It’s touted across job postings. It is celebrated at work events. It’s often said it’s the reason for a company’s success. Or its failure, depending on the circumstance.
Company culture, workplace culture, corporate ethos — whatever you call it, this concept has become inseparable with contemporary work. Perhaps because of this, defining what it actually is can sometimes be difficult. And that can be a problem when you are looking for tangible ways to improve it.
But knowing how to create and maintain a strong company culture is critical to a company’s long-term success. That’s why it’s worth taking a closer look at what company culture actually means today, as well as what you can do now to make yours better.
What is company culture?
Company culture is the shared set of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and values that make up a workplace. It is how a company represents itself, both externally to its customers and internally to its own employees. It is how and often why you do what you do.
You can see company culture in many aspects of a business, such as how an organization talks about itself, the way teams and managers delegate work, its communication style (or lack thereof), and especially how engaged and committed individual employees are.
Corporate culture is both what the company promotes from the top down and what the employees themselves create from the bottom up. For example, the way that workers talk and interact with each other in the office contributes to their company’s culture just as much as the values their managers paint on the wall. Both can be said to affect the other, which can make a company’s culture something that is constantly changing and evolving — and why it is often so hard to define.
What does a good company culture look like?
A good company culture is whatever helps individual employees do their best work. While the details of this culture may look different from organization to organization, it can generally be defined as one that is positive, supportive, and productive. Some key characteristics include:
Employees should feel comfortable communicating with their managers and colleagues. They should also be able to stay up to date on the company's goals, plans, and progress.
Workers should be willing and able to work together to achieve common goals. They should also be open to helping each other out whenever needed.
Regardless of their position or title, employees should treat each other with respect. This means listening to and considering every person’s ideas.
Employees should feel like they are treated fairly, both in terms of their work and their compensation. They should also feel like they all have equal opportunities to succeed at their company.
Employees should trust their managers and colleagues to do their jobs. They should also trust that the company is as committed to its employees as it is to its customers.
What can managers do to build a good workplace culture?
Because they sit between a company’s executives and its employees, managers are key to defining a successful workplace culture. Some good places they can start include:
Set a positive example
The stated values of a company shouldn’t just be ideals. Managers should demonstrate them by showing respect, fairness, trust, and whatever other qualities their company is striving toward.
This means recognizing the contributions and successes of both individual contributors and entire teams. Celebrating wins like this is an easy way to make people feel valued.
Related: 14 virtual celebration ideas for hybrid & remote teams
Managers shouldn’t wait for other people to tell them what needs to be fixed. Initiate conversations in order to understand what is missing from the organizational culture — or to learn how it has gone astray.
Prioritize psychological safety
This is a concept that describes an environment where people are comfortable taking risks and speaking their minds. There are a number of strategies managers can do to promote this, such as remaining authentic and vulnerable, celebrating both good and bad ideas, and using play to guide teams.
What can employees do to improve the culture at an organization?
Individual employees are the heart and soul of an organization, which means they may collectively have the most influence on its culture. Here are some ways they can improve work environment:
When an employee sees something wrong, or an area that could use some improvement, they should take the initiative to communicate the problem.
Come up with solutions
Whenever possible, workers shouldn’t just stop at identifying and talking about what’s wrong. They should also try to come up with ways to fix it.
Balance passion with the company mission
A strong company culture is often rooted in a sense of purpose. Look for opportunities to pursue projects that align with the company’s broader vision and strategy. Work with your manager in one-on-one meetings to design a workload that can move in this direction.
Why a healthy workplace culture is critical for employee engagement
A highly engaged workforce is one of the best predictors of company success. In fact, organizations with highly engaged employees are able to increase profitability by nearly 25 percent.
And one of the most effective ways to make employees feel more engaged is by creating a strong workplace culture. Here’s how these two concepts relate:
Improved retention and employee satisfaction
Companies that invest in a mission-driven culture see 40 percent higher levels of employee retention rates than elsewhere. This is because workers have a sense of both agency and purpose. They are able to do work they consider valuable, communicate and fix problems as they come up, and get the support they need.
In short, the positive culture around them helps them feel more engaged and satisfied. And who would want to leave that?
Increased trust and connection among employees, their teams, and the company
A good company culture means honesty and open communication everywhere. Employees and managers alike remain open to feedback and aren’t afraid to make mistakes. This creates an environment that fosters a sense of safety, as well as the freedom to take risks, both vital ingredients to staying emotionally and intellectually stimulated at work.
Better collaboration across the organization
Employees are, on average, 17 percent more satisfied and engaged with their job when they are able to collaborate with others. That means being able to reach out to others when help is needed. Or, conversely, not being afraid to lend a hand when you think you may have something valuable to contribute. As it turns out, all of this is exactly what a great company culture is set up to do.
Related: 10 ways to build trust in a team
Better alignment and communication between management and employees
Transparency is a pillar of an organization with a healthy culture. This not only means management is able to keep track of employee progress, but employees know both the what and why behind management’s decisions. As a result, everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goals. This kind of equitability and alignment is just what it takes to keep employees engaged and passionate about their work.
5 ways to improve company culture
Even the best laid plans can run awry. If you feel like your company culture has stalled or even gone off track, don’t panic. The following are five strategies you can implement to start revitalizing your company culture:
Start on the right foot with a robust onboarding experience
New hires are the perfect place to begin improving your culture. They are excited and likely have little to no prior experience with the company. This gives you a great opportunity to create strong advocates and examples of the culture you’d like to see.
So don’t waste it by overwhelming them with resources and information they won’t be able to retain. Instead, set them up for long-term success with an employee onboarding process that gradually introduces them to the tools and knowledge they need. The goal should be to make them feel supported from their first day. This way, they can go into their new job feeling like part of the team.
Hold regular check-ins
There’s a myth that checking in with your employees on a regular basis can feel like overkill. In reality, 70 percent of employees say they would prefer more daily or weekly check-ins than they are currently getting. This is because employees are looking for a sense of genuine connection, something that can often be in short supply in this age of remote and hybrid work.
But how can you do this without micromanaging? The key is to fall back on the tenets of what makes a strong company culture. Managers should create a sense of trust between themselves and their employees by making sure they have what they need to do their job well, are motivated and engaged, and feel valued. By prioritizing employee well-being this way, companies can grow a culture of success.
Allow space for candid employee feedback
Even in the most honest and transparent workplaces, it can be uncomfortable and even painful to give and receive criticism. Yet the ability to share and learn from candid feedback is an essential aspect of a well-functioning company culture. It’s also an effective strategy for avoiding groupthink and identifying real ways to improve.
And one of the best ways to ensure employee feedback stays truthful — and useful — is to make it anonymous. This can take many forms, from a monthly poll of employee satisfaction to a more detailed NPS survey delivered daily. It could even be a suggestion box in the break room. Whatever works best for you, make sure employees have the space to speak their mind. It’s the most effective way to improve.
Tie company values to things that employees care about and can directly influence
Company values are often lofty and idealistic. In many ways, they are meant to be. Employees should look at them as goals to aim toward or characteristics to aspire to. But this doesn’t mean they should be out of reach. In contrast, to be effective, your core values should reflect the day-to-day concerns and interests of your employees.
For example, if your company values something abstract or generic like “integrity” (a value shared by 55 percent of Fortune 100 companies), consider changing it to a more specific and actionable, such as “timeliness” or even “professionalism.” These are values employees can more easily embody themselves, or get inspired by seeing it in others. This will help make your culture feel real, which is what will make it effective.
Create a customized engagement plan for your workplace
Finally, ensure your culture is doing a good job of promoting employee engagement by putting a plan in place. The following is a roadmap you can follow for identifying what is and isn’t working with your current company culture so you can quickly get it back into shape:
Ask for feedback
Involving your employees should always be a first step. Asking them directly for feedback is a fast, effective way to figure out where you should be putting your focus. But there’s no reason this shouldn’t be fun. Make a game out of it by asking everyone to identify a rose, thorn, and bud. This can be a great way to give structure to this challenge and start coming up with creative solutions.
Identify common themes
Once you’ve mapped out all the positive and negative aspects of your culture, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Instead, take a moment to separate out everything you’ve come up with by category or theme. This can take multiple forms. You could organize them by team or product line, or just break them apart according to difficulty. Whatever you do, make sure it keeps you moving forward.
Ideate some potential solutions
This is the time to start spitballing. Open up the floor for anyone to contribute ideas to better engage employees, build trust, increase employee recognition, or whatever it will take to improve company culture. Make sure everyone has a voice in this process. This is your chance to demonstrate your conviction behind building a better workplace.
Prioritize the most actionable and impactful ideas
After all the ideas are out there, you’ll need to identify which ones are the most important to pursue and which should be put off. One effective way to do this is by charting out each idea on a matrix. This will allow you to quickly differentiate between high/low difficulty and high/low impact.
Create a plan of action
The last step is to write out your plan. Gather up whatever mix of ideas you’ve come up with and start assigning tasks to your team. Make sure everyone has a role to play or a job to fulfill. There should be buy-in from across the company. After all, this is their company culture. Whether it’s good or not will depend on each person.
Work culture needs to be cultivated from the team level, up to the company level
A company culture isn’t something that simply exists on its own. It lives and breathes by the actions of individual employees — from executives to managers and down to each worker. This means creating an effective and healthy workplace culture requires organizations to both clearly define what they want to look like from the outset, then continually check in with employees to make sure these values remain relevant and alive on the ground.
A good company culture requires work, cultivation, and attention from everyone.
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