While so much has changed about the world and how we live over the past two years, the essential elements of working have not, according to Margo Downs, consultant and former chief people officer of Stitch Fix and Lululemon. People still have the same reasons for wanting to work with certain organizations and not with others, Downs said during her education session “Building Culture in a World of Disruption,” moderated by Rachel Flint of Hubbell Homes, at the 2022 International Builders' Show.

“It comes down to the basics, and I don’t think they ever change,” Downs said of what employees are looking for in employers. “I wonder if people who are now leaving jobs or not wanting to join companies, if it’s because they were already thinking about it and it doesn’t have all that much to do with the pandemic. The pandemic put a magnifying glass on what was working right for companies and what was not working right for companies.”

Downs said employees have been empowered more during the past two years and have a greater sense of “transparency” and “control” over their destiny. As a result of a more empowered workforce and more job openings than positions to fill, companies have to be more intentional about their culture and creating a place that employees want to grow with. Downs said a company’s culture is its identity, and as much a beacon for attracting the right people as repelling the wrong people.

“Culture is who you are. When you think about culture, you need to think about who you are and what you stand for and what you don’t stand for,” Downs said. “Culture is the ‘what’ of the company, it’s the identity you’re creating. It is really generated by the people in the company.”

Companies should keep culture in mind when engaging in the hiring process to make sure the right employees are being brought in. Making the wrong hire can be costly to the company’s bottom line, morale, and overall culture. To avoid making mistakes in the hiring process, Downs said companies should translate the values that are important to them into behaviors that can be identified in the interview process.

“If you have values, then you can really start to describe what that [looks like],” Downs said. “The values can really translate the culture. Once you have the values, find interview questions that get to the values. Those are things that start to indicate to you where that person is at and if there is an alignment.”

While creating a welcoming culture is important, Downs said creating an environment of accountability is just as important within the organization.

“If you don’t have culture and you don’t have values of how people are going to work, I guarantee you are going to have challenges,” Downs said. “If you have a framework, enforce it. I think culture really provides the foundation for you to be rigorous and to stand for what you’re standing for.”

In addition to a strong culture, Downs said companies need to focus on inclusivity in order to retain their current workforce. Employees should feel comfortable bringing their “whole person” to work and feel they will be treated fairly regardless of their background.

“I think we can be with people and be compassionate to understand where they’re coming from and be kind while still being rigorous and still give feedback,” Downs said. “We can still hold people to our standards that we agreed to in our values."

Culture and inclusivity are nothing without the proper leadership to focus on it within an organization, according to Downs. Within an organization, multiple employees can take on a “leadership” role without being managers or owners.

“I ascribe to the idea that everyone is a leader. Leadership isn’t a title; you don’t have to be ‘the big boss’ to be a leader. You can really lead in so many ways,” Downs said. “A good quality of a leader is taking care of yourself. There is no leadership that can happen if you’re actually fragmented and preoccupied and worried.”