All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.



² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015


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Hacking Healthcare

It's Time to Help Employees Do Benefits Better

Hack (hak) v., a clever tip or solution for getting something done

When it comes to employee health care benefits in the United States, employers are finally getting some relief. Healthcare spending increases are historically low1, and employee satisfaction with workplace benefits is historically high2. But, if employers don’t take steps to level up their employees’ benefit skills and knowledge, these gains may be at risk.

Will Healthcare Consumerism Stick?

While some of the slowdown in healthcare inflation can be attributed to the recession and a slow economic recovery, healthcare consumerism has helped. Enrollment in employer-sponsored, high-deductible healthcare plans has increased from 4 to 20 percent over the last five years.4 At a record number of employers — more than one-fourth — the plan with the highest enrollment is a high-deductible plan.3

According to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, employers offering high-deductible plans have enjoyed an average cost savings of 5 percent compared with results at companies that didn’t offer them. That fact stands regardless of whether or not all workers at a given employer took a high-deductible option.4 With results like these, healthcare consumerism is gaining more corporate converts. More than half of employers are moving toward healthcare strategies that require employees to take a more active role.5

The cost savings achieved by those high-deductible plans have stuck so far — for three years post-launch, according to the Carnegie Mellon study. But the sustainability of those savings is in no way certain. If growing consumer savvy has eliminated waste, then the promise of healthcare consumerism is being realized. But past studies have shown that increased cost sharing caused patients to reduce both necessary and unnecessary care.4 If the recent bend in the healthcare trend is coming by way of cash-strapped, sticker-shocked employees skipping the care they need, then a tidal wave of costs and sick workers could be on its way.

Help Employees Crack the Code

You probably know someone, maybe a parent, who finally went out and bought his first smartphone. He has the latest and greatest, but he can barely get it unlocked to make a call; never mind sending a group text or downloading an app.

Without information, education, and decision support, a high-deductible plan in the hands of an employee is a lot like that underutilized smartphone in the hands of your grandfather.

To most employees, a healthcare plan is an uncrackable code. More than half of employees agree that they need more help understanding how their benefits work and meet their needs. This is especially the case with younger workers. But employees are not giving up. They are willing to take on greater costs and play a bigger role in healthcare decisions, but they are asking for help.2

5 Ways to Build Better Healthcare Consumers

To the sown seeds of healthcare consumerism, education is life-giving rain. While the right communication strategy and tactics will depend on an organization’s demographics, goals, and circumstances, here are five ways an organization can help its employees hack health care and do their benefits better.

1. Make your content useful.

A recent California study showed that many high-deductible plan members don’t have a grasp of plan basics. Most didn’t know that preventive screenings, office visits, and other important care required little or no out-of-pocket payment.6 That’s useful information, and employees want it. If we can become foodies, mixologists, and do-it-yourselfers, we can become benefits connoisseurs, ninjas, and mavens. Pierce the impenetrable code of confusing lingo. Focus your communications on the decisions employees will make and the actions they will take. Help employees become confident healthcare consumers by giving them simple but highly useful tips for getting the most from their benefits day-to-day.

2. Make your content accessible.

Your company’s firewall exists to keep people out. That includes your employees when they’re not at work and the dependents your plans cover around the clock. That’s great news for your company’s intellectual property, but it’s terrible news for a frustrated parent who’s trying to plan a doctor’s visit for a sick child. Create a benefits website outside your company’s firewall. This will give employees and their dependents access to important information according to their needs and schedule.

3. Create a better benefits experience.

The experience many employees have with their benefits is like the experience they have trying to assemble a piece of furniture. It’s an unfamiliar process accompanied with horrible instructions in tiny print. It’s no surprise they’re asking for help. Once you’ve made your benefits communication more useful and accessible, strive to create a better overall experience. Recognize that your communications exist to serve your employees, and not just ERISA. Give all your benefits touch points a familiar and consistent look and feel. Don’t settle for mere accuracy and compliance. Be of service. Make it easy. Make it attractive. Make it enjoyable. A better experience can defuse frustration, produce better results, and build the confidence employees crave.

4. Keep it going year round.

Imagine if buying a car was allowed only during an annual purchasing period and all the information — prices, reviews, descriptions, and options — was made available for only about three weeks each fall. If you don’t purchase a car by the deadline, you’re out of luck for another year (unless you experience a “qualifying automotive event”). How could someone make such a big, complex buying decision in that short amount of time? Enrolling in benefits can be just as expensive and complex. Educate employees year-round. Help them use their spending account balances before the year is up. Remind them to take advantage of those free preventive care services. Have an ongoing presence in your company newsletter, the intranet, and your employees’ home mailboxes. Give employees something useful, even when they’re not expecting it. 

5. Personalize where possible.

We expect personalization from just about everything these days. Try to personalize your benefits communication where possible, too. Benefits confirmation statements are popular. Using case studies of recognizable personas can help employees tailor their choices to their own needs. Showing your employees why your company’s health plan is best suited to your workforce will reinforce their confidence and trust.


1 Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker: Measuring the Performance of the U.S. Health System

2 MetLife’s 12th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study

3 PwC Health Research Institute, Medical cost trend: Behind the numbers 2015, June 2014, based on PwC 2014 Touchstone Survey

4 National Bureau of Economic Research, Do “Consumer-Directed” Health Plans Bend the Cost Curve Over Time?

5 Views on Employment-Based Health Benefits: Findings from the 2014 Health and Voluntary Workplace Benefits Survey, by Paul Fronstin, Ph.D., Employee Benefit Research Institute, and Ruth Helman, Greenwald & Associates

6 In consumer-directed health plans, a majority of patients were unaware of free or low-cost preventive care.

Reed ME1, Graetz I, Fung V, Newhouse JP, Hsu J.


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