Unseen Barriers: Why Cross-Functional Community is Key to Employee Retention

Even before the work from home versus return to office debate began, companies struggled to build a strong company culture. Silicon Valley tackled the issue with nap pods, snack bars, and open doors pet policies, while East Coast offices chimed in with comped dinners and the all-too-common “office happy hour” to bring the team together.

Although it’s true that a healthy company culture contributes to employee retention, it’s never been about the amount of time people spend together (nor the “perks” to incentivize longer hours). Unsurprisingly, there is zero correlation between the hours an employee clocks in the physical presence of her coworkers and her willingness to stay with the company long-term.

Meaning: whether your organization chooses to operate fully remotely or not is somewhat irrelevant. What does impact attrition rates is the quality of community (i.e., actual culture) to which an employee feels connected, which can evolve regardless of a return to office policy. So, what improves an employee’s sense of community, if all-hands meetings aren’t doing the trick?

Building Company Culture (Remotely, or Otherwise)

The key to employee retention is simple, but only if employers stop looking at attrition as an operational equation to solve, instead of a consequence of mere sociology.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies explains community as “an organic, natural kind of social group whose members are bound together by a sense of belonging created out of everyday contacts covering the whole range of human activities.”

It might seem like an obvious definition; it’s no secret that when people feel bound to a community, they develop an associated sense of allegiance to those with whom they share those boundaries. But where organizations err is assuming that by painting the walls (metaphorically) by which their employees are held, they will evolve to feel more satisfied with and allegiant to their box. Whereas the real focal point for building company culture lies in the building blocks of human to human interactions, and the natural bonds that accrue when these interactions are supported under a set of commonly held values.

Put simply: business development leaders mistakenly define two different communities for each individual (the department and the company) instead of one fluid ecosystem where humans are allowed to learn, explore, and forge unique bonds that diversify their perspective of their surroundings and the role that they play toward achieving the collective mission.

How this plays out in real time is a siphoning of employee development resources (ranging in purpose from “team bonding” to skills trainings) based on singularly held roles, instead of full-scale initiatives to encourage development as a collectively held experience.

These are the unseen barriers that limit employers from building a strong company culture and contribute to attrition: not physical distance between contributors (working remotely, globally, or otherwise), but a budget-fueled, inert divisiveness in how employees are defined and encouraged to grow.

What Do All Humans Have in Common?

The first step to actualizing a sense of community across functions (and the core key to employee retention) is to define and support a unifying value set that can be shared agnostic of the vertical or rank an employee falls under.

At first instinct, one might jump to fill this void with the “company mission,” or an investor deck-style set of organizational values to which all employees are expected to subscribe. But let’s take the corporate ego out of the equation for a minute, and brace for some harsh truth…

Despite what employees may say in their interviews, not every individual is singularly passionate about making your tech solution ubiquitous, or exceeding quarterly revenue targets. Achieving these things may reflect positively on individuals’ personal career goals, but they cannot be assumed as “unifying” by any other means than employment.

This is a classic example of what a dichotomized conception of company culture looks like: defining values from the top-down without critical consideration of bottom-up motivations.

Hence, before strategizing what might motivate the development of an organic community, zooming into the individual psyche is important. 

Of the very few ground truths that naturally unify people, it can be reasonably asserted that every human desires to learn, grow, and succeed. It is also true that within the corporate ecosystem, growing and succeeding cannot be fully actualized without forming relationships with others. And all that said, the lens by which each human wants to learn, grow, and succeed is not static; it changes all the time as we discover new strengths and passions about ourselves.

This constant evolution is actually a huge service to an organization, as innovation and collaboration are most easily achieved when people are not held captive to investigating a singular end. (Or, in other words, are not assumed to be singularly interested in the immediate deliverables associated with their roles.)

From a business development perspective, this means two things…. 1. The Learning and Development leg of the company is deserving of much more consideration in terms of revenue driving and retention efforts, and 2. The allocation of the L&D budget isn’t nearly as effective when parsed out toward things that only serve specific, static skills improvements or department-contained “team bonding,” instead of the fluid (role and rank agnostic) development of individuals and their relationships.

And the opposite is also true… When learning, exploration, and relationship building are  not supported as an integral part of the company culture, employees will seek external solutions to satiate their curiosity. I.e., they will quit in pursuit of new surroundings and opportunities.

Bottom line: there is no fool-proof means to establish community at a company except to support learning – equally and collectively across ranks – as a common asset and value to each individual’s success.

Cohort-Based Learning vs. The Other Option

But even if L&D is valued for its worth on the company budget, misspent funds toward the wrong kind of learning initiatives (either via lack of scalability, inequitable consequences, or sheer ineffectiveness) can easily pivot business leaders in the wrong direction, backsliding on retention efforts.

Instead of spending valuable time and budget real estate on niche development courses with egregious drop-out rates (namely: MOOCs and pre-recorded training courses) that only reinforce isolated career progression, it behooves leadership to instead capitalize on learning opportunities where people are encouraged to share new experiences and perspectives with their peers – ideally, cross-functionally.

Cohort-based learning achieves this end. When deployed at scale, it is not only the most effective means of delivering information, but it also positively contributes to the much larger conundrum of building company culture. If centered around scalable topics – like leadership development, stakeholder alignment, or other skills that benefit the majority of the workforce – it opens the door even wider for ROI.

Of course, the issue organizations face when investing in any learning and development initiative remains: how to sustain an ROI, long after the event or course concludes? 

The corporate lifecycle moves swiftly. The majority of what is taught in a standard learning environment is forgotten after only a single day spent away from the material, and the same losses can be assumed for any cross-functional bonds that employees may form while going through the experience together. It’s easy to share a few good conversations with unfamiliar colleagues one day, submit a “high satisfaction” rating to a post-course survey the next, then revert back to “business as usual” not long after…which brings us back to the definition of community.

In order to sustain a community (and build a lasting, authentic company culture), cross-functional exchange cannot stop at the close of the learning module. Learning, personal growth, and cross-vertical networking have to become an integrated, supported part of the employee experience to cross the threshold from “a nice experience” to “a long-term key to retention.”

Internal Networking Doesn’t Come Naturally… Without Help

At this point, eyes might be rolling at the thought of continuous learning and development initiatives. It implies consumption of far more cash and time than anyone can afford to cough up in the rush of an already strained work week.

But this is where L&D requires a little reimagining. To ask all employees to engage in personal development courses year-round would indeed be an unrealistic ask, and in fact, could easily backfire in the face of increasing scrutiny over “hustle culture.” And without the organized experience of cohort-based learning, networking outside of one’s immediate team is – for most – a labor at the bottom of their to-do list, even despite the gains it would inevitably return for their career growth (and for building company culture at large).

The void left to fill is an optimized, turnkey solution that encourages this process of exchange naturally (with minimal lift), organized from the top-down with self-motivated, bottom-up buy-in. And while that may also sound like a lofty ask, the good news is that it exists. 

The Forem’s platform, Networking and Nudge Engines, Mentor Hub, and cohort-based curriculum combine to facilitate year-round, cross-functional engagement, scalable to 100% of the enterprise.

With the fundamentals of community in mind (and the key role it plays in employee retention), the “Level Up” experience begins with a unifying cohort-based learning program – facilitated live and interactive once per week for six weeks – centered on the one value both the organization and the individual can equally benefit from, regardless of industry, vertical, role, or rank: career growth and internal mobility.

To ensure cross-functional networking (i.e., authentic relationship-building) remains a priority in tandem with each individual’s personal development, we automate a rotating roster of networking suggestions from within the organization (or beyond, if you opt to integrate with The Forem’s broader community) to each participant post-cohort, along with weekly nudges that reinforce the basics of the curriculum and encourage practical application amongst peers.

Bonus: with our technology as a backbone and our curriculum as a blueprint, the content and facilitation is fully customizable to meet the unique needs of each company, ensuring the broadest possible reach across the organization to achieve a highly-functional, collaborative, and inclusive community.

For a demo of The Forem’s tech and curriculum, talk to our team and learn more about our neuroscience-backed key to employee retention.