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Workplace Culture: Why Do So Many Professional Services Firms Still Wing It?  

Workplace culture. It affects productivity, employee retention, and whether or not top talent want to work for a business. It’s what drives organizational success: how colleagues act, interact, and behave. Managing workplace culture is a critical business function, yet most professional services firms still wing it.

By contrast, leading companies have recognized the business value of intentionally managing their culture. They now turn to new tools such as people analytics. They think long and hard about their Employer Value Proposition (EVP), what The Talent Brand author Jody Ordioni calls the “single-minded expression of an organization’s unique offerings as an employer, coupled with its expectations for employees.” Ordioni argues the next iteration of this is talent branding, or how successful an organization is at truly fulfilling its promise to employees. Leading companies that fulfill this promise are not winging it when it comes to their culture. They are highly intentional about actively managing it.

Among professional services firms culture is mostly left alone, with little thought to how it can morph into something unrecognizable to the organization’s original vision or purpose. (One encouraging exception to this hands-off approach is how much attention professional services firms are giving to diversity and inclusion – a key building block to a healthy workplace).

Why are professional service firms so different? For one thing, they’re filled with knowledge workers. In this way, they are a very special kind of business – with people as the product. It’s also a source of irony. When people are your product, workplace culture is your most potent differentiator of all.

This, of course, represents opportunity. The knowledge workers of the professional services sector are highly trained, and almost always laser-focused on their craft and practice. That’s a good thing. It’s also incomplete. To develop a talent brand, professional services firms must also nurture a healthy and inviting culture where colleagues constantly grow and learn.

The knowledge workers of the professional services sector care far more about workplace culture than benefits or compensation, something that’s even more pronounced among Millennials. As former CPA and Deloitte HR executive Charlie Judy reminds us, there will always be a firm that can out-compete you on benefits or compensation. It’s why firms should differentiate their workplace through the Employee Experience formula: cultivate, manage and sustain a healthy culture.

From accountants to architects, from engineers to lawyers, from wealth managers to physicians—the professional services sector is largely stuck on competence. Their marketing departments find creative ways to tout the firm or practice’s expertise, pedigree and results. In the Experience Economy, clients and patients already expect all of these things. What people really crave are extreme levels of attention and care, in addition to competence. When people find businesses intentionally delivering the kinds of distinctive, hassle-free experiences they crave, they can’t wait to tell their peers about it.

The consistent delivery of competence, attention and care is fueled by a healthy workplace culture. As the saying goes, what you get on the inside, you get on the outside.

So, how should professional services firms begin to manage their culture? Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Avoid the employee engagement trap. Who doesn’t want fully engaged employees? Regrettably, employee engagement is also an outcome of sentiment. It doesn’t reveal much about what’s behind the outcome, and it’s difficult to affect. Even worse, some of the metrics used in employee engagement surveys are nearly useless. My favorite example is this popular question: “Do you have a best friend at work?” Though a friendly and collegial workplace is obviously desirable, having a best friend at work is not really an outcome or “score” that professional services firms (or any businesses) should worry about.
  • Go deeper: Use data science and expertise to understand what drives Employee Experience. Consider how well your business anticipates (or fails to anticipate) employee needs. Find experts to determine if the physical environment promotes desirable or undesirable behavior. Use data science to learn what intrinsically motivates individual employees. You may learn, for example, it may be best to kill off your annual performance review process in favor of something most humans prefer: real-time feedback. While you’re at it, forget the foosball tables and free donuts on Fridays. Spend your time and energy on the behaviors that actually matter to the bottom line and the healthy, collaborative culture that will sustain it. Better yet, find a tool to map your culture and identify the distinct drivers behind the firm’s success.

In the face of changing expectations, the winning firms will actively invest in Employee Experience. They’ll treat it like the new management function that it is, and find an operating system for it. For a primer on how to install a culture management platform, download “Creating Healthy Cultures at Professional Service Companies.” Published by WorkXO, this new e-book contains the eight building blocks needed to create and manage a healthy culture of knowledge workers.

If you’re paying attention, you’re seeing interest in all of this on the rise, and for good reason. Managing culture is a high-octane formula for growth through differentiation. I recommend finding the right set of tools and methodologies for your organization, before your competitors do.

Time to stop winging it.


Ed Bodensiek is the founder and chief experience officer of Cravety, where he uses design thinking to connect culture to brand. Ed worked alongside The Nebo Company to create the first client experience model among the nation’s top 200 law firms. He is active on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Nebo’s services for coaching, leadership development, organizational change, and strategic planning.

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