Why Workplace Research Provides Rich Ethnographic Experience

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Bring up the word “ethnography” at your next cocktail party (even if it’s on Zoom!), and see what happens. You’ll be lucky if even one person knows what you’re talking about unless it’s a roomful of market researchers.

Mind if we get nerdy on you for a second? One of the most fascinating aspects of being an anthropologist is that we get to explore human behavior holistically. It’s a gratifying moment when you finally see how multiple facets – culture, space, language, objects, beliefs, behaviors, etc. – work together to create an experience. It’s often complex, but elegant.

Consumer research is often front-and-center for Conifer. Certainly, these moments (anthro-piphanies?) happen when we use ethnographic approaches to studying smart homes, health insurance, or fast food. Yet, throughout our careers some of the most fully realized anthropological work we have done has been through deeply impactful studies on corporate and organizational cultures. There is much to be learned and gained when companies choose to turn the tools of ethnography on themselves. After all, corporate cultures are very real. The values, social interactions, politics, material culture, technologies, and artifacts these cultures support and produce make all the difference to a company’s success – or failure.

It makes perfect sense that companies would want to use the most powerful tools available to help explore their own cultural landscapes in the service of elevating business performance.

Considering the massive changes in the workplace – and in workplace cultures – driven by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, the imperative to understand what makes your workplace tick has become even more critical today. With work cultures radically disrupted, the changes happening to organizational cultures might be even harder to know and see happening with a remote workforce that is still adapting, overcoming new challenges, finding new pain points (and new benefits) in their remote lives everyday. 

Organizational ethnography offers a clear pathway forward, affecting three proven areas near and dear to the hearts of every organization.

1. Employee Engagement

Employee satisfaction, turnover, and commitment have something to do with the work, something to do with pay and a whole lot more to do with culture.

Entire bookshelves can be filled with strategies, anecdotes, measurement tools and frameworks that guide managers in terms of tracking or deepening employee engagement. The trouble is that managers can’t always diagnose issues and implement change because of their positions. Power dynamics often make fully open conversations difficult and sometimes, you simply need an outsider’s perspective to understand the systemic dynamics that make engagement challenging. As ethnographers, we approach research in this space with a sincere desire to make employees feel heard by creating space for listening, observing with objective eyes, and providing opportunities to share ideas for what could be working better. 

In our work on engagement, we focus on three factors:

  • Culture and Values
    How are the company’s culture and values enacted and reflected to its employees? (Pssst! Company values are not about what is written on the website or a banner on a wall; rather, it’s about which behaviors and conversations are encouraged and which are shunned, the internal language specific to the company, how space is designed, and what type of objects are displayed on desks and in common areas).
  • Workflows and Interactions
    Essentially how people get their jobs done. This tells us about how people’s time is structured and which parts of the company are cohesive and which are disconnected. This speaks volumes about how a company sets its employees up for success.
  • Aspirations and the Future
    Here, projective career mapping is an invaluable tool, exploring whether or not people will actually take a given path up the corporate ladder. Exploring the future they can imagine what is required of them, and the possibilities between now and then all inform what they are working for today.
2. Behavior Change

You’ve heard the story before. A company takes the leap to adopt a new technology that will upgrade current systems, realize huge efficiencies, and transform the way they do business. The arduous and expensive changeover is finally complete and it’s time to start reaping benefits. But the results are uninspiring.

We all fall prey to this kind of techno-solutionism in our lives. So many latest apps or gadgets were supposed to be “the key to a better me.” This is because of a critical oversight: technology is just a tool, where a solution requires behaviors, people, perceptions, environment, beliefs, AND technology.

New technologies are an obvious example, but behavior change is challenging for organizations regardless of the goal – whether it’s changing to be more of a sales culture, or creating more of a “can-do” attitude where complacency has crept in.

Our work on behavior change revolves around:

  • Context
    To encourage new behaviors, companies need to examine the context in which they would like them to fit, the collaborations they would like to support, and how they align with existing routines, expectations, and outcomes.
  • Subtext
    Organizational practices are often much more about informal behaviors that have developed organically than they are about the ideal, “employee handbook” way to do things. The observation that is so fundamental to ethnographic methods is designed to identify and unpack these ways of being and doing.

3. Ethics

Ethics is hot. Concerns about AI, technological surveillance, data collection, and the environment are putting it in the spotlight. In addition, the ability to conduct business ethically is having a greater impact on the bottom lines of every company these days.

Not only can businesses run afoul of regulators; conscientious employees and customers are also increasingly likely to stay away from companies that are not in alignment with their values.

Ethics is a combination of values and practice. So just having an ethics pledge and hiring a Chief Ethics Officer is not sufficient.

Our work on ethics revolves around:

  • Formalization and Acknowledgement
    How is ethical operation formalized around people’s work? We also consider how well it is recognized as an important part of how people are expected to do their jobs.
  • Synergies between Values and Ethical Priorities
    To foster ethics, companies must first understand their values AND their ethical priorities, and these must be integrated with workflows.

In short, we approach ethics in deeply ethnographic terms, looking from inside a company culture and how they define right and wrong across a wide range of stakeholders. The way that each company operationalizes ethics depends on what they do, how they do it, whom they do it for, and who might be affected.

Gaining a clear grasp of your company’s organizational dynamics with employee engagement, behavior change, and ethics is the first step forward in effecting meaningful change that will result in elevated business performance. Leadership styles, management during a crisis and more nuanced studies can be made beyond this work, but the foundational understanding is imperative.

What do you need to know about your work culture and tacit dynamics so you can move the company forward?


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