Healthy work cultures are the products of design, not default—and it all starts with human resources.
That was the prevailing message among leading human resources executives on Tuesday participating in the Fortune Leaders Experience Roundtable at the SAP and SuccessFactors’ SuccessConnect conference, held at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.
During a lively discussion moderated by Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf, the executives explored the challenges of spanning generations of employees and embracing technology without losing the human touch. In his remarks, Leaf playfully noted that Fortune was approaching its 90th anniversary. Among attendees, the magazine certainly had competition for longevity: In attendance were executives with experience that spanned decades and employees of legacy corporate giants and relative newcomers alike. Still, members of the audience had many qualities in common—not the least of which was the willingness to embrace change in a competitive marketplace.
The executive roundtable of four dozen was tasked with addressing three challenges that are increasingly common to successful businesses: blending a multi-generational workforce, creating a company culture that nurtures employees as it serves customers, and moving toward the next level of employee relations in what some are calling “Human Experience Management.”
The participants didn’t disappoint. In the end, Leaf reduced their efforts to a working list of hypotheses:
—Values equal culture. Your values are your culture.
—Values not aligned with best practice will fail.
—The employee experience is the customer experience.
—The key to all of it is learning how to listen.
—Companies need tools to do that.
—Encourage creativity to unleash the power of your organization.
—Your mindset drives your skill set.
In a modern employment environment, which could include up to five generations working side by side, appreciating the strengths and weaknesses unique to each isn’t always easy. For example, Baby Boomers may have gone gray and miss their record albums, but they bring irreplaceable professional experience that can prove invaluable in a working environment increasingly influenced by Millennials and younger employees accustomed to the latest technology.
Getting Boomers to communicate effectively, however, can be an HR headache. Appreciating the fact that different generations communicate differently is a start, one executive said. (The roundtable was conducted on a not-for-attribution basis to encourage a free-flow of ideas.) Younger workers, for instance, tend to be more comfortable communicating through their technology.
Newer generations deserve more credit than they sometimes receive when it comes to understanding the workplace dynamic, another executive said. Thoughtful young employees appreciate the importance of experienced leadership, another executive noted—especially when it’s combined with a level of tech savvy.
Neophyte or sage, a third executive said, workers of any age appreciate an employer who takes an interest in their life goals.
In her company, the third executive said, “We say we inspire our clients’ dreams. We are asking our managers to ask their teams what their dreams are. If you know what the dreams of the Millennials are, or any of the five generations, you will get to know them better.”
Closing the gap between management and employee in a competitive environment was a common theme during the roundtable discussion. One executive said she achieved multigenerational success by working to ensure that the traditional corporate bureaucracy and hierarchy weren’t allowed to stifle creative thinkers. Different generations offer different skill sets that can complement each other—with the right leadership, of course. Supporting an innovation subculture, she said, led to improved performance and workplace satisfaction.
One executive observed that Millennials and Gen Z (those born from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s) often come to work with a higher set of expectations than some of their older counterparts. They’re looking for mission-driven, inspirational leaders, the exec said: “They want somebody that can show them the way, even if it’s in very very uncertain times, not knowing where you’re going, but that we can get there together.”
In the end, they’re not so different in youthful passion and exuberance than the preceding generations—just don’t expect them to use last year’s technology to communicate. Or, as one executive observed: “Do we now have the technology that enables the voice of the Millennials to be heard?”
Crafting a company culture that serves its employees transcends the traditional pay increases and perquisites, executives agreed. It’s more about creating human-centered organizations. At their best, companies are much like the communities they serve. With benefits far beyond increased productivity and profit, remembering the human element was essential in best serving employees.
From offering health care to part-time employees, creating a workplace atmosphere that focuses on wellness, providing not only a path to management but also college scholarship opportunities that are good for the whole community, the HR executives provided a litany of powerful statements on the increasing role of corporate culture in society. Referencing Fortune’s colorful nearly 90-year history of covering business, Leaf reminded those present that corporate culture continues to evolve.
“One of the things that’s changed, though, is the understanding of the importance of mission, of social mission, of solving world problems, of business as a platform for change, a platform for fixing what’s broken,” Leaf said. With government at times unresponsive, it’s up to thoughtful companies to stand with their employees.
Serving employees best often means doing the proper due diligence on the front end to recruit talent whose own values reflect the company’s sensibilities. That cultural fit goes a long way to reducing turnover and fostering shared company values.
One HR executive offered a particularly impassioned observation about the importance of placing employees ahead of quarterly profits. “We really view our people as our most valuable asset,” she said, adding that her massive organization “is really grounded in the human experience.”
Referring to employees as “partners” transcends euphemism. It means health care availability for part-timers, the recognition of benefits for LGBTQ workers and domestic partners, and scholarships that open new doors that, granted, might easily lead away from the company.
Embracing the intrinsic importance of the employee in the corporate culture provides an ideal segue for the discussion of what’s next for HR executives as companies continue to evolve. They’re calling it Human Experience Management, and it seeks to establish a greater understanding of relationship between employee and company. What’s clear is the link between engaged employees and customer satisfaction, executives say.
Embracing technology without losing the human touch will remain a challenge, but executives gave a couple examples where it’s paying dividends in the workplace. One executive said his company has begun using role-playing via computer-driven avatars to improve communication between older and younger employees with technology that can measure the effectiveness of the experience.
Another suggestion is a new-generation question-and-answer “chat box” format that has become popular with employees: 2.5 million questions answered in the past 18 months.
“It’s helped our team grow and learn,” the executive said.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Yes, you can find a good job without a college degree
—Why is job hunting (still) so slow?
—How to deliver an apology your colleague will actually want to hear
—3 ways to wow a tech recruiter
—Job applicants with a “comprehensive” LinkedIn profile 71% more likely to get interviews
Plus: Get Fortune’s RaceAhead newsletter for sharp insights on corporate culture and diversity.