Culture first; The key to empowering a diverse workforce

Culture Amp explains why organisations should put culture first, especially in these ever-changing and challenging times.

In an ever-changing world, collecting and acting on employee feedback has never been more important. Nick Matthews and Jess Brook from software platform Culture Amp explain why organisations should put culture first.

“Organisations can only ever innovate on one thing, and the rest should be best practice,” says Nick Matthews, General Manager and Vice President EMEA at Culture Amp.

This is precisely how Culture Amp operates – the innovation being how it puts culture first. That means being values-driven. So much so that “we had the values before we had the business plan”.

New starters, Nick adds, are, “talked through the values before anything else, signalling that we put our culture before the strategy, remuneration or business. We say, ‘you’ve joined this organisation, hopefully, because you want to be part of a culture first organisation’.”

He explains that the approach was the brainchild of founder and CEO Didier Elzinga. In his previous role as head of a special effects company, he’d felt more like a chief psychologist. Recognising that a culture first mentality was the future, Didier decided to create one and show how it’s done.

At the same time, he realised that the way forward for employee engagement was through companies developing the expertise themselves, rather than through outside consultancies. So, Culture Amp was born.

It began eight years ago with just four people in Melbourne, Australia. The workforce has since grown to 425 people in four offices – Melbourne, which is the engineering HQ and from where customers across the APAC region are looked after, and customer teams in San Francisco, New York and London.

D&I survey

Culture Amp is a software platform that makes it easy for companies to collect, understand and act on feedback from their employees and to make their organisations better culture first places in which to work. It also provides insights into employee experiences, engagement and performance management, retention, and how to handle change.

In partnership with US company Paradigm, Culture Amp developed a diversity and inclusion survey that was the first to help companies to gain insights across many intersections of social identities. 

The company’s report: Workplace Diversity, Inclusion and Intersectionality 2019showed that rather than using diversity and inclusion as a standalone survey, more companies were now including diversity and inclusion questions in their engagement surveys. 

However, the report also found that: “Data around gender and age are often collected, but the demographics of race, ethnicity, parental status or disability are less consistently measured, especially in places like Europe or Australia. This is in part because organisations are at different stages of their diversity and inclusion journey and face specific local and cultural challenges when it comes to collecting and acting on data.” 

Another key finding was that it’s the small wins that become embedded into company processes that create the conditions for positive change.

To date, Culture Amp has worked with more than 2,750 companies, from start-ups to Fortune 500s. Because technology and digital are becoming all-pervasive, the emphasis is on finding the right balance between technology and having a human focus: putting culture first.

Initially, most of the customers were technology companies, such as Airbnb and Deliveroo, because, says Nick: “They have been good at owning that people data and doing something with it for a lot longer.

“But, as the market has matured, we have a whole range of more traditional organisations that don’t claim to be as agile or fast-moving as some of the tech ones. But they are focusing on taking all this in-house because, they say, people are their most important asset.”

Tapping into the employee experience

Companies can buy Culture Amp software off the shelf, but it can also be customised to suit. A key part of the service is supporting customers through the process to make sure they ask questions in the right way and collect the data they need to become culture first organisations.

As Jess Brook, Senior People Scientist explains: “We enable firms to build bespoke surveys whenever there is a need, that tap into every element of the employee experience. For examples, feedback surveys on how your onboarding is going, how you’re experiencing work after a transformation initiative, or maybe you want to look at manager effectiveness or inclusion.

“We help companies layer that into a feedback strategy in an intentional way that helps them best utilise the data. It’s not just about collecting that social research it’s also setting companies up so they can take action. That’s the loop that we want to drive.”

The amount of hand-holding depends on the company. Jess says: “We’re seeing people entering HR who aren’t HR professionals, who know the value of this work and are excited about setting a people strategy and having an impact on social change, especially in diversity and inclusion. Then we have traditional HR, which is very much admin and compliance.

“Most of the companies that are coming to us are the ones that have a hunger and a desire to be able to bring that in-house and not pay a consultant to do it for them. Ultimately, we offer a lot of support upfront but with the idea that, over time, they’ll need us less.”

Surprisingly, Jess reveals that it’s the larger organisations that need the most help. This is because they have many legacy systems, processes and ideas about employee feedback, whereas smaller companies can more easily adopt new initiatives.

People Geeks

Creating a culture first business and making changes based on employee feedback is not a quick fix. It could take up to ten years, as companies may need to reskill. For this reason, Culture Amp has created an online community called ‘People Geeks’.

As Nick points out: “It’s very much a quest rather than just a flash in the pan. We often find that, if you are that person in a smaller organisation or someone in a large organisation who has the idea but is struggling to get buy-in, it can feel quite lonely. So, we created the community so they can come together in a safe space and say, ‘how did you convince your executive board to do this?’

Since Culture Amp started, the company has developed from an engagement survey to a platform with a wide range of offerings in line with its culture first approach.

“It’s no longer about people sat at desks in offices,” says Nick. “It’s about if you’re in a restaurant, how’s your experience day two? How is your experience day ten, day 30? That matters to people in that world.”

To help those companies whose workers are not office-based, Culture Amp provides a kiosk code that enables them to access the platform from their mobiles. Nick adds: “It’s one of the benefits of technology that most people have access to a mobile phone or any internet-connected device. So, there’s a big piece on making sure that people feel included, making sure they have a voice.”

About a year ago, Culture Amp acquired Zugata, which focused on performance management and added it to its core platform. Performance management has increasingly become mission-critical to organisations as they make changes. 

“We’re continually looking to the future around what are the things that businesses will need to be able to manage their people in a culture first way,” Jess adds. 

“A lot of that comes down to not just the bog-standard engagement survey but also looking at those other forms of feedback and saying these are initiatives that need to be outside of HR. It’s the responsibility of the manager to create an employee experience for their team, to make sure they’re building an inclusive environment.”

Creating a better world of work

A clear demonstration of Culture Amp’s success is when people leave a company that has used the service, they often take it to their new employer. Jess believes that this is because people are keen to be part of creating a better world of work.

The company has done much to educate the market, and there is now a range of offerings, including the Culture First conference in San Francisco, which attracted around 1,400 people, regional Culture First forums for chief executives and leaders and regular webinars.

Ultimately, long-term change is the goal, and that means striking a balance with the need for companies to get a return on investment.

Says Nick: “Because people are reluctant to change, they are hanging on a bit, and that’s part of how we try and work with organisations. 

“If we were to say you should be thinking about the next two, three, four or five years in advance, that adds more pressure to the poor person who is trying to juggle multiple priorities.

“We do a lot of getting to know our customers, where they are on that journey and what propensity and energy they have for change. And, if they do, we will provide all the energy, resources and thought leadership to really inspire and say ‘go, go, go’.”
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