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At the turn of the decade, no one could have predicted the changes organizations would have to make over the course of a few short months, including digitizing on the fly to maintain business operations. The world of work quickly evolved before our eyes, and now business plans are being put to the test while subject to several factors outside of anyone’s control.

While this digital disruption has had a profound impact on the entire economy, each individual business is also feeling its effects internally. We are at a very critical point for company culture, and navigating the road ahead means learning to pivot while reinforcing core beliefs and values.

What worked in the past will not work for the workforce now or in the future. In order to adapt and continue making progress, leaders must become even more tuned in to employee needs during these challenging times.

Organizational Thinking and the Human Factor

In response to disruptors like widespread innovation, rapid advances in technology, and a new generation of employees with new values, organizational leaders understand they need more agile strategic approaches to move forward. Methodical, rigid, linear approaches to organizational thinking are ineffective — in terms of both the bottom line and company policies and procedures — in the face of a future that holds so many unknowns.

Today, organizational thinking needs a human-centric approach, one that brings employee experience to the forefront of the business. In choosing to see our companies through a new lens, we enables ourselves to create “moments that matter,” tangible behaviors and actions that promote positive employee perceptions of the company and provide affirmation during periods of uncertainty.

Prior to the current crisis, most business leaders had already recognized the positive correlation between creating an engaging and inspiring employee experience and hiring the best and brightest talent. According to a recent report from Hibob, 77 percent of employees view company culture as “extremely important.” Company culture is likely to grow even more important as the negative repercussions of prolonged isolation on work/life balance and morale continue to reverberate.

What companies do and say now to support employees in response to the crisis is going to be a make-or-break factor in the future: If talent perceives a company’s response as insufficient, they won’t want to work for that company going forward.

Why Generation Z Matters

Like millennials, Gen. Z-ers (those born between 1996 and 2010) feel company culture, values, and reputation are almost as important as salary when it comes to choosing a place of employment. By and large, they want to work at companies where they can make meaningful contributions in a collaborative environment where leaders are open to new ideas. They also want to learn and grow alongside their employers.

But there is a key difference between millennials and Gen. Z-ers: While millennials matured alongside technology, Gen. Z-ers were raised in a world already saturated with that technology. They are digitally fluent, which makes them particularly well-suited for work in technical fields regardless of education or career background.

This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for employers, who may change their mind about hiring employees with degrees in so-called “soft-sciences” for technology roles. For example, consider the fact that technical teams often need to win management support in order to get the tools and personnel they need. That often comes down to effectively telling the technology story, and liberal arts grads are perfectly positioned to take on this role of crafting a relatable narrative that is legible across all levels of the business.

Hiring employees for roles that stimulate them and allow for out-of-the-box thinking is in and of itself a great way of keeping company culture alive and thriving. When employees feel like the work they are doing matters to both the company and themselves as human beings, a culture of belonging is cultivated.

While the future is unclear for many businesses, those organizations that assemble teams of employees from various academic and personal backgrounds will be able to bring critical new perspectives to future challenges.

Protecting Culture at All Costs

During a crisis, company cultures undergo rapid transformations as employee mindsets shift and the desire for security and trust increases exponentially. For example, a March 2020 study from Harver on US labor market attitudes found that 60 percent of people have changed their outlooks on work/life balance since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Ignoring these changes of sentiment may lead to reputational risk, meaning now is the time for businesses to stand up for their most valuable resource: their dedicated workers.

How business decisions affect employees should always be top of mind, and leaders should communicate decisions proactively and transparently. While it may seem easy to put workplace development strategies on hold while other challenges loom, culture is a critical tool that helps employees feel connected and cared for through even the toughest times. Keep in mind, however, that a lot can be misinterpreted or lost in translation when communicating via video, email, or chat instead of face to face — especially in the hiring and onboarding process.

Resources must be leveraged appropriately according to best practices to maintain a steady talent pipeline that is fully prepared to address the future needs of the company. Whatever those needs may be, one thing is for certain: Culture can never be treated as a stagnant entity.

Organizations shouldn’t just go the extra mile for employees in this time of crisis — that behavior should be the benchmark for how companies behave well into the future.

Todd Cunningham is the chief people officer at AvidXchange.

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