The Success of the Future Workplace Depends on Sorting Out Your Culture Now

Over the years, we’ve seen huge shifts in the workplace. Top-down, hierarchical team structures have been replaced by collaborative, flat ways of working. Permanent, career-long roles have been traded in for an economy of job-hoppers, gig workers, and freelancers.

At the same time, biases against gender, religion, and race have slowly fallen away. Diversity and inclusion are now high-level workplace priorities, with many organizations considering it necessary for driving innovation and success.

We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time and these positive trends hint at a future that is inclusive and bright. But we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back just yet. The recent gender pay row at the BBC — where it was revealed that only one-third of the corporation’s 96 top earners were women, and the top seven were all men — perfectly highlights the extent of the wider problem in the UK. There’s still a lot more to be done in terms of equal pay and representation, and any optimism needs to be met with pragmatic strategy if tomorrow’s workplace is to work. In essence, wider social change needs to be reflected in corporate culture.

But who owns that culture? And who is responsible for making sure it permeates to all corners of the business?

For many, the HR department comes to mind first. After all, HR can design and plan in certain ways to influence cultural change within the organization. They can take on new technology to provide analytics, strategic direction, and insight into how culture management is performing. But HR is just one pillar holding up the fort.

I strongly believe that cultural change must start – and flow – from the top. If senior management only appear to pay lip service to a cultural identity, then it’s guaranteed to fail. So, instead of handing the responsibility of culture to the HR director, the CEO must take ownership and hold leaders at all levels to account.

This means doing more than relying on employees to memorize the company mission statement. It means more than talking about culture as an intangible thing. And it means more than holding one-off training sessions to drill down the message. Rather than ‘ticking the boxes,’ cultural change involves executive leaders actively influencing the company every day through the decisions they make and how they behave with co-workers, customers, vendors, and the community.

The business case for diversity and inclusivity is strong. There’s a growing body of research indicating that diverse teams outperform the competition in both revenue and profitability. And more people are becoming aware of bias, be it explicit or unconscious, which can directly affect company brand. This is especially true for millennials: According to a Deloitte study, younger workers have higher expectations when it comes to transparency, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. Which means to attract the best talent for tomorrow, smart businesses will need to make sure their culture reflects this view today.

The Time to Act Is Now

We’re living on the cusp of another digital workplace revolution, with automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT) set to shift how businesses function again. As such, we’re faced with the perfect opportunity to further redesign our people and processes to bring out the best in them. With attitudes toward the workplace already in flux thanks to tech advances, this is our chance to ingrain inclusivity and diversity into our collective DNA.

At the moment, many companies use training sessions to build awareness. But this is not enough. Further structural changes and data-driven solutions can eliminate measurable bias from the hiring, promotion, development, and pay process. And HR can support senior leaders and teach them how to change. Because after all, this can often be a new skill for even the most experienced.

Remember, cultural change is perhaps the most important building block in becoming an organization of the future. Which means that just as an organization’s goals and strategy develops over time, so too must culture. And if you’re at the top, it’s your job to lead it.

Tom Loeffert is HR director for SAP UK