Your work culture is the shared set of values, beliefs and attitudes that guide your organization, and it’s reflected in the way you treat your customers and employees. Workplace culture impacts the types of candidates you attract for open positions, and having a strong work culture also boosts productivity, decreases turnover and improves employee engagement.
What Is Work Culture?
Work culture guides employees on what behaviors, expectations and matters of importance are part of the company’s current DNA. It also grows and shifts with the circumstances.
“It’s a living and breathing thing that’s evolving all the time,” J.C. Herrera, chief human resources officer at cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told Built In.
Work Culture Definition
“People need to understand the culture so they know how to get their work done,” Herrera said, adding there are also micro work cultures within an organization from a management culture to an engineering culture to an employee culture.
Work culture is different from a company’s core values, which largely remain the same over time. For example, CrowdStrike updated its core values when the company went through massive growth, expanding from under 400 people to over 4,500.
Its fanatical focus on the customer, high value on innovation and strong belief that anything can be accomplished together never changed, Herrera said.
“We went full circle on this thing and although our original values are roughly the same, it got a lot more organized in terms of how we talk about it,” he said of how the shift influenced work culture.
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Why Is Work Culture Important?
Work culture can have a profound impact on several significant aspects of the employee experience, like individual and team morale, workplace engagement and job satisfaction. For example, 94 percent of people managers say “a positive workplace culture creates a resilient team of employees,” according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey.
Practices that negatively impact workplace culture and promote a toxic team dynamic can steer an organization in the opposite direction, making it difficult to hire and retain good employees. A 2022 survey of job seekers revealed 23 percent of respondents identified “company values and culture” as a top influence over whether they decide to accept a job offer. That same survey also showed 21 percent of job seekers said “poor company culture” was their top reason for leaving a job in the past year and 34 percent reported leaving a job within the first 90 days because “company culture was not as expected.”
Work culture will naturally form within every organization and sometimes to the detriment of the business. Allowing negative behaviors and toxic attitudes to fester will cultivate an unfavorable work experience — and an expensive one too. Toxic workplace cultures cost U.S. employers $223 billion in turnover over a five- year period, according to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Work culture not only guides employees in the workplace, but it also guides customers on whether they want to do business with you.
Customers, for example, are not only checking out a company’s employee reviews on social media sites. They are also making direct inquiries in their discussions with sales teams.
“When we’re doing requests for proposals, potential customers will ask questions in the RFP. They’ll ask us to describe our culture. So it's been a part of some of the customers’ sales process,” Herrera said.
Elements of Workplace Culture
There are several factors that go into developing work culture. Research from the MIT Sloan School of Management and CultureX based on Glassdoor data identified 10 elements of culture employees care most about:
- Feeling respected.
- Having supportive leadership.
- Whether leaders’ actions align with core values.
- Managers who foster a toxic work environment.
- Witnessing unethical behavior.
- Perks and amenities.
- Opportunities for learning and professional development.
- Job security.
- Frequency and quality of reorganizations.
The actions an employer takes to move the needle in a positive or negative direction when it comes to team culture can play an important role in employees’ sense of fulfillment. People who feel unfulfilled at work are less likely to put effort into contributing toward company success or to recommend their current employer to others.
People report experiencing workplace culture most strongly through their employers’ approach to performance, recognition and celebrations and company mission and values, according to a 2022 Quantum Workplace survey. These foundational elements of work culture involve making sure employees feel their individual contributions are valued and their voices are being heard.
Survey respondents commonly used words like “flexible,” “inclusive,” “friendly,” “collaborative” and “fun” to characterize “ideal workplace cultures.” Most employees say defining and communicating culture starts with leaders and managers. But more than half also see employees at all levels as individual contributors in shaping culture.
An SHRM survey of more than 9,000 workers in a dozen different countries found they overwhelmingly agree “empathy is an essential quality of a healthy workplace.” Those whose employers offer empathy training for people managers are more likely to say their workplace has “a culture of open and transparent communication,” feel physically safe on the job, report trust in their supervisor and cite culture as a reason they love their job.
How to Create a Positive Work Culture
To get started building the company’s work culture of your dreams, first lay out your core values. These should be the foundation of everything that happens at your company and guide your organization’s evolution. Dedicate as much time as necessary to ensure everyone is aligned, and include leadership, long-term employees and HR representatives so all significant parties can weigh in. In the end, you should have a concise list of values that accurately reflect your current company culture and long-term goals.
Then, think about the type of work culture you want to create. Consider everything from the physical layout of the office to how frequently employees interact with their colleagues, managers and members of the C-Suite. From there, the real work begins.
How to Improve Workplace Culture
Improving work culture isn’t a speedy process. To achieve long-term, sustainable change there needs to be commitment that starts at the top of the organizational structure. It requires leaders who are willing to set an example for consistent communication, accountability and transparency.
Leaders who are working to improve workplace culture need to be ready to follow-through on investing in the initiatives that matter most to their team members. One survey showed providing “professional development opportunities” was at the top of the list of ways to improve company culture. Another survey revealed 38 percent of job seekers would turn down a job offer from a company lacking diversity or that didn’t have a strategy in place for enhancing diversity.
The majority of people say they can tell in less than a month whether a company’s culture will be a good fit for them, and many even say they need less than a week. It’s imperative companies start sooner rather than later on making meaningful cultural change.
Tips to Improve Work Culture
- Set clear objectives to guide employee performance.
- Make sure employees understand the organization’s long-term goals.
- Establish diversity initiatives and promote inclusive practices.
- Encourage transparency and open communication among department heads, management and team members.
- Let every employee have a seat at the table and empower them to share their thoughts.
- Create opportunities for employees to get to know one another at work and outside of work to foster meaningful relationships.
Set Clear Departmental Goals
Outline the objectives of each team so employees have tangible results to work toward. Not only will this help guide individual performance, but it will encourage collaboration between team members. Make sure there is room for feedback to adjust quotas and KPIs when needed.
For example, if a team is continually reaching their objectives without breaking a sweat, you might want to modify their target goals to push production further.
Promote the Organization’s Goals
In addition to setting departmental goals, make sure every employee is clear on the organization’s long-term objectives. This will help individuals cultivate a sense of professional purpose. Having a source of motivation beyond quarterly quotas will demonstrate the value each role has toward achieving the company’s mission.
Promote Diversity and Inclusivity
Create a positive, inclusive work culture by welcoming individuals from all backgrounds and celebrating their differences. Encourage employees to share their pronouns with the rest of the team to promote inclusive language and consider establishing a committee to contribute to diversity initiatives. Work with the HR department to make diversity a part of your recruitment strategy and ensure diversity and inclusion continue to be foundational elements as your organization grows.
Allow for Lightheartedness
Work has its stressful moments and being able to make a difficult situation more lighthearted is an invaluable skill. Of course, the ultimate goal should be to resolve the problem, but a fresh perspective and positive outlook is more productive than the alternative. As Dale Carnegie, an American writer and lecturer, said, “People rarely succeed unless they are having fun in what they are doing.” If you can afford to find the bright side and let your team know that you have their back, they’ll return the favor by working even harder.
Every individual should feel valued and heard, regardless of their status within the company. Interns offer a much greater advantage than being delegates for busy work, and new employees bring a fresh perspective. You never know where the next big idea will come from, so let every employee have a seat at the table and feel empowered to share their thoughts.
Establish a Strict Zero Tolerance Policy
Just as important as creating a welcoming environment is ensuring employees know their rights and individualities are protected within the workplace. A crucial facet of a positive work culture is providing employees with the opportunity to speak openly about issues they are facing — in and outside of the office — and have access to the support and resources they need. Make sure HR representatives have flexibility within their schedules to be available for personal conversations when needed, and consider implementing an anonymous sexual harassment hotline as a secure and private way for employees to report incidents in the workplace.
Create an Employee Recognition Program
Recognize and reward employees for achieving outstanding results. Doing so will encourage employees to continue performing at impressive levels, and make them feel valued within the company. It will also motivate their peers to up their game, fostering a work culture of friendly competition that leads to high performance.
Accept and Utilize Your Employee’s Feedback
In fact, try to change your perspective on feedback. Rather than considering it to be indicative of something you’re doing wrong, think of it as the opposite — your employees care so much about the organization and its success that they are trying to help make it better. They’re choosing to bring their pain points to your attention and it gives you the opportunity to fix them instead of the employee stewing over them and eventually leaving the company out of frustration.
Life happens and things will get in the way. Employees shouldn’t fear repercussions for taking time to manage other emergencies or responsibilities outside of work. For example, if an employee is struggling to balance work with their family life, try to figure out a compromise that allows them to be productive at work without sacrificing their personal life. You’ll earn the respect of your employees rather than the reputation of being unaccommodating and unapproachable. Not only that, but flexible schedules can help you attract elite candidates; nearly 50 percent of job seekers said “flexibility and autonomy” are what they want most from an employer.
Engaged employees invest their full selves into the success of the company, and they deserve your leadership team’s trust. Promote transparency and open communication between department heads, management and team members. Doing so will create a positive work culture where employees feel heard and valued. Consider implementing a recurring internal newsletter to share critical information with the team, and hold a monthly town hall meeting to make company-wide announcements that require more context.
Plan Social Outings
Humans are social beings that crave interaction. Create an opportunity to get to know each other at work and outside of work to foster meaningful relationships between employees. You can keep it simple by having a hybrid Friday happy hour in the office while simultaneously offering remote workers an online presence at the party. Think about the types of events your team would most enjoy when coming up with new work culture ideas.
Work Culture Don’ts
Don’t Encourage Employees to Work Through Lunch
While lunch breaks are not legally required, allowing employees to shut off their computer for 30 minutes to an hour each day helps create a positive work culture. Your team is not composed of robots, so expecting employees to continuously churn out quality work over the course of eight hours without breaks is unrealistic — and unhealthy. More than that, it suggests that employees are only valued for their work output, not as individuals. Regular breaks have actually been shown to improve productivity and 81 percent of employees who break for lunch on a daily basis report having a desire to actively contribute to their organization.
Don’t Reschedule One-On-Ones
If you’ve set aside time to meet with an employee individually, do your best to honor that meeting, especially if something else comes up. Doing so will show you value and respect the individual’s time, and care about what they have to say.
Don’t Make It Easy for Disengaged Employees to Stick Around
Having an engaged workforce will help propel your company forward on its path to success, while disengaged employees will slow down progress. If you notice individuals who are counterproductive to your team’s success, pull them aside to discuss their behavior. If nothing improves after making an effort to positively address the situation, it is time to part ways and help them find another position more suited for their needs and goals. Sometimes disengaged employees are stuck in a rut professionally and just need a little support to get back on their feet.
Don’t Limit Learning Opportunities to Job Descriptions
Skill building is an important part of a positive work experience. Allow employees to pursue their passions, both in and outside of the office, and encourage information sharing between colleagues. This exchange of knowledge will lead to improved employee relationships, collaboration and camaraderie.
Don’t Hire for Work Culture Fit
A key part of creating a diverse community within the office is hiring for culture adds, not culture fits. The cultural add recruiting model means identifying candidates who share and embody your core values and who offer a unique perspective. You want to continue to grow and develop your work culture and company, so look for candidates who will productively add to your team, not necessarily fit into a mold.
Don’t Tolerate Poor Managers
Managers directly impact employee engagement and performance. In fact, 81 percent of employees who consider their work culture to be “poor” have seen a manager allow others in the workplace “to get away with bad behavior.” At the same time, close to 90 percent say “their manager contributes to setting their work team environment.” Managers interact with their direct reports most frequently, so it’s vital to make sure those individuals who are leading a team are doing so with conviction and in accordance with your core values.
Don’t Expect HR to Do All of the Work
As hard as HR teams may try, work culture isn’t created by a handful of people. It’s a team effort and HR teams can’t be tasked with doing it alone. Positive cultures are created when everyone works together.
Don’t Force It
Positive and fulfilling work cultures don’t just appear overnight. Keep to your values, listen to your employees, have some fun, and it will take shape organically. Work cultures that keep people happy and businesses thriving take time — it’s worth it.
Creating a positive work culture where everyone feels valued, welcomed and respected is vital to an organization’s success. Be sure to take your employee’s feedback into account and lean on them to help cultivate a great work experience.
Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this story.
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