October 24, 2021

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A New Way to Measure Company Culture and Empowerment in a Remote World

Understanding company culture has long been a holy grail for forward-thinking organizations. In general, research...

Understanding company culture has long been a holy grail for forward-thinking organizations. In general, research indicates that measuring company culture accurately is very difficult, but can lead to positive outcomes. HR, People Analytics, or company culture committees use exit interviews, surveys, or focus groups to measure the accuracy in company culture.

Employee empowerment (which means giving employees a degree of autonomy and control over the work tasks and more decision-making authority) has been studied for decades with similar results. It can produce good results, but can be hard to do effectively. Both of these programs’ end goal is improving business outcomes like employee engagement, retention, and productivity.

Culture and Empowerment While Remote

Over the past few decades, the shift to remote work (accelerated thanks to Covid-19) made analyzing these programs more complicated. Workplace interactions are now taking place through digital mediums. Remote workers talk to their colleagues via phone or video call and communicate via email and instant chat services.

A Gartner survey of company leaders from July 2020 found that 47{ddb49247d68e8a8eec8c761414b77c6431eefdf8d3204e1e7b3057c73a3c0249} of organizations will allow employees to work from home full-time after the pandemic ends. 80{ddb49247d68e8a8eec8c761414b77c6431eefdf8d3204e1e7b3057c73a3c0249} plan to allow hybrid part-time remote work. We may well be looking at a future economy where more than half of the knowledge workforce works remotely at least a few days per week.

Furthermore, most knowledge workers communicate via email and chat even while in the office. When was the last time you pinged someone instead of walking by their desk?

Company culture is the sum of the many small interactions that employees have with their managers, direct reports and colleagues. But now, most of them are digital rather than in person, which creates its own set of challenges.

The increase in digital interactions also creates an opportunity to measure company culture in new ways and provides new avenues to empower employees.

Digital Behaviors and Company Culture

Academic research from places like the Computational Culture Lab at Stanford and UC Berkeley uses computational methods and data science to model culture dynamics in social groups.

A plethora of People Analytics tools use these statistical techniques to measure elements of an organization’s culture, and help with leadership development and employee empowerment. See this RedThread Research study for a breakdown of the current market.

These techniques use machine learning and AI models to find patterns in how employees interact with one another digitally. For example, an organization with an “always-on” culture might have employees that send a lot of messages after hours.

Alternatively, an organization with employees that rarely send or respond to messages after 5:00 p.m. might emphasize work-life balance. The number and length of meetings (especially one-on-one meetings) can indicate how an organization approaches collaboration and mentorship. These patterns help map out a company’s culture.

Benefits of Modeling Company Culture

Modeling company culture in this way has several advantages. Since this analysis is based on hard data derived from employee communication, it’s more objective than measurements like surveys. These rely on employees self-reporting their feelings and actions honestly and are susceptible to many cognitive biases.

This data-driven approach can be a useful way to diagnose differences in culture that employees can “feel” but not understand. It can also compare cultures between business groups within an organization.

Every organization is unique, and without context, it’s impossible to say if certain cultures are good or bad.

Correlating culture with metrics like performance reviews or business KPIs can help organizations discover the most effective culture for them. For instance, imagine a business unit that consistently exceeds their KPIs with managers that all get excellent performance reviews. They score higher than the company average on culture metrics around sharing information, mentorship and 1v1 meetings.

Perhaps that company should consider emphasizing mentorship and encouraging manager to have more 1v1s in other business units as well. On the flip side, if that business unit is struggling, maybe they need to change certain elements of their culture.

Access to data on employee’s digital behaviors enables this type of analysis. It offers a level of statistical rigor that goes beyond surveys, and the possibility of correlating the findings with other data allows People Analytics teams to explore the link between cultural factors and team performance in more detail.

Digital Data for Employee Empowerment

Increased use of digital communication channels allows for platforms that can help empower employees. The same big data analysis that can map company culture can also help employees be better communicators and leaders. Employee empowerment has several business benefits, like increased productivity, lower employee strain and lower turnover.

Models that look at digital behaviors can improve empowerment by encouraging behaviors like asking for feedback, sharing opinions, and sharing doubt that help teams excel. These behaviors help contribute to psychological safety, which has been linked to higher-performing teams by research at Google.

Our own analysis has shown that these three digital behaviors were correlated with higher-performing managers and teams.

RedThread’s research on PA tech has named the category for these tools “Guiding Analytics.” By showing people the patterns in their digital communications (how often they give feedback, express doubt, etc.) and providing feedback on how to improve those behaviors, they can empower employees to be better leaders.

This helps specific employees as well as the business overall. Like mapping culture, this type of analysis is only possible because digital communication and remote work create the input data used in these calculations.

The Future of Cultural Analysis

There are all kinds of exciting possible uses of this data as the models and techniques for measuring it improve. For instance, a model of culture based on digital behavior might be able to tell People Analytics departments how those behaviors affect business outcomes.

For example, imagine discovering that sending emails after hours negatively affects employee retention. This would let PA and HR build specific plans to improve that (i.e., “Our goal is to reduce turnover by 5{ddb49247d68e8a8eec8c761414b77c6431eefdf8d3204e1e7b3057c73a3c0249}, so we’re encouraging managers to not message their teams after 6:00 p.m. in the following ways…”). Employee empowerment solutions could give hyper-personalized feedback geared towards specific users and cultures.

For example, employees at a company that values collaboration might get more feedback about responding to messages thoughtfully.

There’s a lot that’s been written about how working remotely has made work harder, and I absolutely empathize with that. But here’s a silver lining; when most of our communication taken place through digital mediums, it provides a new source of data.

The data can help us understand our organization’s culture and empower employees in ways that haven’t been possible before. I think this part of the People Analytics tech market has tremendous potential and I’m excited to see where it goes in the coming years.

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