If you haven’t been totally under a rock for the last few years (and we could hardly blame you; it feels a little like all of us are coming out from under a rock right now), you’ve surely noticed that our collective conversation around “what makes a good workplace” has expanded. When candidates and employees are assessing a job and company and deciding how they feel about working there, they’re looking beyond concrete measures of value like salaries and benefits — now, there’s a serious vibe check happening too. Work culture doesn’t just matter — at this point, it’s a key priority when it comes to cultivating the kind of company that people love to work for.
The recent emphasis on work culture makes total sense. It’s something that impacts every employee, from executives to freelancers. And it’s the kind of thing that when it’s right, you know it’s right, but when it’s off, it can be surprisingly tricky to correct. So what makes a work culture? Can you engineer a good vibe? Actually, yes. And we’ll show you how.
OK, first things first: What is work culture?
We would never make you ask basic questions! We’ll just tell you the answer and then you can pretend you always knew! But this one is a big deal. Before you start changing things in an attempt to adjust your organization’s culture, it’s important to understand what work culture is and what components make it up.
Work culture is a bit vague and not entirely simple to define. It’s made up of the repeated patterns of behavior that can become invisible and unconscious after time. It’s based on the beliefs, customs and rules, whether explicit or not, that are developed and accepted within an organization. Culture can affect how employees are treated, how an organization conducts business, and how information flows throughout an organization. It’s basically how people feel in their experience working with the organization and all the little things that shape that experience.
You’re probably starting to see how culture is so massively important — and so hard to pin down and refine precisely.
Let’s talk about what’s in it for employers
Let’s say you’re either a senior leader in your organization or part of the team that’s tasked with executing the best possible workplace experience for employees — either way, you probably feel the pressure in a big way to create and uphold an amazing work culture. But you also can’t justify investing time and resources into anything that doesn’t have tangible net benefits for the company’s bottom line. Fair enough! Let’s talk about where work culture moves the needle in ways that more than merit investment.
For starters, employee retention, engagement, and hiring. If you want to be an organization that people want to work for, work culture matters. If you want to retain existing employees, work culture matters. It can also lead to improved performance, productivity and profits. Quite simply, a favorable culture makes the best employees want to work for you, makes people more engaged and productive at work, and leads to better employee retention, and all the benefits that come with that.
Work culture also serves the important function of socializing and encoding the values and tone that you, as organizational leaders, would want to govern all the little moments in the workplace that you can’t be there for. It helps employees decide how they’ll respond to situations when their superiors aren’t around, serving as a guide for discretionary behavior. As such, companies with a strong organizational culture can place greater trust in their employees and allow them to operate autonomously, making employees more inclined to develop innovative ways to improve their organization. Powerful stuff all around.
It’s safe to say that having a strong organizational culture is a victory for employers and employees alike. By taking the time to create a work environment that gives employees a sense of purpose and the means to be engaged, an organization can begin to define its culture, and reap the benefits. So let’s talk about how to actually do that work.
How to create a strong work culture
1. Assess Current Culture & Values
As with most things, you can’t know which direction to go without first knowing where you are and where you want to end up. When it comes to work culture, it’s important to preface any major changes by assessing your current structure. Begin by recognizing that every organization has its own unique thing going on, and strive to identify all of the positive and negative elements of your existing culture. For example, your culture might be hyper-competitive, which might generate incredible sales, but also create unhealthy stress levels and fractured, competitive relationships among employees. Other negative culture warning signs to look out for include poor internal communication, office gossip, and low employee engagement.
The goal, of course, will be to understand how to retain the upsides of your work culture while minimizing the downsides. Easier said than done, but still totally doable.
Consider some of these strategies for assessing the state of your current organizational culture:
- Be mindful of the link between an organization’s culture and its mission and vision. Your organization’s documented values are guidelines for its culture. Read up and ensure that these documents are current and guide culture in the right direction.
- Observe the day-to-day interactions between employees. Do you notice a culture that helps employees reach their full potential or one where they struggle to be heard?
- Review current practices for recruiting, promoting, performance management, and other organizational procedures. What kinds of cultural expectations do they set?
- Find out what areas your organization is already excelling in by conducting employee interviews. Try asking employees why they’d recommend their workplace to a friend and one thing they’d change about it.
- Take a close look at your organization’s turnover and retirement rates. A low turnover rate can indicate a high-engagement culture!
- Consider utilizing a research-validated cultural assessment tool, which can measure and analyze your current culture based on surveys. These solutions can simplify the process by compiling responses into a profile detailing common behavioral norms in your organization.
Once you’ve identified what makes up your existing culture, take the time to decide what your organizational culture should look like. The culture you shape should ultimately support your organization’s goals and future. Once you’ve determined the elements of your culture that require intervention, it’s time to map out what your ideal work culture would look like.
2. Map Out Your Dream Work Environment
After you’ve narrowed down the cultural elements that need a boost, conduct research into how you can improve them. Look into what top companies have done and consider how their methods might translate over to your organization. Keep in mind that despite their frequent association, great culture isn’t dependent upon pricey perks, like frequent company outings or catered meals. Instead, strive to create an environment where everyone’s input is celebrated and day-to-day interactions are positive.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Encourage inter-departmental socializing to strengthen bonds between team members. Hootsuite implemented a random coffee program, in which employees from different departments were paired to spend a coffee break together. This helps employees feel more incorporated in their workplace, in turn increasing their loyalty. It also opens up the possibility of collaboration between departments!
- Utilize an inter-office messaging system to foster a culture of open communication. Slack recommends using their messaging system to improve culture by allowing employees to ask company executives questions in a designated chat channel. A tool like this can also be used to foster positive interactions between employees by providing a platform to publicly recognize a job well done!
- Emulate your values within your own HR department! Managing company policies and federal or state guidelines, such as the FMLA, with a human touch can have a positive effect on organizational culture. Consider utilizing a leave management solution to ensure that your application of such pieces of legislation is consistent and timely, especially during sensitive times, when it can become necessary. A solution also helps optimize efficiency, giving you the time to make your leave process more aligned with cultural values.
3. Collaborate With Stakeholders
While HR often sparks the movement, work culture changes must be embraced by leaders in order to be effective, as they set the tone for the rest of the organization by leading by example. Offering your assistance to leadership, who are often too tied up to conduct investigations themselves, will help your push for cultural change. Be prepared to communicate organizational culture’s bottom-line value and impact on success to really drive home the importance of your movement!
Once you have their buy-in, encourage leaders to take ownership by collaborating on next steps. You can ease this process by proposing clear priorities and solutions based on your research. You’ll also want to ensure you’re prepared to equip leaders with strategies to positively influence culture themselves, in case they’re unsure of how they can help.
4. Roll Out Changes
The success of organization-wide change depends upon the agreement that change is necessary across all departments and positions. Ease this transformation by distributing documentation that details the benefits, from an employee perspective. Communicating changes across the board in a transparent and consistent manner will help to establish the relevance of cultural change.
Involve employees throughout your roll-out process to reduce resistance. Consider holding meetings to openly discuss changes and address any questions. These could be company-wide or departmental, depending on the size and needs of your organization. You can provide assistance throughout this process by bridging the gap between employees and leadership, to ensure a smooth transition.
5. Monitor Effectiveness
Following the initial roll out process, you’ll need to continually monitor your organization’s culture to ensure that changes are effective. Fortunately, there are a number of tools and strategies available for assessing the changes made to your organizational culture:
- If you’ve implemented any new programs or initiatives, monitor their uptake and lend a hand to any employees who may not understand how to utilize or benefit from them.
- Keep a close eye on your rate of turnover. A strong organizational culture supports employee engagement and provides employees with a sense of purpose, giving them a reason to stick around!
- Continue to conduct employee surveys and interviews and assess how and if their answers change. Be sure to address the feedback you receive!
- Look for some of the common signs of cultural shift, including improved company reputation, greater quality of work, and increased productivity.
Throughout the process, bear in mind that cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. Be open to making adjustments to your strategy over time, as you discover what works best for your organization.
Remember, putting a strong culture in place provides the framework for great performance to follow, but it’s not going to happen all at once. If you go into the process with a sense of curiosity and flexibility — and brace yourself for a few false starts and missteps — you’ll realize that’s half the battle. In the end, the best work cultures — the ones that employees deeply love working for — are the ones where the environment and policies that frame everyone’s experience working there are constantly evolving, always up for discussion, and the ongoing product of conversations where employees are not only considered, but actively have buy-in. It’s not about landing on all the most perfect policies and practices out of the gate, although surely you will nail some things and that will feel amazing. It’s about how much employees feel heard, considered, and supported. If you’re making an effort, you’re already halfway there.