisation then learnt about culture, including that “you can’t fake it” and that there was a need to “honour our past but define our future”.

“We kept the core values of the company but had to change the way we addressed the market and the way culture is formed in the company.”

Create positive experiences rather than prevent negative ones

“We spend most of our time in HR trying to stop negative experiences for employees at work,” said Mindi Cox, SVP of people and great work at O.C. Tanner.

HR professionals spend 80% of their time preventing bad employee experiences and only 20% creating peak experiences, she explained.

However, humans remember peak experiences more than the bad. Cox gave the example of someone taking their children to Disneyland: “When you’re there it’s not that great…the queues are long, it’s expensive… but you get that one moment and we pay to go back again. We all want that one moment.”

She added: “Let’s flip it and spend 80% of our time creating peak experiences for employees and 20% negating the bad experiences."

O.C. Tanner focuses on six areas of great culture: purpose, leadership, opportunities, success, appreciation and wellbeing. “These are the areas where we have the opportunity for connection,” said Cox, adding that today “connecting is about more than just sharing information”.

Frontline leaders must create these connections and the experiences employees have on a daily basis, she said: “Leaders place people in a position to succeed and provide the conditions necessary for their growth.”

At O.C. Tanner, employees can award each other appreciation buttons in recognition of their work, and appreciation stations have been set up so people can bring their personal life into the workplace.

Cox recounted when one employee was recognised for her commitment to employee safety and her leader brought her children in as a surprise so they could see her being awarded. “That’s what great leaders do, they think about those moments,” she said.

HR should also “think about the [job] titles in organisations” to build connections, Cox said, pointing out that HR at O.C. Tanner is called the people and great work team. “Is the title connecting people with their work and with the purpose of the organisation?” she asked.

Focus on culture even in the bad times

Jamie Getgood, director of Getgood Consulting and former HRD at General Motors Holden, told his audience how the car manufacturer transformed its culture even though it was closing down, so that employees left with a positive experience.

He described the manufacturing plant as an “aggressive environment” and “militant operation” with “command and control leadership” when he joined in 2011 and the firm was at risk of closure. “The first week I went into an executive meeting and the head of manufacturing told us how useless the workforce was… I said ‘have you thought it might be because the leadership is not good’,” he said.

Getgood said he then went to the MD and made the case that if the culture was to change there would need to be a leadership journey. However, it was announced that the plant would still have to close in 2013.

“When we announced the closure it hit everyone – not just the organisation but the country,” Getgood recalled. “We wanted people to genuinely care for each other so we gave then four years for the closure [to take place].”

He explained the power of initiatives such as 'diagonal slices', which were weekly meetings between different groups of employees, where Getgood and the MD would share everything happening in the business and the workforce could ask any questions.

“We told people everything… we decided to trust the workforce and if it hit the media so be it,” he said.

Managers were also required to walk the floor for 30 minutes each day to talk to employees about anything other than work. “We went back to basics,” explained GetGood, which also meant a shift from the number one metric being the number of cars made to people metrics like engagement and absenteeism.

A key part of the culture change involved the launch of a transition programme to support people in finding new employment. Getgood explained that this included health and wellbeing support to enable people to be their best at interview, exploring different career options and providing job-ready support.

“Usually you close plants and safety issues go up… absenteeism goes up… but this didn’t happen,” explained Getgood. He pointed to results such as absenteeism falling, employee survey scores rising, right first-time quality of cars rising, the organisation winning awards, and the majority of the workforce successfully transitioning to other jobs at other firms.

“Creating a people-focused approach and building trust was crucial,” he added.