How to improve company culture

company culture-450x350px-2Especially during these times of low unemployment, employers look for every advantage possible to attract and retain top talent. A good company culture provides a much-needed edge. It contributes greatly to employee satisfaction, which leads to better employee retention rates. A positive organizational culture also attracts new hires as job seekers see what you are all about and get excited about joining such a work environment.

But great company culture does not just spring up overnight. It takes time and thought to build a dynamic, genuine workplace culture. And what works for one company does not always work for another. Decorating every inch of your cubicle with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle memorabilia fits in fine with the core value of “create fun and a little weirdness” at Zappos; such an action would stand out like a sore thumb at a bank.

The question then becomes how can an organization build an authentic, strong company culture. The following ideas can assist:

Define your purpose

Employee engagement thrives when people go to work for more than a paycheck. Workers want to know the company’s mission and how they fit into it. It imparts a sense of belonging and making a difference.

Spell out your organization’s core values and purpose. Answer the basic question “Who are we, and how do we do things around here?” Perhaps you’re out to provide the best customer service in your industry and expect all team members to commit to that goal. Maybe you see every day as an opportunity to bring new ideas to the table in the quest to release exciting new products before competitors. Or maybe you promote a family atmosphere in which you listen to all voices, put a premium on well-being, and serve the community.

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Then, operate based on your purpose. Hire people who believe in it. Promote current employees who embody it. Ensure all leaders commit to it and serve as role models.

Foster open and transparent communication

Negative things happen to a work culture when employees are not given clear, timely information. Workers suspect the worst and lose trust in their leaders. They question their own worth to the organization, as in “I must not mean much since nobody informed me.” (This problem has increased significantly with the rise in remote staff.) Individuals make their own interpretation of events and fill in their own details, which ripens the atmosphere for gossip and low morale.

“Maintaining regular, open channels of communication, irrespective of whether there’s a crisis or a significant announcement, crafts an environment where employees feel genuinely valued and involved,” says Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal. “Such transparency is pivotal for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, it fosters trust. Openness about company highs and lows strengthens the bond employees feel with the company’s overarching mission. Secondly, it establishes a culture of openness. When leadership sets a precedent for transparency, it trickles down, empowering employees to voice their ideas or concerns. Furthermore, this openness plays a crucial role in quashing rumors or misinformation, which, left unchecked, can breed unnecessary tension or distractions. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it cultivates loyalty. Being ‘in the loop’ instills a sense of belonging. When team members see themselves as integral pieces in the company’s journey, they are intrinsically more loyal and dedicated to its success.”

Support career growth

Speaking of trust, a good way to build trust is to allow workers to take ownership of their duties. Especially to high-performing talent, micromanaging feels intrusive. Instead, delegate based on abilities, provide the tools necessary to proper job performance, and maintain an open door for staff to bring up concerns as they arise. Allow people the space to achieve, and they will gain confidence and pride.

Another area of growth is professional development. Like an encouraging family, a supportive company culture challenges its members to pursue interests and gain skills. It also wants them to build competencies rather than feel the stress of “being thrown in the deep end.” This training enriches not only the individual but the organization as a whole.

“My best piece of advice for improving company culture is to invest in leadership training for middle-level managers,” says ICF-certified career coach Rhia Batchelder of Rebuild with Rhia Coaching & Consulting. “Management styles have a massive impact on employee stress levels, productivity, loyalty, and attrition. Yet, many managers are promoted for being good at the day-to-day ‘of their own job’ — and then expected to know how to lead and motivate a team without additional training.”

Pay attention to inclusivity

The onboarding period is the perfect time to start helping employees feel like part of the gang. Team-building activities such as coworkers sending emails introducing themselves, everyone taking a new hire out to lunch on the first day, and management assigning a “buddy” demonstrate a welcoming culture eager for new employees to feel at ease.

Keep enriching the employee experience through commitment to an atmosphere where all belong. Psychological safety allows workers to be their true selves. Team members should feel comfortable expressing themselves without fear of negative consequences. Individuals can voice concerns, respectfully disagree, make suggestions, ask for help, or try out ideas without worrying that others will laugh, belittle, criticize, or immediately shoot down.

Also, look for ways to convey that the company values, respects, and accepts individual differences. For instance, an organization may offer several floating holidays so that workers can have time off for cultural or religious celebrations of their choosing. Or, perhaps company t-shirts can come in a range of sizes to accommodate various body types. Send the message that you want people just the way they are.

Do not tolerate bad behavior

Gossip, inappropriate jokes and comments, persistent negativity, yelling, putting others down – nobody wants to work in a toxic environment. Managers must stay on the lookout for actions that deflate morale and put a stop to them. Failure to do so makes leadership appear ineffective and uncaring. Lay out conduct expectations in the employee handbook, and follow the stated disciplinary system.

“My best advice for any organization seeking to improve its company culture is to recognize that culture is strongly influenced by the behaviors and actions leaders are willing to accept or confront,” says entrepreneur Jacob Forbis, owner of Board Blazers. “Leaders should actively promote and embody the values, ethics, and behaviors they want to see throughout the organization. This action is vital because it establishes a clear standard for everyone to follow and ensures that unacceptable behavior is addressed promptly. When leaders prioritize a culture of respect, inclusivity, and accountability, it creates a positive ripple effect that permeates the entire organization, fostering a healthier and more productive work environment.”

Create a level playing field

Employees crave fairness. A work environment where some team members seem governed by a different set of rules than others causes discord. Establish an atmosphere where one’s future gets shaped by hard work and talent, not factors such as race, gender, or ability to “suck up” to the boss.

“Nothing kills company culture like favoritism and inconsistency,” says Josh Snead, CEO of Rainwalk Pet Insurance. “When you give privileges to some employees and not others, base promotions on personal connections instead of merit, and treat new hires differently from old hands, you’re absolutely killing your company’s culture. The antidote to this is clear policies, responsibilities, and expectations for everyone, from management on down. This doesn’t mean that you can’t give people different duties and job descriptions, but it does mean that everyone should know exactly where they stand in an organization.”

Care about well-being

company culture-450x350px-3Employees want to know their employer realizes they have a life outside of the office. Improving your work culture often means looking for ways to create a better work-life balance. Actions may include:

  • Offering a flexible work schedule and/or opportunities to telecommute

  • Monitoring workloads to keep them manageable

  • Evaluating team members for signs of burnout and taking action

  • Encouraging the use of vacation days, mental health days, and other forms of time off

  • Limiting interruptions to non-work hours, such as refraining from calling, texting, or emailing on weekends

  • Offering a benefits package that meets the needs of workers and encourages them to take care of their health

Prioritize appreciation and recognition

Workers like to know that those around them see their efforts and value their performance. An effective way to improve company culture is to make a company-wide effort to reward achievements and show employees gratitude.

From formal employee recognition programs to impromptu expressions of thanks, all initiatives help employees feel worth and pride. Possibilities abound, including:

  • Special celebrations for career milestones (work anniversaries, earning a certification, etc.)

  • A surprise bagel spread at a staff meeting “just because”

  • Shout-outs to team members in the company newsletter

  • Written thank you notes to employees who stayed late to complete a task

  • A pizza party after finishing a large project

While it is important for management to regularly make such gestures, getting all team members in on the action yields even more positive results. It strengthens the idea that “around here” we cheer on each other and value what others bring to the workplace. Many companies create Slack channels or bulletin boards where workers can leave messages of praise and thanks. Some create a fund co-workers can tap to reward a colleague who has gone above and beyond. Multiple outlets and people participating on a consistent basis solidifies the notion of being a culture of appreciation.

Gather input and assess

Lastly, remember that a strong corporate culture results when people feel invested. Management can try to guide work culture in a certain direction, but dictating or “forcing fun” is not likely to produce true, long-lasting results.

“If you want to improve your company’s culture, you need to be encouraging grassroots, authentic community and collaboration,” says Ann Martin, director of operations at CreditDonkey. “Nothing shuts down company culture faster than imposed activities and awkward social interactions that put people on the spot. Our approach to company culture is to create space for it and to give our employees the tools to enact it. We have a set budget for social activities, as well as a set number of paid hours set aside each year. We put those resources in the hands of our employees, and they do the rest.”

Similarly, regularly ask for employee feedback on company culture. Respondents will tell you what they see as your strong points and where the organizational culture needs improvement.

“If you want to improve your culture in today’s post-COVID pandemic workplace you should focus on rebuilding your culture from the bottom up,” says David Lewis, CEO of the human resources consulting practice OperationsInc. “By that I mean that most firms are top-down cultures, dictated by the C-level. We advocate that you talk to your employees, perhaps via survey or ideally face to face. You ask them what they would like to see in your workplace. The results should show THEIR input being heard along with what the C-level may also want. Cultures that show input from both sides succeed. Those who only show from a top-down approach often are the ones more likely to fail.”