Whoever coined the phrase “the two are like oil and water” captured well how many feel about Family and Corporations. Many have long believed that the two just don’t mix naturally. That’s exactly how it felt at the beginning of our transformational journey in the Americas region a few years ago. I was confronted by veteran colleagues telling me they want the Webasto Family back again. I heard this quite often.

But what is it they wanted? What does a Corporate Family feel like and why do they want this at work? Isn’t this too much? Shouldn’t we keep work and our private lives separate? Webasto Roof Systems Americas went through a transformation with issues on the hardware (financial and operational) as well as software (organization and culture) sides of the organization. To fix the hardware side, we had multiple tools to choose from, but what to do on the software side? For us, the key remedy was to listen to our colleagues.

Our path toward a Corporate Family

Exploring the wishes of our colleagues has brought new insights about the bonds, relationships and security that a family can provide. But why is it that the corporate world should even think about taking on expectations and requirements which come with a family? What we’ve learned is that people do expect this more and more also at work.

If we want to capture the hearts and minds of our colleagues, then living family values is part of the deal. We have only begun to grapple with the implications and opportunities inherent in our effort to embrace the idea of creating a corporate family. We were and still are faced with the traditional approach in business education and how “leaders” are trained; e.g. to consider colleagues as the so called “factors of production” and not as family members. Keep not only your real families but any notion of a “work family” out of the workplace, executives and managers are urged. The problem with this approach is that it is being increasingly obviated by how society might have changed.

Like Bill George, Professor at Harvard Business School, would describe it, you have to be authentic and vulnerable to touch the hearts of your colleagues. If an organization creates that kind of environment, where authenticity and vulnerability are even encouraged, this will make the difference between a good and great leader.

But it is not that easy. We are finding that the notion of a corporate family can mean different things to different colleagues. For example, as a long-established company, Webasto Roof Systems has a truly diverse workforce that, among other things, is highly multi-generational.

So we’ve been exploring how the corporate family we want to build might meet the different needs of a Millennial, a member of Generation X, a Baby Boomer — and how each of those groups might experience our culture differently.

How can we create a workplace that is embraced as a corporate family by the eager new Millennial, succeeding Generation X as well as by the soon-to-retire older Boomer who still loves to come to the plant or the office each day?

Yes, it’s a bit like dealing with the varying needs and expectations of a multi-generational real family — for myself and my wife for example, we couldn’t find an affordable apartment in Munich Germany directly after finishing college. I was working part-time for a consulting firm and at the same time on my PhD and my wife started her own business. Money was short, so we moved in with my in-laws until we found a place of our own. Then my grandma had to undergo an emergency hip surgery where she needed support from the family as well. During these couple of months, we experienced a total mix of varying needs and how a family stands together.

Image courtesy of Jopwell

If Families are working well, then they provide physical safety, economic security and relational stability for members, promoting happiness and maturity, and even a longer life. They provide a framework and a set of common expectations for relationships between the sexes and between parents and offspring. They ensure a common financial and legal entity to represent each individual. Family members are in a lot of cases proud to belong to or at least, they are relying on the support they provide, even if this fact is rarely spoken or shared/celebrated.

Is Belonging the start of a Corporate Family?

Families have always represented a certain important kind of tribal identity and this is what a Corporate Family can create.

The modern corporation also exists for much the same reason — enlisting and harnessing a “tribe” of people for the achievement of common purposes. Traditionally, these purposes have focused on financial growth and prosperity necessary for perpetuating the enterprise, enriching owners and shareholders, providing employment security, and creating career and professional satisfaction.

We have experienced that colleagues and applicants are turning to us in different ways than before, depending on companies both to help strengthen individuals’ relationships with their real families (e.g. providing financial stability and work life balance) as well as to create a distinct and inviting “work family” to complement the real one.

I was surprised at who was asking for this — not the colleague with a dysfunctional family at home — as I first had stereotyped it. The ones with great family bonds at home expecting something similar at work, or in the words of one of our colleagues “There’s no reason I can’t be part of as many as two great families”. The majority of our colleagues seem to feel they can and openly demand it. Maybe some watched The Office and formed an ideal of the corporate family from watching the long-running sitcom.

And while they may not be able to replicate the group-hug sort of workplace in The Office, employers can go much further than they might believe in creating a true corporate family. A corporate family can’t literally replace a real family, nor entirely compensate for what colleagues might be lacking in their homes. But companies can come alongside and provide an important arena — maybe the most important arena — for colleagues as they search for structure, purpose and fulfillment together with a belonging in their lives. In this way, it is indeed possible for companies to create a substantial and meaningful corporate family that is welcomingly integrated with its colleagues’ real families in a holistic approach that can help make them happier at home and in their jobs.

But how to create a Corporate Family?

Here are five needs that traditionally have been met by the home family but that increasingly can be complimented by companies with their own models of a corporate family:

Caring: Companies and their leaders can demonstrate true and authentic concern for their colleagues in a holistic sense: not just whether they’re doing their jobs per se and meeting targets, but also whether they’re advancing in their career goals, feeling fulfilled as colleagues and enjoying the relationships they’re forming with the company and their co-workers.

For some colleagues, the work family is their primary family support system, especially when it comes to dealing with difficult personal situations in the home environment. People need to have others that they can rely on to receive empathy without judgment. Often the work family is the best source for this empathy and understanding.

Another crucial component of caring is simply letting workers know that their work and professional development matters.

Companies that are successful in this regard also emphasize professional-development programs that create a path and an expectation for colleagues to stay for a long time.

External recognition is a crucial factor in affirming to colleagues that, in fact, their work matters enough to be praised. For example, some of our colleagues have designed and rolled out a recognition concept, “Shout Out”, in which colleagues summarize the acknowledgement of another one. This is even going so far that colleagues are enthusiastic to do this very publicly at our all-employee company meetings.

Beside the encouraging notion of a Corporate Family, caring plays a real role in creating one. You have to walk the talk.

Creating a purpose: We all want to know not only that we matter as individuals but also that the various societal structures to which we belong — our country, our faith, our family, our workplace — matter as well. In that regard, companies should strive to create the kind of authentic purpose that more and more colleagues crave. This will be more than just “brand’ yourself or attach your logo on something.

If you read current publications on how to create a common purpose or one direction, you might find the notion that a company has a purpose beyond itself, through volunteering events and other community initiatives where colleagues can exercise and enhance their sense of being a corporate family through fulfilling some altruistic aim.

But to be honest and realistic it is not the expectation to focus everything on corporate social responsibility campaigns focused on the outside if the inside of the organization is starving. Giving purpose is a major responsibility of the corporate vision. If you are able to define a broader goal, you will be able to engage the organization beyond financial KPIs and it will affect the financials. From my experience, engaged and thriving colleagues will reduce frustration, which will eventually affect the bottom line positively.

Nurturing: This is a difficult challenge for corporations. Just like biological families, companies more and more have been outsourcing their functions, which operates against the notion of training its own colleagues more fully and with real live issues. At Webasto we have created a 100+ training opportunities of which at least 75% are instructed by internal colleagues. At Webasto, the “train the trainer” concept has been successful and colleagues feel empowered when they can share their own knowledge in order to teach their colleagues new skills. This strategy has paid off. Our internal trainings are much better rated than the external courses. Now you might think that we have very poor outside vendors, but these are very reputable companies performing these trainings. For both the company and its colleagues, the difference is the authentic approach and the simple feedback we get from our colleagues about how free they feel to share their experiences and create relationships that “break down walls”.

The best rated internal training is our communication skills training on listening. Hundreds of colleagues have taken the listening course and often describe it as “life-changing”, not just at work, but in improving their behavior. Acknowledging a behavior change can open the eyes for new opportunities, reduce frustration in the organization and lead colleagues to personal development that will benefit the organization in the long-run.

Providing socialization: The workplace has become the true melting pot of America, outstripping institutions such as neighborhoods, community groups and churches and synagogues. Corporations that want to create a true corporate family must step up to the crucial duty — and opportunity — to provide socialization for its colleagues, which lubricates the interaction they already have with one another and their leaders.

One important but often overlooked way to do this is to establish rituals as a part of the corporate family. Just as some of the most important formative events for real families like holiday festivities, birthday celebrations, shared summer vacations and so on, effective corporate families can provide a structure of “rituals” as well.

Our lessons learned: Be courageously optimistic and thoughtful

It’s important not to create cheesy moments or force people to participate. At Webasto Roof Systems we have based corporate activities and events touching the lives of so many in our organization on an opt-in basis only. We need the hungry to support and change the behavior and not the skeptics at the beginning. Every one of us needs time to change and is perhaps in a different stage of change.

Whatever it is, it has to be:

  • Consistent, a standing agenda point on the corporate calendar
  • Awareness of what is going to happen
  • Allow time for personal interaction
  • Allow time for sharing
  • Start communication honestly — say what you can and if you can’t say it as it is…then be honest about it, your colleagues are not dumb!
  • And prevent favoritism — what you do at one site should be done at all other sites in the organization.

I wish you luck as you build your own corporate family, urge you to stay authentic and keep pushing.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on February 14, 2017.

Originally published at medium.com