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Create a Culture of Innovation in the Workplace

Create a Culture of Innovation in the Workplace

by Marco Nink and Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • COVID-19 initiated unprecedented business innovation
  • The employee experience is the perfect target for workplace innovation
  • Managers are key to creating an innovation culture

If there's a bright spot to be found in the events of 2020, it's that businesses got creative. Many of the members of Gallup's CHRO Roundtable -- a group that represents over 700 of the world's largest companies -- said new working conditions and new customer needs required a customer experience strategy, including plans, processes and products, more innovative than they'd ever seen.

Those leaders, like all leaders, are now planning a post-pandemic future. Many hope to bring the creative spirit into the better days ahead, but they'll need an innovation-friendly environment to sustain it.

According to Gallup data, a smart place to start building that environment is within the employee experience.

How to Spot and Seize Opportunities for Workplace Transformation

Consider, for instance, the experience of understanding the customer. Before the pandemic, surprisingly few employees did -- less than a third of workers across Europe and the U.S. strongly agreed that their company actively involved its customers in improving products and services, and less than half strongly agreed that they knew what was important to their customers. Less than a third of workers across Europe said that customer feedback led to concrete improvements.

Before the pandemic, few employees understood the customer experience.
Strongly agree
We actively involve customers in helping us make our products and/or services better.
France 21
Germany 29
Spain 18
U.K. 31
Europe 25
U.S. 19
I regularly receive information about what is important to our customers.
France 24
Germany 30
Spain 26
U.K. 41
Europe 30
U.S. 22
Comments and suggestions from customers always lead to concrete improvements in our company.
France 25
Germany 20
Spain 23
U.K. 29
Europe 24
Note: European data were collected in 2019; U.S. data were collected in 2018. "Europe" represents the average for data from France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. The "comments and suggestions" item was not asked in the U.S.

That kind of employee experience undermines any brand promise to centralize the customer, widens the gap between employee and purpose, and makes employees hesitate to mention products or processes that might improve the customer experience.

Closing the gap may take culture change and better systems of communication up and down the org chart. During the pandemic, many leaders spoke more often and openly with staff than they ever had before. That transparency created an employee experience that got people through terrible times. It will fuel the employee experience in better times too, so leaders shouldn't stop now.

Still, operationalizing a customer-centric and innovative employee experience depends on the behaviors of managers.

The Manager's Role in Workplace Innovation and the Employee Experience

Managers are key to just about every corporate plan, including creating or sustaining an innovation culture. Most haven't been especially good at that, though: Gallup asked European and U.S. workers in 2018 and 2019 if their managers were open to their ideas or if information was often shared between people or departments. The highest percentage of "strongly agree" responses to these items never topped 38%, and most were a lot lower.

Most managers haven't excelled at creating or sustaining an innovation culture.
Strongly agree
I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
France 27
Germany 34
Spain 26
U.K. 33
Europe 30
U.S. 30
In my company, we openly share information, knowledge and ideas with each other.
France 36
Germany 35
Spain 30
U.K. 38
Europe 35
U.S. 30
I am satisfied with the cooperation between my department and other departments with which I work.
France 21
Germany 24
Spain 21
U.K. 23
Europe 22
U.S. 19
Note: European data were collected in 2019; U.S. data were collected in 2018. "Europe" represents the average for data from France, Germany, Spain and the U.K.

Hopefully, managers have become more open to new ideas in this radically different business environment.

If so, those managers have telegraphed their respect, which boosts employees' confidence and their sense that they're free to speak their minds and share knowledge -- necessary preconditions for innovation and, incidentally, engagement.

If not, now is a very good time to invest in manager development to capitalize on today's creative spirit and make it stick. Ideally, that development will help managers shift from bossing to coaching. Traditional manager training focuses on processes more than people, which creates good bosses -- and sometimes bad ones -- but not innovation. For that, coaches are crucial.

In fact, Gallup research shows a connection between coaching and the mindset behind creativity. There are a lot of reasons for that, but chief among them is that coaches have regular, quality conversations with workers. Those conversations create relationships in which ideating and offering employee feedback feels safe.

Coaches are also more likely to accept, not forgive, mistakes. The difference is important. Forgiveness implies that the employee narrowly avoided punishment. Accepting mistakes affirms that risk is just part of finding new and better ways of doing things -- an attitude that's been in short supply for a while.

The more frequently these conversations between managers and employees take place, the more likely it is that the company is perceived as having the right mindset to respond quickly to business needs. European employees who report having frequent conversations (at least a few times a week) are significantly more likely than their counterparts who receive feedback just once a year or less to say their company has the right mindset to respond quickly to business needs (45% vs. 21%, respectively).

Gallup finds that employees in Europe who strongly agree their supervisor gives continuous feedback to help them improve their performance are more likely to also strongly agree they can take risks at work "that could lead to important new products, services or solutions" (31%) compared with those who do not strongly agree with the feedback item (8%). And among those who agree with the feedback item rather than strongly agree, only 12% also strongly agree that they can take risks at work. Quantity and quality are key.

Managing Change in the Workplace

The good news, which we're surely ready for after an awful year, is that managers are primed for this kind of development. They've had to be more available, more communicative and more open than they'd ever been -- especially those overseeing remote teams -- and many saw their teams' engagement skyrocket as a result.

Many hope to bring the creative spirit into the better days ahead, but they'll need an innovation-friendly environment to sustain it.

A lot of workers are ready for an employee experience that frees their creativity too. They've had to be incredibly adaptable and inventive, and customer needs have been a life-or-death issue for many of them. They've dipped their toes into an innovative, customer-centric environment. Now they want to jump all the way into customer experience management.

For now, that's a real bright spot. But it doesn't have to be "for now" -- leaders can bring today's innovative spirit into their post-pandemic future. They just need to lay the groundwork that sustains it.

Build an employee experience that innovators rave about:


Marco Nink is Gallup's Director of Research and Analytics, EMEA.

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