(Photo by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

What’s going on in your company that you don’t know about? That question is more pressing than ever, with so many shifting forces hitting business at once, including remote work, labor dislocation, and economic recession.

“One lasting change coming from this current situation is going to be that culture keepers are going to have to break, what I call, the ‘black box,’” said Janine Yancey, referring to the often vague and mysterious backdrop of a company where leaders are not aware of what is happening within their workforces.

Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, which produces workplace-training tools, said that companies will need to focus on this issue “in a much more proactive way than we have in the past 20 years because it’s going to have increasingly large consequences if we don’t get it right. We can do better, and we can be intentional about it.”

From Day One interviewed Yancey in a webinar recently about the quickly shifting cultural landscape of our workplaces, and why it’s important to benchmark employee practices before things become problematic.

“This is a crucial time to be thinking about tricky culture issues,” she said. “As we go through and navigate these choppy waters, how we act right now is going to have some really far-flung consequences.” Among the webinar’s highlights:

Culture in the Age of Social Media

Yancey said the implications of fostering a healthy workplace culture are much higher than they used to be, since the fallout is amplified. Unsatisfied customers and employees have an abundance of online platforms to air their grievances.

“This is going to be our first downturn in the age of social media,” Yancey said. “You combine that with our changing demographics. Folks that are millennials and Gen Z-ers grew up in the age of social media. They’ve been raised to share their experiences.”

This feedback culture will have no problem giving criticism (and praise) about how companies treat them. Yancey offered a vivid example: In late March, hundreds of employees were laid off via a Zoom call with what appeared to be a pre-recorded message at Bird, a popular scooter-rental company. Many employees have taken to social media to recount the event.

“The leadership at Bird handled this in an immature manner,” a manager told dot.LA. “The world deserves to hear about it.”

Such incidents are not isolated, said Yancey. “What that shows me is that we are now moving into the age of what you do being judged in the court of public opinion. It used to be that you could control the narrative, isolate people who might have been upset at you and move them down a courthouse route. That is quickly becoming not relevant anymore. You’re going to be fighting your fight on the web, in real time.”

Getting to Know Your Vulnerabilities 

Earlier this month, Tim Bray, Amazon’s VP of cloud computing, resigned in protest, referring to the recent firing of employees calling for more protections and hazard pay as “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” Yancey said predicting these kinds of culture failures comes down to how well you know your own weaknesses as a company.

“If you knew that not enough people had trust in your leadership and management that you were going to do the right thing, then you could quantify your risk of a backlash,” Yancey says of Amazon’s choice to fire protesting employees.

It’s virtually impossible to keep these issues from bubbling up to the surface, Yancey said, but companies can map things like disrespect and ethics issues back to predictive elements and behaviors that company leaders can look out for before problems arise.

Yancey used a health analogy to make her point: “Adult-onset diabetes, well, you can actually track that back to predictive elements–your blood-sugar level, your BMI, your lifestyle–and monitor it over time and quantify your risk of getting diabetes.”

Not Your Average Pulse Survey

Emtrain utilizes a data-based approach, providing a comprehensive Workplace Culture Report which walks through those predictive elements. Among them: the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups, social intelligence, and unconscious bias. But unlike your everyday “how are we doing?” survey, they also use videos to anchor tough discussions.

On Emtrain’s YouTube channel, the company has hundreds of examples of common workplace scenes and how to navigate complicated workplace issues. In one scenario, an employee has come out as transgender and a coworker is having a hard time adjusting to their new pronouns. What was quickly becoming a toxic work environment for the transgender employee is mediated by several colleagues who use effective communication to resolve the problem.

“Tricky culture issues, when not managed proactively, have the potential to turn into legal consequences,” said Yancey. “That’s typically an area that no one feels comfortable in a pulse survey getting near. It’s kind of kryptonite.”

Along with the Culture Report, Yancey said companies can combat this by considering four essential questions:

1.)  How many people are using a code of ethics to make decisions?

2.)  How many people have trust in their coworkers and leadership?

3.)  How many people are held accountable for their actions?

4.)  How strong are the organization's norms and practices?

Left: Emtrain CEO and founder Janine Yancey in discussion with reporter Emily Nonko (Photo by From Day One)

Getting the Results 

Analyzing 2.5 million employee responses, Emtrain has tracked workplace conflicts back to organizational and people breakdowns. Unbalanced power dynamics, poorly communicated norms, and even differing levels of social intelligence can all play a role in workplace culture issues. The Workplace Culture Diagnostic illuminates these issues and allows employees to weigh in on their own experiences on the job.

With this data, companies receive a report which measures how their company matches up to healthy-rated workplaces. In the survey, employees can add comments, from which a word cloud can be generated to inform companies about specific breakdowns, such as who is treated with more respect in the office (the in-group) and who is not (the out-group).

“What was really helpful and insightful to see, some interesting golden nuggets if you will, was that 64% of employees said that the biggest source of conflict that they experience in their workplaces stems from in-group/out-group dynamics and power-disparity issues. That was pretty eye-opening for many of us,” Yancey said.

Since the initial release of the report in March, Emtrain’s data trove has grown to more than 8 million anonymous employee responses. This is timely research, given how much the working world has fundamentally changed since then, surfacing new challenges.  The more we understand and address our vulnerabilities, Yancey said, the better we can show up for and respect each other, especially in times of crisis.

Thank you to those of you who tuned in live to our webinar. You can catch a replay here or find future webinars here.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.