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Management in Practice

Navigating a New Now: Time to Prioritize Company Culture

This phase of the pandemic is bringing a new set of challenges for companies. The “Great Resignation” is decimating workforces; managers are struggling to lead teams that blend in-person, remote, and hybrid staff. Laszlo Bock ’99, founder and CEO of Humu and former head of People Operations at Google, says that culture is key to organizational success: when workers feel valued and able to contribute in meaningful ways, they stick around to take on whatever may come. In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about how they are leading their organizations through the uncertainty, optimism, and fear of the new now.

In spring 2020, amid COVID-19 lockdowns, fear of the deadly virus, and an unprecedented shift to remote work, Laszlo Bock ’99, founder and CEO of Humu, talked with Yale Insights about empathy and resilience. Twenty months on, we checked back in to get Bock’s thoughts on retaining and motivating workers in a moment the traditional tools for building culture and fostering belonging aren’t enough.

Adapted from an email, November 10, 2021

What are the biggest challenges facing companies right now? The Great Resignation? Navigating teams that blend in-person, remote, and hybrid?

The biggest challenge facing companies today is how to maintain a world-class culture amidst so much change and uncertainty. Culture underpins every measure of organizational success. If culture and strategy aren’t aligned, top initiatives—from improving retention to delivering record revenue—fail.

But how do you bring a cohesive set of cultural values to life when teams aren’t together in-person, and when no one is sure what the next year, let alone six months, will hold? Some organizations have hired about 30% of their workforce since the pandemic began; these employees haven’t met their managers or had any of the moments that embed someone within an organization. Across industries, we’re hearing from leaders that they feel it’s harder than ever to inspire the actions that fortify an organization’s culture and business—and that make it a place where top talent wants to work.

Which leads me to the Great Resignation: what many leaders are missing is that it’s not a compensation issue, it’s a culture issue. Gallup found that the highest quit rates exist among disengaged workers, regardless of pay and benefits. And Instead, they’re looking for clear goals, growth opportunities (even if that doesn’t always mean advancement), meaningful work, and a manager who values their unique skills and talents.

Are those challenges temporary or a new normal?

I’m hopeful that it’s the new normal. Culture has always been important, but the pandemic forced it to the top of many executives’ priority lists. Employees have gained power over the past 18 months and are using it to demand positive change.

While there’s been a lot of discussion about ‘essential workers,’ many organizations have historically taken an ‘essential jobs’ approach. They see the jobs as essential, but the people in those jobs as expendable. That’s starting to change.

One thing in particular that has stood out to me: While there’s been a lot of discussion about “essential workers,” many organizations have historically taken an “essential jobs” approach. They see the jobs as essential, but the people in those jobs as expendable. That’s starting to change, in part because in 2021 employees finally said, “I’ve had enough.” Skyrocketing attrition proves that employees will no longer hesitate to leave their jobs in search of more supportive work cultures.

What’s been learned about work as a result of the pandemic?

Traditional training programs are no longer enough to support managers and teams. In a hybrid model, managers are the connectors between cultural values and employee experience. But their jobs have become 10 times harder: in addition to clarifying roles and responsibilities and assigning tasks, they’re now responsible for how people within the organization are feeling.

Traditional training—think offsites, presentations, or a video series—doesn’t equip them with the ability to build learning cultures, foster belonging, or quickly make decisions for their teams. One executive I spoke with said their organization spent a hundred million dollars on training in the last year. But when they did a sophisticated analysis, they found the return on that investment was neutral. People enjoyed it, but it wasn’t driving performance.

In a hybrid, quickly changing world, the better approach is to figure out a way to meet managers in the flow of their work and offer them ways to practice new habits at the right moments. And then to reinforce what they’ve learned with reminders and suggestions for how to continue building their abilities. That’s exactly why we founded Humu—to offer this kind of modern, personalized learning at scale.