High culture for maximum performance: Why employer branding isn’t the magic word of the future

Companies want Generation Y – but what does Generation Y want? In a  number of thought-provoking claims and theses, young entrepreneur Philipp Riederle lets us in on the corporate culture in which today’s digital natives wish to reveal their true potential. An opinion piece.  

Halfway through the process of digitalisation, many entrepreneurs are realising that there is more to preparing for the future than just technology. The three driving forces of eternal change we are experiencing are computers, people and society – and they are all crying out for a new corporate image. Digitalisation and the progress of technology no longer allow for the rigid slowness of old structures. Customers are looking for new forms of products, services, cooperation and communication. And your employees? Motivated, innovative, happy to work in teams and flexible, they are eager to implement all of this. So it’s time for companies to reinvent themselves. Or at least ready themselves from a digital point of view. And that means much more than technology: it’s the efficient connection between technology and us as customers, users, manufacturers, service providers and fellow designers. Employees in particular are playing a crucial role here, because without them, a company cannot satisfy its customers – and without satisfied customers, there is no future.

Your challenges include demographic change, a shortage of workers in many industries and the endless problem of a high turnover of employees, particularly the younger ones. So what should you do? Understand that your employees are of paramount importance and establish your own company as a hotbed for innovation, outside-the-box thinkers and flexible working patterns.

Work is life

With the increasing number of digital natives streaming onto the labour market, all employers should know how we work and what we are demanding. And that we simply don’t understand why many companies are still being run like it’s 1993. For us, digitalisation, access to knowledge, fast markets and agility are as just as normal as automation and continuous change. We don’t even want to begin to understand your stagnation. What we want is to make a difference now, creating something that gives us a purpose in life. But in a way that seems intuitively logical to us. In companies that allow us that opportunity.

The technology for your work (whatever it is you produce, develop or make) and the people who carry most of it out, are constantly on the move and changing. Employees need revised roles as they are faced with new requirements and developing other needs. Which is a good thing – because that’s how your customers also feel. So there needs to be new forms of collaboration and organisation: technology and people in the workplace will need to be just as flexible and fluid as any company that wants to survive. Because adaptability doesn’t just mean a fresh lick of paint and you’re done. It means that change is the new constant and we all need to stay in permanent innovation mode.

Who you are – and how you can get us on board

In terms of applying this approach to human resources, to get us on board, compete against the shortage of qualified staff and equip yourself for the future, more and more companies are relying on HR marketing – or the magic word: “employer branding”. But it often seems as though a few suits just got together to dig up a few budgets and establish an employer-branding position, whose only aim is to make a noise and generate internet clicks. But if that’s really the case then they’re missing the whole concept – that’s not how you make yourself appealing. If employer branding means that old crusty and unattractive companies are simply given a facelift to make them look hip, my advice is: save it, because it’s not going to work. We will notice.

Handing out organic granola on the streets and shooting a cool YouTube video in the hope it will get the job done? You can generate a short rise in attention with hot air, but you won’t awaken our serious interest that way. When it comes to marketing products on the web, making something look better than it actually is, is no mean feat these days, so it’s unlikely to work for employers either. We recognise such bumbling (or desperate?) attempts. Maybe not at first glance, but eventually, thanks to the employee feedback on company review platforms like kununu, or at the latest, after our first day of working there, reality shock included.

We are well-networked, we talk with like-minded people – and we do so honestly. If you want to pull the digital wool over our eyes, we will tell others. Not because we are uptight or want to intimidate you. But because it’s important to share information. It’s easy for us to give a “like” if we believe you (see for yourself on kununu). If you try and pull a fast one, you’ll just lose out twice over: you will make yourself look ridiculous in public and won’t change the level of commitment of your employees (hopefully, because it would not be for the better). You don’t become attractive by claiming to be so. Or simply by planning to be – we know that already from the gym!

For what we are asking, neither a branding department nor a one-off measure, a raise or additional staff, let alone pressure from the boss is going to work well. We need your commitment – and you need it yourself too. In order to create the breeding ground for a thriving structure, where we can discover what work really means to us: a sense of purpose and self-fulfilment.

Keep your carrot

Our work life has to be worth living because it is a major part of life. It shouldn’t merely be the time we sit on our backsides in exchange for money to enable us to go off and do more important and better things. Right from the get-go, work is a crucial element of our lives – one that fulfils us, makes us happy, challenges and excites us. And time is something that certainly cannot be outweighed by money. Of course we all need money, and preferably not too little of it. But it’s a fact that you can’t buy everything – especially where self-fulfilment is concerned. We don’t want this (or any kind) of carrot being dangled in front of our noses in order to work or to live. We don’t need it because we are already motivated enough. We don’t work under pressure, despite being coerced or force-fed the latest mission statement, nor do we work simply for your profit or our own. This method probably didn’t even work with a real donkey – at best, it probably only increased the desire for the reward!

Knowledge workers in particular, those who are required to think for a living (which we soon all will be), aren’t as easy to lure as they used to be: it will take more than just flashing the cash to win us over. If they are assigned incoherent, mind-numbing tasks, find it hard to connect with their team and have to spend weeks waiting for a response from superiors and colleagues, all while sitting in dreary offices without efficient structures, many employees will just invest as little time and energy there as possible – and who can blame them? That kind of environment can’t be outweighed with a few euros. It usually has the reverse effect, as can be seen in many start-ups and their often-substandard salaries: when employees are given more appreciation and recognition and when their social skills are appreciated in addition to their ideas, money tends to come second.

The most important asset: your employees

We often find it incomprehensible why you continue to ignore our basic attitude towards work. Because first of all, it’s really not so hard to understand, and secondly you would probably benefit from it if only you would do it right. Active, creative, progressive. To make it clear: treat your staff as respectfully as you treat your customers! You think that’s too bold, mad or even pointless? That’s usually due to an error in your thinking: you assume that employees are unmotivated, lazy, unwilling and work only because they have no other choice. Control and pressure then appear to be the ideal means to ensure they do their bit. To assign them responsibility would seem idiotic to you. Well, the fact that you probably don’t enjoy your job anymore is pretty obvious. How about this for a vision of humanity: your employees want to work, to help the company progress, contribute something valuable and important – make a difference. What may amaze you is that we are intrinsically motivated, take pleasure in creating something and celebrating successes together with others. Self-fulfilment, that’s all it is.

When many of us digital natives think of careers and growth, we tend to focus mostly on career drivers like personality, motivation, visible achievements, experiences – and supervisors who also embody this. That drives us onward and is important, that’s what optimisation means to us. Our priorities aren’t vertical growth and money but, more importantly, to be varied in width, maximised usefulness, fair, open, variable. Interestingly, most of us think exactly the same about companies. Here the keywords are: lack of democracy, outdated hierarchies and unnecessary status symbols. The solution to this is a corporate culture.

Listening, understanding, acting – in that order

Don’t panic, you don’t need to create an entirely new corporate culture out of thin air. Yours is already there, it’s always subtly there in the background – and we want to have a hand in shaping it. Every organisation or office has a culture, regardless of how lame, intimidating or overly hierarchical it is (not necessarily a good culture, but a culture nonetheless). It’s about recognising and grasping it – and thinking about whether or not it’s really what you want. And whether it’s an attractive proposition and is fit for future economic and human needs. Whether it has the potential to turn work life into something worth living.

What underlying concepts of work, people, performance and life can be found in your company? Observe yourselves, your staff and your customers: who likes what and why, where are the problems and why, and how long has it been that way? Ask your customers, partners, suppliers and other external parties who work with you. Talk to all your employees, ask them for their opinions. If they all say, or you implicitly sense they want to say: “I hate my job”, you’re already one step further. And then you can get together to decide what you want to change. What is important for your company, your industry, your people and what is having a negative impact? And then it’s time to move on. Onward and upward.

Breathing space to work

A strong corporate culture is not developed by doing a few dry runs over a weekend. And you can learn from mistakes. To optimise yourselves, you need to establish a culture of error and actually live and breathe it. Allowing for errors, learning from them, building on them. It’s not about greeting your staff with a contrived high-five at the door, or setting up a foosball table for them. You can’t force a new culture onto your employees or persuade them of it. If the company is permeated with an intimidating culture of responsibility hierarchies and you suddenly implement a culture dictated by independent thinking, motivation and initiative, employees may well be shocked to the point of paralysis rather than participating actively. Or the “company’s own immune system” kicks in and attacks any hasty or hostile changes.

A successful company culture needs to be developed from the bottom up. That can only work within a team, oriented to the needs of the employees, to what you and your organisation need to meet the tasks and requirements. Those who don’t like, or aren’t familiar with the bottom-up strategy are confusing their position with that of a bitter lion tamer, who harks back nostalgically to his circus and the 1960s. Keep your dreams but please take them somewhere else – we’re busy!

The goal has to be shared, long-term and sustainable, it’s about the very core of your company and about how you work together, communicate with each other, how you organise and structure things and what framework prevails. It may take a while. But if you ever catch yourself (or even better yet, your employees) smiling a smile of anticipation upon entering the office, then you will understand what I mean. And that is exactly what translates into commitment, achievement and success. Tasks, structures and methods will integrate themselves almost automatically, as will the employer brand – as I said, we are well-networked!

Adjusting the nuts and bolts together

Including your team is essential – but please: don’t just do it for the sake of your image. Allow for ideas that you may not like at first glance. That’s the only way you can see what kind of culture (and what potential) is behind the foundations of your company. If your trainees in the workshop ask for their own project, a change in the organisational form, or for a Twitter account, you can discuss it – or, better yet, try it out. Whether you’re over 50 and you don’t think age matters, whether you have inherited the business and you feel committed to tradition: investments are worthwhile, especially those that appear important to your employees. If your Twitter account works out, you will have managed to access a new channel that makes you interesting – not to mention the fact that your staff will feel happier because they were able to help shape the business. And even if the account is devoid of activity three months in, so what? Just put it down to experience and accept that you learned something from it. But then please take the trouble (which is actually no trouble at all), to discuss this experience and use it as an opportunity. Your staff will most definitely feel included and connected. It’s a win-win situation.

It will strengthen your company, improve the work and also ensure you have really good employees. It’s about the consequences of this culture, after all, not just about the culture as an end in itself. It will play into every aspect of your working environment. Whether onboarding, organisation, leadership, connection or daily coexistence: how you structure all that will be determined by your culture. So shape it wisely – it is your constant companion.

In addition to the culture, team spirit, motivation, openness, flexibility and innovation, good relationships with our colleagues represent our professional ambitions. They help us to remain engaged and efficient. Over candidates with higher qualifications, some applicants are chosen simply because they are a better fit for the company’s culture. So, all the more reason to build close relations on the job and get on well together. That happens if you live how you work, and vice versa.

In addition, many of us already have several new starts under our belts in this kind of culture. We compensate for that with close friendships outside of the job, but also with the desire for great colleagues, who are good at allowing us to integrate quickly, accept us and make working at the new company even more appealing.

Ready, set, go!

There is a common thread that runs through the behavioural patters, tasks and challenges that face all of us in today’s working world. If you recognise this (and admit to doing so), large chunks of the change will occur automatically and with more ease. It all begins with a change of values and new market needs that require a different attitude to work and people. That’s what the way of dealing with our employees and colleagues builds on, then the culture, and on top of that organisational considerations. If this thread is unbroken, then feedback, self-determination, autonomous responsibilities, eye-to-eye contact, loyalty and changes within the organisation, leadership, tools and frameworks are the next logical steps. Logical steps in order to reach digital maturity and become an attractive employer to the digital generations. Steps that you walk together and challenges that slot perfectly into the new culture and common growth. Sounds like a turning point? That’s exactly what it is: success, fun and empowered employees guaranteed.

Photo: Christian Kaufmann

Philipp Riederle

Entrepreneur and author

The digital native expert produced a much publicised video podcast at the young age of 13, and founded his own company Phipz Media when he was just 15. Philipp’s podcast, MIUI, Mein iPhone/mein iPad und ich (My iPhone/my iPad and I), soon topped the podcast charts and was downloaded millions of times. As Germany’s youngest business consultant, he has already worked with more than 300 companies on their digital expertise. The digital native speaks at specialist conventions, media conferences and corporate events about the topics that are very close to his heart: social media, Generation Y and the future of working. He also advises noteworthy companies on the concept development and implementation of effective strategies. Following his bestselling book “Wer wir sind und was wir wollen: Ein Digital Native erklärt seine Generation (Who we are and what we want: A digital native explains his generation) in 2013, he published his second book “Wie wir arbeiten und was wir fordern” (How we work and what we expect) in 2017. In 2014, Riederle was chosen by the German government as one of Germany’s 39 digital leaders and in 2017 he received the highly acclaimed CSP certificate from the National Speakers Association (NSA) and the Global Speakers Federation (GSF).

With his thought-provoking lecture on the subject “Millennials – Who they are and what they want” at the 2017 Best Brands College, Philipp Riederle provided the audience with eye-opening insights into the needs and sensitivities of his generation.

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