Workplace culture: what it is and how to create positive impact in your organization
by Mike Sharkey
With the pandemic forcing organizations to radically change how they work, creating a positive workplace culture has become an urgent priority for businesses everywhere.
A massive shift in workplace culture is underway in the wake of COVID-19. With the move to remote and hybrid working because of the pandemic, 57% of companies say they anticipate significant changes to their culture.1
It’s a chance for organizations to re-evaluate their priorities and build work environments where employees can feel safe, engaged, inspired and productive, whether they’re at home, sometimes in the office, or on the frontline.
What is workplace culture?
It’s important to define what we mean when we talk about workplace culture. But it’s not easy to pin down. Is it a set of values? Behaviors? Attitudes? Or customs and traditions? Well, it turns out it’s all these and more.
Forbes describes workplace culture as, "the environment that surrounds us all the time." The jobs website Indeed says it’s a "collection of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that make up the regular atmosphere in a work environment."
Perhaps the simplest explanation comes from celebrated US management guru Marvin Bower, who describes it as "the way we do things around here."
However we define it, workplace culture can be tricky to measure in any tangible way. It’s how it feels to be at work rather than a set of written rules. Every organization has its personality and atmosphere – and that’s not something easy to engineer.
Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant and writer, said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And in the wake of unprecedented changes to working life, organizations are waking up to the fact that you can have the greatest strategy and the best people in the world, but it doesn't matter if your culture isn't right.
Culture is the very air you breathe. If it's toxic, your organization dies.
Why is workplace culture important?
That’s why a focus on culture is the highest priority for organizations looking to transform how people work - and how they feel about work. Here are some specific reasons it's so important, the areas it can impact, and how you can effect positive changes to your company culture.
Does your organization value mental health to the same degree as physical health? Workplace culture has a significant impact on employees’ wellbeing, and the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled employers to put more thought into keeping workers safe and healthy.
Wellbeing was the top-ranked trend of importance in the 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends study, with 80% of leaders identifying it as important or very important to their organization’s success.
Many organizations have moved to remote working and installed measures to give their people a better work-life balance, including flexible hours based around childcare. This can help staff feel supported and valued.
Employee performance and productivity
Workplace culture influences the way people perform, which, ultimately, can directly impact your bottom line. A happy, supportive workplace energizes people to come to work each day and boosts mood and concentration. Organizations with stronger cultures are generally more successful and have high productivity levels.
In fact, happy workers are 13% more productive than unhappy ones, according to research by Oxford University.
Good communication helps create mutual respect and trust, regardless of individual roles and responsibilities. Workplace cultures where people can’t ask questions, float ideas or easily connect with each other are less transparent and might not get the best from people. But how does that change when you create an open and two-way conversation?
If you can create a more open working environment, people feel empowered to communicate in constructive ways. Meetings and brainstorming sessions become more valuable as organizations hear real opinions - and fresh ideas - from every corner of the business. And ultimately, that’s good for business.
Organizations with a strong culture and brand identity are more likely to attract the right talent. Having a website that clearly defines your core values and objectives makes it easier for job candidates to weigh up whether they’d be a good fit for your business. It’s also your opportunity to convince top talent that your values and your culture are the right ones for them.
Engagement and retention
A positive culture is one that values its people and their contribution to the success of the business. Employees who feel they’re part of a community rather than a cog in a wheel are more likely to stay with an organization. Companies with healthy cultures are 16 times more likely to retain their Generation Z employees. This not only leads to long-term loyalty but also cuts the costs involved in continually having to recruit new talent.
The most successful organizational cultures bring together people from all backgrounds and nurture a sense of team spirit. Even people with very different outlooks and personalities can gel if they have a common purpose to get behind. The highest performing teams are increasingly insisting that diversity of all kinds is critical for success.
As the latest Diversity and Inclusion thinking from McKinsey suggests, the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform their more monocultural peers when it comes to profitability.
A thriving collaborative culture can break down boundaries between teams. On the flip side, a toxic environment can make employees selfish and cultivate a blame culture.
Quality of services
A healthy culture motivates people to strive for the best quality in their work. It’s easier to get the most out of people who feel comfortable at work and are empowered to make decisions. This builds a high-performance culture that strengthens the whole organization and helps to ensure products and services meet the highest standards.
We’ve all seen posts on job boards and social media sites giving companies a hard time. Many of these come from ex-employees. People judge organizations based on their interactions with them, and a negative image can do a lot of damage. Businesses with a strong social conscience who follow ethical working practices and support staff wellbeing tend to attract more business and the best talent.
Research by the CBI shows that 69% of the UK public believe that treating staff well is the most effective way to improve business reputation.
Getting these things right can have a hugely positive effect on business, but a toxic culture has the potential to do just the opposite. Over time, an environment where employees dread going to work and don’t feel their supervisors support them can bring a business to its knees.
Culture and morale are intrinsically linked. Like culture, staff morale isn’t always an easy thing to pin down - it’s a mix of engagement, attitude and mood - but you’ll almost certainly know when it’s low. Creating a positive culture that focuses on wellbeing and Diversity & Inclusion can help build morale by making each member of staff feel heard and valued.
But it’s not just about bolstering individual employees. Positive workplace culture is a vital ingredient in building team morale by enabling teams to feel confident and empowered in the work they do while encouraging individuals to be themselves and voice their valuable opinions.
Understanding workplace culture
Are you ready to take a deeper look at the culture that exists within your organization? Be warned – you might not like what you find.
To make change happen and improve your culture, you first need to see and be honest about what’s happening now. Many organizations have gone through a tough time during the pandemic, and for some, just surviving is a challenge. But with adversity comes a chance for a cultural reset.
More than ever, leaders realize that culture isn’t just about physical stuff like a ping-pong table and snack machine. It’s about connecting people to a common purpose. It’s about connecting them with each other when working remotely or together in the physical workspace.
There are several ways to take the temperature of your current culture climate:
Observe culture in action
You can get a good idea about workplace culture by looking at how people interact and treat each other. Are people respectful and welcoming? Does everybody feel empowered to speak up? How are dissenting ideas tolerated? If you're a manager, what kind of behavior do you role model in the way you talk to people? What norms or expectations do you set?
And although the physical workspace is a factor in facilitating a sense of shared space or collaboration, it’s not the most important. It’s how these elements - the tools people use, the space they work in - combine to build culture. The way people are with each other. What they feel is acceptable (or what they feel they can get away with). Or the behaviors your organization rewards or discourages.
Send out workplace culture surveys
Online surveys can give you useful information about organizational culture and employee engagement. By analyzing employee feedback, you can bridge gaps between the existing culture and the culture you hope to achieve. You can custom design a survey to make sure it’s relevant to your audience, and ask questions like:
- On a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to recommend this organization to friends?
- Do you feel respected by your team and the organization?
- What’s the one thing you’d most like to change about the organization?
- Is the organization dedicated to diversity and inclusiveness?
- Is there a culture of teamwork and cooperation in the organization?
- How long do you plan to stay in the organization?
Gauge emotions with communication tools
Team-based tools are a great way to get instant feedback on a range of topics, from the serious to the more light-hearted aspects of work. Run regular polls to gauge the general mood of your organization in real-time.
You could ask for opinions on current rewards programs or working practices to see how popular they are. A simple click on the equivalent to a thumbs up or thumbs down icon can be all it takes to get a fast response.
How to create culture in the workplace
Building a great workplace culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something that evolves and changes with every interaction with working life. But, to get you started, try focusing on these key things.
It’s crucial to have a set of clear core values that truly reflect the philosophies and beliefs of your organization. Employees need to know about and buy into these, so make sure you are communicating them effectively.
And make your values real. Don't just sit down with a sheet of paper and ask yourself what should be on there. Start by looking at the things your organization actually does. How do you treat employees and customers? How active are you in the community? How diverse is your leadership team? These answers will be indicative of your real values.
If you think there's something missing, add it as an aspiration and plan to change behaviors to work toward it. Likewise, if you find that your company's values aren't what you'd like them to be, decide how you're going to change course.
However you go about it, your values should be reflected in your actions today, or be part of a clear transformation strategy to change your behavior. Otherwise, they're just words on paper and your employees will quickly see through them.
Your identity makes your organization what it is and ensures it stands out from the crowd. It’s important because your identity is how people inside and outside the business perceive you. Maintaining a positive identity is vital if you want to demonstrate your organization’s professionalism and social responsibility.
The way leaders and managers communicate - and how they encourage teamwork and openness - is crucial to creating a positive feeling in the workplace. But it’s often an area that gets overlooked. With 6 in 10 people in one study saying their manager is why they left their organizations, it’s clear that lack of trust is hampering relationships. That’s why leaders should find ways to focus on coaching or developing and empowering their people to do great work rather than micro-managing.
Your people are your greatest asset, and a diverse pool of talent can bring different personalities, beliefs, values, skills and experiences into the mix. That’s something to be celebrated. A company culture where everyone feels comfortable and included will help unleash employees’ full potential at work.
Look beyond race, gender and sexual orientation to nurture each person as an individual. With only 32% of employees feeling like they can be their authentic selves at work and just 44% of employees saying their company’s diversity and inclusion approach feels sincere[SC4], there’s a massive opportunity for organizations to improve.
Workplace norms are rules and traditions that guide how people do things. They’re not usually written down. And they’re often so embedded that people can become unaware of behaviors and actions – even if they’re inappropriate. Because they’ve become ingrained in everyday routines, they help create a feeling of normality. But just because a business has always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s acceptable today. As workplace norms evolve, everyone needs to understand the way they should behave at work.
Company rules, decisions and policies can all shape organizational culture. Recruitment, onboarding, dress codes, recognition programs, training, performance management, wellbeing and work-life balance can all make a difference to the success of your business. In particular, having clear, transparent policies for bullying or harassment shows you take inappropriate behavior seriously.
With the rapid growth of remote working and dispersed workplaces, open communication is critical for productive workplace cultures. People need to be informed. They want to stay in the loop and know what’s going on in their organization, even if it doesn’t affect them directly. They want to access information quickly, collaborate, share ideas and solve problems wherever they are, at any time, from any device.
All teams have interpersonal conflicts from time to time, but a functional work culture will help you resolve issues quickly and professionally.
A working environment should be a place where everyone feels safe, engaged, inspired and productive. Your workplace's physical setting is important because it affects how people do their jobs day in, day out. Lighting, noise levels, temperature and desk layout can all affect mood, whether you’re working in an office, warehouse or home. No one wants to feel uncomfortable while they’re working.
If you’re working for the same organization, you’re all on the same side, right? Not necessarily. A ‘them and us’ situation can often develop between different departments or teams if they don’t communicate effectively.Subcultures within your organization have the potential to disrupt the overall culture. But positive subcultures that complement each other can get everyone working together to achieve the same overall aims and objectives.
What does Workplace Culture mean for hybrid teams? Read The New Rules of Engagement to find out.
How to improve workplace culture
Many employers see workplace culture as something that forms organically. Something that organizations don’t need to define or to shape. But that’s a significant risk as you’ll have no control over how culture develops.
It’s important to understand your current situation and look at the areas where you need to pay closer attention. That way, you can move towards a more positive workplace culture that will benefit everyone.
Culture should be a priority for every manager, regardless of how big your workforce is. Make it your responsibility to help direct, shape and promote a positive work culture and act as a role model for your team.
How to change workplace culture
You and your leaders can take a more active role in improving workplace culture.
- Get involved in the onboarding process, including training and mentoring. New recruits will get a good first impression if they see a collaborative, supportive culture from the top down
- Have a transparent policy for progression and promotion so staff know what they have to do to reach the next level. Use performance reviews and career paths to measure development
- Recognize team members who achieve success and show the positive work habits you want others to emulate. You could introduce a platform for employee recognition, where you and other team members can congratulate people on achievements and positive behavior
- Promote your company values during team meetings and events, so you regularly keep them at the forefront of people’s minds
- Get hiring right. As business magnate Jack Ma says, “You need the right people with you, not the best people”
- Focus on cultural diversity and inclusion by welcoming people from all backgrounds and celebrating their differences. A positive workplace is one where all employees are valued, supported and nurtured
Culture is always a work in progress. It’s crucial to plan for change and have the agility to adapt to unexpected events. It’s also essential to consider how different people respond to change and how to keep your workforce engaged. Building a great employee experience and a rich, vibrant company culture is vital as we all continue navigating through uncertain times.
What does Workplace Culture mean for hybrid teams? Read The New Rules of Engagement to find out.