Employees spend a good chunk of their lives at work. As leaders, we must ensure they get the most out of it. A positive work culture can make all the difference.
Employee turnover has increased since the pandemic, as employees have job-hopped in an effort to take back control of their work and personal lives — often triggered by a desire to escape a toxic culture.
Organisations with positive work cultures are likelier to retain staff because they help people reach their full potential, without fear of judgment, disrespect or pressure to act against their values.
This article will examine the building blocks of workplace culture, what undermines it, and what you can do to improve employee engagement today.
What Is Workplace Culture?
Workplace culture is the set of shared values, beliefs, and norms that shape employees’ behaviour.
It includes everything from dress codes and formal policies to the ‘unwritten rules’ about work practices and interactions between co-workers and customers.
Above: Positive workplace culture is not something that you can create using ping-pong tables.
Every workplace has a culture, but here’s the difference between a positive and negative one:
- A positive company culture brings out the best in people. It aligns employees’ personal goals with organisational goals, while providing support in the form of constructive feedback and values-based leadership. It encourages people to take risks and be creative. Employees are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.
- In a negative work culture, on the other hand, people are neglected. Employee engagement suffers because managers don’t hold people accountable, while employees don’t feel comfortable taking risks or being creative for fear of making mistakes. That leads to stagnation and boredom.
A positive workplace culture can help to improve employee morale and motivation, leading to better performance and productivity while encouraging them to bring their whole selves to work.
Top talent wants to work for companies with cultures that align with their core values.
A 2019 survey of 5,000 people found that 77% of candidates consider a company’s culture before applying to work there, and over half view culture to be more important than salary for their overall satisfaction in a role.
What Factors Influence Company Culture?
A positive culture emerges when you closely manage your operating environment, workforce composition and competitive landscape.
1. Strong Leadership And Management.
Leaders’ ability to communicate company vision, set individual expectations and hold people accountable while resolving everyday problems sets the tone for your workplace culture.
- Open, transparent and accountable leaders make employees feel more comfortable speaking up, offering new ideas or taking risks, and using their initiative.
- Autocratic and dismissive leadership can lead to employees feeling micromanaged and disrespected, meaning they may become disengaged and unhappy.
Analysis of aggregated results from the employee survey tool CultureAmp shows that in Australia, some of the most important drivers of engagement include:
- Organisation’s commitment to excellence.
- Being up to date with the company’s goals.
- Confidence in the company’s leaders.
These results reinforce what good leaders intuitively know – employees want a work environment where they grow and learn, are part of something meaningful, and are led by effective leaders.
2. Strong Company Values.
Company values form the bedrock of a positive work culture. Think of them as the moral scaffolding of your organisation.
Enron had “integrity” listed as one of its values but failed to implement it and committed a few misdemeanours.
They govern what employees will and will not do. Importantly, they include all overt and covert beliefs. For example:
- A company that values teamwork will likely generate policies and practices that support collaboration. As a result, management may prioritise teamwork and foster improved trust and respect.
- A company that values long-term goals will likely promote people internally. This will create a culture where employees feel valued by providing more opportunities for career development.
For a company’s values to positively influence workplace culture, you must embed them into all stages of your HR lifecycle. Your values must continuously guide how you hire, manage and fire people.
Employees become confused and disillusioned when a company’s core values don’t match actions.
If your company claims to value diversity and flexibility but has a policy of not offering parental leave to fathers, employees may view this as hypocrisy and their job satisfaction will suffer.
3. Company Size.
In general, larger companies in metropolitan areas tend to be more formal, with stricter rules and guidelines. Employees are hired to perform roles with clear boundaries.
As a result, there may be less room for creativity and individual expression.
However, larger companies tend to have more resources available for perks and career development. (e.g., top talent can expect access to formal mentors and invitations to company retreats).
Life at these companies feels less bureaucratic. However, formal mentoring opportunities and perks are usually scarce (or are available on an ad-hoc basis).
If the company succeeds at scaling its operations, employees will get promoted quickly – often into roles that force them to learn on the fly.
Some employees will find this environment excessively uncomfortable and chaotic, while others will thrive. As a leader, you must remember that not every employee is suited to a fast-paced environment.
Preserve a positive workplace culture by choosing your team members accordingly.
4. Company’s Industry.
Companies that operate in highly competitive, fast-paced, or tightly regulated industries might have more intense and rigid work environments, while others will have a more consultative, casual and experimental atmosphere.
For instance, the hospitality industry constantly changes, and remaining viable requires constant adaptation to new trends and customer demands.
- In a toxic culture, these industry conditions might result in a pattern of overwork and under-appreciation.
- In a positive work culture, staff might be supported through careful shift planning and fun rewards programs that inspire people to meet customer service targets.
What Are The Signs Of A Positive Workplace Culture?
Positive culture is NOT measured by the presence of ping-pong tables or the amount of meaningless rhetoric about “work-life balance”.
Instead, look for the presence (or absence) of the following:
- Respectful behaviour, including being civil and patient, paying attention and maintaining the dignity of others. A workplace free from bullying, harassment and aggression.
- Growth mindset, starting with a commitment to performance, clear accountability mechanisms, and a focus on encouraging feedback.
- Cooperation and trust, where competition is friendly rather than cutthroat, decisions are transparent, collaboration and offering help are encouraged, and mistakes are forgiven/learnt from — not used to assign blame.
- Compassion, through recognising that employees are humans with shifting energy and mental health levels who need manageable workloads, opportunities for rest and recovery, and kindness when they’re doing it tough.
- Recognition, including fair compensation, acknowledgment of achievements and expressions of gratitude, time to reflect and celebrate, and learning and growth opportunities.
How To Create A Positive Work Culture.
Some people will need support during this transition, while others will be better off continuing their careers outside your organisation.
1. Create A Sense Of Belonging.
I’m not talking about belonging in the watered-down sense, as it’s commonly used today by proponents of hollow DEI initiatives.
It means living and breathing a common set of goals. It means earning battle scars and stepping outside your comfort zone to become – and remain – a dependable member of the team.
Leaders and managers can only help employees feel a sense of belonging if the organisation is clear on its vision and mission.
If the company doesn’t know why it exists or where it’s headed, how can employees understand whether they belong?
Companies that skip this step fill the void with gimmicks and empty slogans.
- Vision is the reason for the company’s existence. It focuses on your company’s contribution to the world. “Be The Fastest Growing Company In Australia” is not a good vision. “Advance human longevity through the power of machine learning” is.
- Mission is the quantifiable goal that your company will achieve. While the vision centres outwards on your impact on the world, the mission focuses inwards. “Cure diabetes by 2030” and “Drive 1 million autonomous driving kilometres with 0 accidents” are solid examples.
2. Encourage Recognition And Feedback.
Most managers are terrible at giving feedback, and avoid doing it. This is understandable, as feedback is often synonymous with conflict and emotional pain.
Performance-oriented workplaces view feedback very differently.
They reframe feedback as an opportunity for improvement. In this context, not giving feedback to an employee is an act of holding them back from reaching their full potential.
For these managers and their employees, short-term discomfort is an acceptable cost of creating long-term success.
(Related: Employee Recognition Programs That Work).
Use positive language when giving feedback – this will help you maintain a positive workplace culture. For example, instead of saying:
Chastising your employees or pointing out flaws in their work will hurt team morale.
3. Provide Opportunities For Growth.
Do your employees know what success in their role looks like? Are they clear on their development areas for the next 3, 6 and 12 months?
Ensure you communicate these well and provide plenty of support to help your employees get there.
Create stretch goals that target specific employees’ problem areas (make sure you position them as “your biggest opportunities for improvement”).
Make the recognition both private and public, if possible.
While a direct acknowledgement in a one-on-one setting carries a lot of power, a company-wide note on Teams or Slack will also elevate the employee in the eyes of other employees.
Enhance Your Company Culture Now.
Creating a positive workplace culture requires a lot of patience and skill. But the effort is worth it. You’ll have fewer disengaged workers and see higher employee performance.
Following the tips I outlined in this guide, you can create a work environment that values results while fostering personal responsibility and employee wellbeing.