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Sloan Center News

Supporting Workplace Culture Change

Supervision, Engagement, and Flexibility

30 November 2009—A common assertion is that culture is immutable. Whether this assumption concerns a national culture or an organizational culture, it is most frequently mistaken.

Culture change is happening all around us. Shifts in the age demographics of the workforce are changing workers’ expectations with regard to retirement, career paths, and when, where, and how work gets done. This does not mean, however, that organizational culture and practices have necessarily caught up.

Some examples of the outdated beliefs, expectations, and management methods prevalent in many organizational cultures include:

  • a strong endorsement of face-time;
  • viewing full-time, forty hour per week, year round employees as more committed than their part-time or part-year counterparts;
  • performance appraisals and promotion criteria that reward employees who are aggressive, independent, and single-mindedly devoted to the organization or the profession above others; and
  • viewing older workers as “coming in for a landing,” disengaging, disinterested in development opportunities, and easy targets for retirement incentive packages.

What can be done to support workplace culture change in response to the changing needs and expectations of an aging workforce?

Knowledge transfer, mentoring, flexible work options, work re-design, career development and professional networks have all been developed to address the forecasted brain drain, talent and competency shortages, and the ultimate costs associated with demographic shifts.

However, tactical policy responses may not ultimately be enough. Policies need to be matched by supportive actions. To both maintain competitive edge, while effectively adapting to the 21st century demographic reality, businesses need to take into consideration the full import of how employees are working. Therefore, to stimulate profit and productivity, supervisors need to concentrate on keeping their workforce supported and engaged.

Engaged workers are those willing to go above and beyond responsibilities and expectations to get the work done and get it done well. Research has shown that engaged employees use less health care, take fewer sick days, are more productive, have longer tenure, and create stronger customer relationships.

What motivates workers of different ages to work with passion?

The center’s Age & Generation Study (2008) found that access to resources and workplace culture factors positively to levels of employee engagement for workers of all ages. Specifically, such factors include satisfaction with opportunities for training and development, a supportive culture around use of flexible work options, supervisor support, perceptions of inclusion, and perceptions of job security. Additional factors emerged for certain age groups, for example, access to the flexibility needed to fulfill work and family responsibilities was a predictor of engagement among Gen Y employees (those born after 1980).

The center’s Citisales Study (2007) found that the perception of one’s supervisor was key in predicting engagement for employees age 55 and over. Variations occur depending on type of employee—professional or hourly (See Figures 1 and 2). For older workers in professional jobs, perceptions that teams are functioning well, that promotions and career development opportunities are fair and equitably distributed, and that one has access to flexible work options are important factors in seeing the supervisor as effective. For older hourly workers, having one’s schedule preferences considered (schedule input) is an important factor in evaluating a supervisor as effective.

figure 1, evidence, stages 09-11figure2, evidence, stages 09-11

Significantly, flexible work options and perceptions of supervisors were found to play a crucial role in employee engagement in both the Citisales and Age & Generations studies. Yet, as the center has found in the States as Employers-of-Choice Survey (2009) and the National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development (2006), the top, most frequently cited barrier to the successful adoption and utilization of flexible work options include difficulties supervising employees working in a flexible manner.

So what is the takeaway?

For supervisors managing a diverse group of employees, each with potentially different needs for flexibility, coordination can seem confounding. But flexible work options are not fundamentally meant to cause management to stumble—quite the opposite. Flexibility can be a significant asset in overall organizational productivity. For individuals, flexible work options have been shown to indicate not only greater employee engagement, but lower perceptions of work overload, better physical and mental health, and increased satisfaction with work-family balance.

Simply stated, flexibility is an indicator of organizational culture health and success.

However, flexible work options are just one possible strategy to propel business success in response to imminent demographic and workforce changes. Culture change also implies the recognition that traditional management methods may simply no longer apply—or worse, they may restrain organizational growth. Movements in national culture, due to demographic shifts, will soon demand supervisors to adapt their oversight to account for changes in working style.

How can management adapt to change?

Transitioning to a focus on overall outcomes, managers can focus on devising detailed short and long term employee work plans with shared goal setting. Tying overall individual goals to broader organizational outcomes can empower employees to take a stake in their own performance management. Adding flexible options that fit into the culture changes enables a workforce to become more accountable, engaged and productive.

It is the role of supervisors to support and stimulate a positive, enthusiastic, and affective connection with work. The goal is motivation of each employee to invest in getting the job done, not just “well” but “with excellence.”

Admit it—culture is not immutable. Even the traditional practices of management culture will change. Such change can affect you at any moment.