Efforts to align business strategy and culture too often focus on “how things get done here” and overlook a vital factor: the expectations, habits, and preferences employees bring to work with them every day.
Ever since the management guru Peter Drucker suggested that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” businesses have understood that even the sharpest strategies are blunted by a company culture that doesn’t match how work needs to get done. And that’s no small problem.
Research published by Gartner in 2019 suggested that only one in three businesses have the culture they need to drive performance. Culture change programs often fail by seeing employees as a blank slate on which leaders can simply write new corporate values. That’s not the case.
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Workfront’s latest annual State of Work research shows evidence of the kind of employee expectations and experiences outside the workplace that affect their performance within it. We surveyed 3,750 knowledge workers across four countries about their work – and their attitudes about work – and found two common values that carry the potential to either align or clash with corporate cultures.
1. Knowledge workers are outcome thinkers
To paraphrase the British philosopher Richard Susskind, when you book a health checkup, it’s not because you want to see a doctor; it’s because you want good health. Likewise, when you travel: You might enjoy (or not) flying or driving, but what you care about most is what you’re trying to achieve by taking the trip. Everyday life is full of examples where we care more about the outcome than the process or the output.
Our research suggests that knowledge workers bring that bias towards outcomes into work. Nine in 10 of our respondents believe their role matters; eight in 10 say it means more to them than a paycheck. But just short of two in three (65 percent) want to be rewarded at work for the impact of their endeavors rather than the completion of a particular task or project. That echoes Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, which revealed that seven in 10 employees feel disengaged because they struggle to see how their work moves their business forward.
The lesson for leaders is twofold: First, every employee needs clear sight of the desired outcomes of their roles, not just outputs. Second, thinking about rewards and incentives needs to focus on outcomes rather than just getting stuff done.
2. Consumer tech shapes workplace UX expectations
There’s tech we use at work and tech we use at home – and yes, occasionally we blur those lines by using work and personal devices interchangeably to keep on top of things. But research shows the potency of the user experience of consumer technologies and how it shapes expectations at work.
Next-generation employees expect workplace technology that looks more like Amazon and Instagram, according to 86 percent of this year’s respondents. Ninety-four percent said finding data at work should match the ease of Googling. Eighty-four percent said opportunities are being missed because their company has not moved to more modern solutions.
The message to leadership: User experiences are key considerations in technology investments. Knowledge workers expect to access information wherever they are, on the devices in their pockets. And there’s a payoff: 88 percent of workers describe technology as an important part of the employee experience. The right tools improve performance and improve the retention of talent.
Even more subtle but significant influences of consumer tech may be yet to come as Generation Z joins the workforce. This is the gamer generation, which is accustomed to leveling up when they win and enjoying instant recognition for achievement. This is also the YouTube generation: When faced with a problem, they expect to find a video tutorial explaining how to solve it. A more radical rethink of company communication, employee learning and development programs, and reward systems may be on the horizon.
Why this leadership mindset change matters
Gartner’s Three Culture Conversations Every CEO Must Have With Their Head of HR 2019 report advised that successful organizations “align the workforce with the culture by improving the knowledge, mindset, and behavior simultaneously and for the entire workforce.” But organizations also need to look outward to society.
Leaders must become more curious – and think more critically – about the views and expectations that originate outside the office but that shape behaviors within it.
Does it really matter? According to the Project Management Institute (PMI)’s Pulse of the Profession Report, “The High Cost of Low Performance,” six out of 10 businesses admit they struggle to match strategy to day-to-day activity. The PMI says that $109 million is wasted for every $1 billion invested in projects and programs. That’s the cost of working culture and business strategy being misaligned.
And there’s a simple step to begin to understand wider cultural influences on a team: Ask, listen, and learn.
[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]