[Podcast] Part 1: Key Culture Considerations With Hybrid Work

By: Tanya Fish

Thanks for tuning in. You’re listening to: Key Culture Considerations With Hybrid Work, part one of a two-part series on employee engagement, culture and leadership. 

This week ITA Group Employee Experience Solutions Lead Tanya Fish interviews Chad Carr, co-founder of Principled Transformation, to discuss maintaining your culture and strengthening employee engagement with a geographically dispersed workforce.


Tanya Fish (TF): Hello. Thanks for joining us for another ITA Group Employee Experience Podcast. My name is Tanya Fish, our employee experience solutions lead. Today, we're going to talk about how to strengthen employee engagement by meeting people wherever they are working from. This is important because employee engagement scores post-pandemic are on the decline, and companies are struggling to meet the needs of their employees. We've learned a lot in the past couple years. One important thing is a lot of work traditionally done from an office building can be done anywhere. The cool thing about this is everyone figured out how to work remote during the pandemic, and as a result, the talent pool you can tap into today is more diverse than ever. The opportunity lies in how you engage a diverse employee population to maximize your human capital and maintain your culture as employees continue to work beyond the walls of an office building. 

Can you maintain work culture when employees are dispersed across the world? You bet you can. The keys to maintaining culture with employees working from many places will be our focus today. Our culture expert joining us is Chad Carr from Principled Transformation. Chad, welcome and thank you for sharing your expertise. Let's talk culture starting at the highest level with the definition. Culture is a word that can have a lot of different meanings. Culture is even defined differently by thought leaders in industry organizations who work in the same area of expertise. In your book, The Art and Science of Culture, you describe culture as “the actions and state of mind of employees—not the words.” Can you share more about why you define culture this way?

Chad Carr (CC): Sure, Tanya. The definition of culture we use in our book has to do with the collective thinking and state of mind of those in the organization. What we tend to see in organizations is a lot of focus on what’s obvious in work cultures: stating the values, writing them on the walls, getting a set of competency models put together, making sure that your onboarding and orientation is clear about how people should show up and what they should do. But that’s not what reliably predicts how people show up and behave in the culture. Where that comes from is thinking and state of mind. Our definition of culture is the collective thinking in the organization that creates a healthy—or unhealthy—state of mind that leads to the actions and results that you get. Let me give you a quick story as an example. When you think about the actions that you want to drive results in an organization—if you limit your thinking only to that—it’s akin to what my experience was with my son, Brandon, when he was studying for his SAT test to get into college.

I would go down in the basement just weeks before his SAT test, and even at one or two in the morning, he was playing Xbox with his friends. So I tell Brandon, the action I want you to take is to stop playing Xbox late at night. Get a good night's sleep so that you'll have a higher SAT score. 

And the good news is that after I told Brandon that one time, he was never down there again. 

…. I usually get some laughs about that because anyone with children realizes that he was back down there the next night and the night after. It occurred to me after a moment that maybe I could apply what Matt [Herzberg, co-founder of Principled Transformation] and I learned about cultures to my conversation with Brandon to start exploring the underlying thinking and state of mind that was leading to his actions and results.

So, I went down one evening to join him and speak with him a bit. He said, “Do I need to get off the Xbox?” I said, “No, Brandon. I just wanted to chat with you. What's your thinking here?” After a little defensiveness, you could see his state of mind cooled a bit. He said, “My thinking is: My friends are on here and I have better grades than they do. So why would they get to play Xbox and I don't? And, I've already done a lot of studying. I feel pretty prepared for it.” But as I watched his state of mind become healthier, he said, “I guess really, Dad, at the end of the day for just the next two weeks, I probably should do some final studying and get some good nights’ sleep.” So, he agreed to come upstairs, and he said, “Look. Turn this off on our router for the next couple weeks. But the day I finish my SAT, would you please turn it back on?” 

That little story helps us understand how culture operates in our organizations. It's a simple but powerful definition, and it helps us to understand where to focus when we're trying to intervene and manipulate culture. You certainly do want to look at those obvious things like the stated values or competency models, but if you miss the hidden elements of thinking and state of mind, it becomes a very difficult process. People tend to behave sort of like rubber bands. They'll snap back to their old way of doing things.

TF: Chad, I just got my best lesson in parenting from you talking about culture. Thank you. It's all about the state of mind, folks. Even at home, we can work on the state of mind of those that we are trying to engage, to help them meet the goals they have by uncovering what's really driving those behaviors. 

Chad, no matter where people are working (or in the case of your son, gaming), we need to be intentional about how we're engaging with them. Have you found there to be some keys to maintaining culture when employees are working in many different places?

CC: Tanya, I think we'll pick up right where we left off, and that is if we know that culture comes from (thinking and state of mind), then those are the two areas we want to focus on when we're managing. No matter whether we're managing remotely or in person. The first time I had a remote assignment, I worked from the Netherlands. It was in 1999, and I worked for a global professional services firm that was headquartered in Chicago. I was dialing in from the Netherlands for about six months. We used all sorts of technologies, but the key thing it came down to was I had a healthy state of mind. I didn't have all this language back then to describe it. But was I engaged? Was I optimistic? Was I confident? Was I participating with the teams I was working with, or was I distant? 

The second piece was around my thinking. Did I think I was part of the team? Was my thinking in the morning about the team or was my thinking about being in this remote area that didn't have anything to do with the others? People tend to leave or stay because of their managers, not their companies or where they work. I share the story about the professional services firm because for many of our listeners, they're going to realize they've been doing this for decades. They know how to manage remotely. There really isn't a centrally identified building or office or workspace that defines how they collaborate. It's more of a mindset. For those of us who are newer to it, it's a bit of an adjustment. It goes back to thinking and maintaining a healthy state of mind. The thinking is still about the team, still about the customer, still about how to collaborate and get results. If the thinking in this way is going to be effective for us, we're going to give it a good try and see what we get out of it, then that creates a healthy state of mind for us and allows us to be effective no matter where we're working from.

TF: Thank you, Chad. Great perspective. I heard you mention leaders being a key to maintaining culture. In our next podcast series, we're going to be diving into leadership's impact on culture. So more to come on that.

CC: Before we jump to the next topic, I want to say a bit more about technology, because I see that as a key barrier in this working remotely thing. As leaders in new organizations just starting to work remotely, a key barrier that we've seen over and over again is technology. For those who grew up as digital, they're very comfortable with texting, uploading files, working in shared workspaces, using Zoom technologies, etc. And boy, I tell you, for myself and for many of our clients, when we turned the corner into COVID, it was a big learning curve. I think as leaders and managers in today's environment, it's important for us to get to know the technology that we can use because it can be a barrier, or at least a perceived barrier, to being able to maintain engagement and healthy states of mind. Technology can be frustrating and put us off our game, then suddenly, we're engaging with teams in a way that's not as helpful for them. If we spend a little time to get a line on the technology we're going to use, the processes we're going to use, and our points of contact to stay in touch with each other using all the different technologies we have, things will turn out a lot better.

TF: Thank you, Chad. Definitely a key to maintaining culture with people in many different places would be technology and having a common tool set that folks agree to use to stay in touch. Chad, you've worked with a lot of very complex companies over the course of your career. What are the key elements of an ideal, thriving workplace culture?

CC: Yeah, Tanya. The first thing we always focus on in organizations is developing alignment in the leadership team. Just like our analogy before with parenting, when you have two parents that are not on the same page leading an organization, what you tend to see is some internal competition, some dysfunction and lack of working together that leads to reliable results. We spend some time right up front getting the leadership team aligned on where we're going. Aligned on what the culture needs to be to support the strategy. Sometimes what the purpose of the organization is and tying the culture to that. And that's a key thing that we focus on and see in healthy thriving cultures. There’s a concept in our book called “confident vulnerability” (which I think you'll talk with Matt a little bit more about) that has to do with leaders showing up in a way where they believe in themselves. They're confident they can do things. But at the same time, they know they don't have all the answers, and they need to look to others and best practices outside of the organizations to learn and get better. When organizations tend to have that, we see dramatically faster transformations, better performance and organization. The last few factors we tend to see are things that we hear over and over again when we talk with CEOs of organizations. The first one is around personal accountability. It's a concept we call “empowerment” in the book, or “the power within.” When you see this in an organization, it’s an organization of go-to people. If you imagine for a moment on your teams, bring to mind: who is a go-to person on your team?

Imagine if you had more and more go-to people. Then imagine if your whole organization was filled with go-to people. That's the idea behind this concept of empowerment. So how do we work better across organizations? If organizations were just made up of single people, it would be very easy to do our work. We could do everything end to end. But because they're not, and many of the organizations we work with are thousands or dozens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, what you tend to see is there's a lot of processes that involve multiple people’s involvement to get absolutely anything done in an organization. Collaboration is very important.

The last piece I'd like to talk about is innovation and looking to drive results. We see organizations, especially with all the digital disruption and even the market disruption with COVID and all those sorts of things, trying to reinvent themselves, trying to adapt how they serve their customers and how they get results in the market.

TF: Chad, you abide by a process to transform cultures through your work. In your work, what have you found to be the most important steps in the process to get to the ideal culture you just described?

CC: Yeah, Tanya. When we set up this organization a few years ago, we looked back at doing this work inside of organizations and on behalf of organizations as consultants for over 20 years. We tried to figure out what were the key elements that made these engagements very successful and yield good results in terms of culture transformation as well as business results. And we came up with five principles that help people transform cultures. I'll walk through them briefly. 

The first one we call “lead with intention,” and that's getting alignment at the top, or leading it at the top. Having a unified senior team and clarity around the purpose, values and why culture matters. Leading from the top makes a lot of sense. If you think about the alternative, we occasionally get asked to do something with one team, maybe the high potential team, or “Can you help this one division or this one function?” And while we can help in some ways, the team or division works in a broader system. Only when you get to the top of the system, where people tend to notice how people work together, do we actually get the results we want. So lead with intention is the first one.  

The second one is “shift your mindset.” And when we think about the definition of culture being the collective thinking in the organization, the idea that Matt and I had as we were writing the book was, this is all about making shifts in our thinking. That means shifts in our brains. When we think about neuroplasticity in the brain, we think our brains are hardwired to behave the way we behave today. If you want me to behave differently, all the change that you need me to do is biological change. I have to let go of some of the neural pathways I've used for decades as a leader, and I have to develop and strengthen some new pathways. 

This idea of shifting your mindset is critical. And if there's one that we see missed more often than any, it's this hidden element of shifting mindsets. Because we tend to craft where we want to go with a change management approach to inform people where we want to go. But when we look back and see if people have really bought in, we find that they haven't done that rewiring yet. So shift your mindset is number two. 

The third one is to “generate momentum.” While it's very important to work with leadership teams or high potentials or those types of folks, you need to generate momentum in an entire organization. The reason is because when we work with organizations, the culture tends to develop antibodies that protect itself. For example, you'll hear a few of these in the book, we're very indecisive and we need to speed up our decision making.

When we go and share with them how we can help, you might expect that they'd be ready to move forward with the proposal. But they might say, well, you know what, let me go get some more input on this. Let me socialize before I get back to you. Same thing as we're moving through a transformation in an organization. If you wait for people to get involved months or years in this sort of culture transformation, you're not going to generate the energy in the system that you need to transform the system. So the third principle is to generate momentum, energy and mass to move through the organization. 

Once you get that new culture to start to take root, you want to look at two things, and those are the last two principles. The first one is to “align talent systems.” Who are you hiring? Who are you? How are you onboarding people? How are you training people and rewarding people and reinforcing the right behaviors at all stages in the talent life cycle, from hire to alumni. When you look at that, am I signaling the right things in the culture all the way through? That tends to sustain the culture that you want. 

Finally, we want to “embed” this in to work. One of the things that we challenge clients with as we wrap up the first phase of this work is: how can you transform the culture of this organization without adding one thing to your calendar? What our clients begin to realize is culture is less about doing extra things or doing committees or task forces and things like that. It's more about how you show up as a leader. You look at your calendar for the week: I have a town hall on this day, I have team meetings on these days. There are strategic initiative meetings on these days. How can I show up in those meetings in a way that brings these values to life? 

Those are the five principles, Tanya, that we've found over time that really help us understand how best to drive culture transformation.

TF: Thank you. Chad. What I heard is definitely time. Leaders are always challenged with finding the time to do things that might seem simple but are so important at an organization. Similar to our leaders finding time to focus on culture. We often hear when we're talking with our HR clients about culture that they want a quick fix. They ask how long will it take to turn their culture around. Do you have a perspective on this, Chad? 

CC: I do. I had one client in the tech space I was working with who had done research on this and had other people come in and talk to them, and the answer was 18 to 24 months. I don't know how we arrived at that degree of precision, but that was the precise answer. They said they didn't have 18 to 24 months, and how long did I think it would take? And I said, well, how long do you want it to take? And they said, what do you mean? The idea was: how quickly can we move through the organization? How quickly can we engage folks? Because again, if we go back to the definition of culture, the culture is in our thinking. How long does it take to shift our thinking? 

One of the concepts we have in our book is around shaping culture at the speed of thought. That's based on a book that Bill Gates wrote years ago about things that are still coming true. He talked about business at the speed of thought and the same thing we believe is true with culture because this is all deeply rooted in our thinking. As soon as we can shift our thinking, we can have a new culture. In the case of the technology company, we did get through the organization with the help of those leaders in less than six months. When that leader was traveling around to branches in different parts of the world, they said, “Look, the culture's even different here.” If we go back to the definition of thinking, it's really just a thought away as to how I want to behave. And as soon as we can create the shift in that thinking, we see culture quickly follow.

TF: Chad, you talk about culture around the world. One thing that we lean into is that there's not just one company culture. That culture can actually be something that changes locally to a region. How do you adapt culture across the organization when there are many locations, both within the United States and globally?

CC: That's a great question, Tanya. If you think about culture, there are certainly cultures within teams. There's cultures and styles of leaders. You have local geography, local cultures, community cultures and family cultures. So there's plenty of room to be unique and different and special in your culture, the way you want to do it. If you go out, you can experience culture all around you. If you walk into stores or grocery stores, something like that, you can get a feel for the culture in one store that may be different than another store nearby. Or even the same type of store in a different mall because there's going to be a local style and feel that's based on the people in that store. However, when we go back to collaboration, one of the key barriers in organizations is you want to have the fundamental things in place in your culture that allow you to collaborate and get results.

When we think about being open to collaborating, having more innovation in our mindset, being empowered and having more personal accountability, those are all sort of the common denominators that we want to have across organizations. When I was first working on this culture work, I was a leader at Limited Brands. We had about seven or eight brands at that time, but we had one Limited Brands operating system. Within that Limited Brands operating system, we had a set of core values that would help us collaborate across the entire organization of over 200,000 people. But boy, if you went into a Victoria's Secret or a Bath & Body Works or an Express or a C.O. Bigelow, those all had unique cultures. It's sort of a common platform that supports the operations of the organization while allowing you to have that local uniqueness and specialness that you want to have.

TF: Chad, how do you reinforce those core behaviors that we want to see repeated day in and day out to carry that culture across all locations?

CC: Sure, Tanya. I mean, what we generally do is ask people to bring it to life in their own way. For example, one of the values in some of these organizations is to be customer focused. The question is, what does customer focused look like here? What does customer focused look like in your store, your organization, your department, your team, your part of the organization—because that's really what you want to get down to. If we all have four or five or six values in common, how do I bring those to life in my department, division, function, geography, etc. That really allows people to bring their personal style to it, and their own feel. Things are going to be different across departments. If you're working with a group that's more operationally focused or engineering focused or customer focused or communications or HR, you're going to have different fields in the departments, as well as different geographies and locations and stores. It's really about how we interpret those values and how we bring the values to life using our own styles.

TF: Chad, for our listeners today that are looking to learn more about culture through your book, where can they find The Art and Science of Culture?

CC: Tanya, there's one site that'll direct you to the audible version, the Kindle version and the paperback version. That is the website artandscienceculture.com. 

TF: Chad, thanks for sharing your experiences with us today. Listeners, if you want to learn more about culture, check out The Art and Science of Culture by Matt Herzberg and Chad Carr, or discover more employee experience and culture Insights on itagroup.com. Be sure to join us for part two of our discussion where Chad's business partner, Matt, dives in with us on leadership's role in creating stronger employee engagement at work. Have a great day. 

Tanya Fish
Tanya Fish

Tanya Fish is the Leader of Employee Experience Solutions for ITA Group. She drives the insights, strategy and evolution around employee experience for the organization while offering advisement for client engagement and employee programs. Tanya loves inspiring passion in people, something she believes impacts the individual, the organization and the community. Tanya’s past work and studies on organizational leadership in business, employee health and well-being, culture and health insurance guide her unique perspective on organizational health and success. Tanya is energized by achievement, learning and empowerment and balanced by time with family and friends and being outdoors. Bonus points if it’s by a body of water.