#MercerChats Rewind: Changing company culture for changing times


Each month, Mercer brings together in-house experts, employee advocates and external thought leaders for an online discussion of the most pressing issues. The program is called #MercerChats and takes place entirely on Twitter, where individuals around the world engage with Mercer’s intellectual capital and other leading thought leadership to share insights and discuss the best solutions to help organizations thrive. Below is a summary of our December 2020 tweet chat, highlighting some of the key themes discussed and insights shared.

Culture has always been tricky. Difficult to see and harder to build, culture is the life-blood of an organization. It’s the power of culture, not technology or money, that is drives business success. The last 15 years or so have been a veritable renaissance of corporate culture, learning even more about what makes a strong corporate culture. A quote from Ben Horowitz comes to mind, “you can’t create something unique and compelling in the marketplace unless you first create something unique and compelling in the workplace”. So while catered lunches and employee perks are nice, when building a great corporate culture, there is a greater emphasis on shared values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.

But how can you share those values and behaviors when you can’t share an office? In our post-pandemic world, workplaces around the world have shut their doors for the indefinite future and colleagues shifted to remote, digital collaboration. But when employees went home from the office, did they bring the corporate culture home with them? How do those elaborate employee engagement programs work when no one can access them, and how do you keep your people working together when they are required to stay apart?

These are the same questions that HR leaders and people managers in every organization are asking themselves, so we posed them to some of Mercer’s own workforce, plus a collection of the world’s leading voices on culture and the future of work. The wide-ranging conversation on corporate culture and the pandemic showed how multifaceted and complex it can be to maintain a collective workforce through the lockdowns, but it also revealed some valuable insights for those tasked with doing just that.

Defining what matters to you

One of the most difficult parts about building your company culture is, unfortunately, also the first step: defining it. You can spend years and unseemly amounts of money on branding agencies to help you craft and build a culture, but ultimately the responsibility lies with each individual in a firm to commit to and build it.

In theory, this should be easy. As Christina Dove shared, “culture is how we turn up every day and treat each other and our clients,” meaning that even without trying, every organization already has a culture. The trick is building a positive, healthy and sustainable one, and for this you need positive, healthy and sustainable leadership. Soumyasanto Sen touched on the value of leadership during our chat, noting that workforces look to their leadership to define and live out their firm’s corporate culture, and only after this can individual employees determine how (or if) they fit in. This same sentiment was shared by Cecilia Giordano when she pointed out that strong cultures are built by consciously choosing to invest in one another. 

“Culture is the beating heart of an organisation, how we turn up every day and treat each other and our clients.”
Christina Dove
“Leaders should be responsible for designing the organization to incorporate culture, so that the workforce can see how the new organization culture will fit into the larger change picture.”
Soumyasanto Sen
“I see liquid, agile, flexible organizations, with collaborators who consciously decide to meet, I see greater productivity and happiness.”
Cecilia Giordano


Shifting for Remote

While building your culture is an age-old challenge, figuring out how to bring it home is a new conundrum. The good news is that we’ve now had 10+ months to sort it out, and by most accounts it appears that most employees are willing, able and (in some cases) passionate about maintaining corporate culture even when working remotely. As Dr. Marcia F. Robinson shared, the pandemic has proved that nothing can stop a positive and creative spirit, and that display of energy and passion shows what’s really important to people.

Now it falls to HR and leaders to identify those high points and invest in them for the future. Both Matt Handley and David Green alluded to this during our chat, pointing out that in the absence of shared workspaces, organizations will need to be proactive in building comradery and collaboration. We’ve seen a wealth of new tech and strategies arise to help fill this need, with teams trying everything from zoom happy hours to remote holiday parties to stay connected. But above all, it’s vital that leaders bear in mind Janet Fouts’ advice to not over-engineer culture. If your culture is to reflect your people, let it start with them. 

“There is a positive ‘can do’ and creative spirit that has emerged from remote working. Orgs are getting clarity on what is really important for positive employee experiences and operations in general.”
Dr. Marcia F Robinson
“Leaders now need to engineer these moments and create virtual forums that build togetherness even when we’re far apart.”
Matt Handley
“It's good for leadership to loosen the reins a bit and allow organic growth. Companies are learning great lessons in adaptability and productivity shows that.”
Janet Fouts
“Companies need to be more intentional about collaboration and innovation in a virtual environment.”
David Green


Making it work for your whole workforce

Have you ever been to a bad dinner party where the host is the only person having a good time? The music is too loud, the food is too spicy, and the lights are so low you can’t see your fork? The problem is that the person who planned the party is only accounting for their tastes, and everyone else is left to suffer through the evening.

Now imagine you work at that dinner party every day. That’s what work is like for many employees who were either overlooked or disregarded when their organization shifted to remote work. When experts and observers discuss the value of flexible work programs, it’s often in the context of the benefits for minority groups and women who are otherwise disadvantaged by the rigidity of the traditional corporate workplace, but now that we’re pivoting to remote working, it goes so much further than that. Think, for instance, about how disruptive the pandemic has been for new-hires who typically rely on mentorship and hands-on instruction to find their place in a firm, as Tamara McCleary noted, or how part-time or contract workers may be faring in a landscape with limited support and remote management.

To address this, leaders need to view their culture through the lens of their entire workforce, considering whether it works for all of their employees. Doing so means avoiding an overly prescriptive culture, as Norman Dreger noted, and allowing people to fill in the grey areas of your policy with the solutions that work best for them. Or, more simply, Mark Babbitt pointed out that it’s all about making people feel valued, needed, and trusted. If your culture can do this for everyone at your organization, you should be ready for whatever lies ahead in the future of work.

“Involving new hires directly in the virtual environment is key. Plug them into the system, introduce everyone on a zoom, interact right away.”
Tamara McCleary
“Most successful cultures allow grey areas for people to express themselves but have guide rails — do no harm, listen to others with empathy, support diverse ideas and thoughts.”
Norman Dreger
“Collaboration and innovation is a people-first issue. Help people feel valued, needed, and trusted. They’ll find a way to meet the challenges in front of them.”
Mark Babbitt
Danielle Guzman
by Danielle Guzman

Global Head of Social Media