Company culture is a tricky thing. We’re all agreed on its importance, yet many business leaders assume it’s an unmeasurable and largely organic process.
Perhaps that’s because there are no paint-by-number culture frameworks to follow – uniqueness is among the qualities that make the best ones stand out. However enough commonalities exist among the culture pioneers such as Google and Facebook to point us in the direction of how to create one.
This article explores how defining and nurturing a winning company culture can attract the very best talent, while boosting the productivity and morale of employees. It identifies the essential steps to creating one, and outlines how to keep them thriving. The following pages will reveal:
In the noughties, a bunch of smart guys published books about how organisations with strong cultures heavily outperform those without. At the time they bordered on controversial.
Now, of course, the evidence in favour of the theory is manifold and nigh on every leader is keen to create a progressive culture of their own. Take a look at Zappos, Next Jump and Red Bull for cult-like, brand-defining cultures that bring home the bacon.
For these brands, culture is the ultimate talent attraction tool – not only as a point of differentiation against competition, but also as a means of filtering out those unsuited to the organisation. From the standpoint of existing employees, the culture is the driving force of their motivation and performance.
As HR strategist Mervyn Dinnen points out: “The company can no longer assume the employee is grateful for the opportunity, now the employer has to say, ‘we’re grateful they’re going to spend some time with us’.” It’s the culture that will binds the employee to the organisation.
Job seekers want to work for these companies for a number of reasons – perhaps most notably their missions, values, people and benefits. Examining those elements in greater detail gives us a clear idea of how to build cultures that:
Henry Stewart is the Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Ltd, an online learning business that’s been rated in the top 20 workplaces in the UK for five successive years. His championing of company culture is always people-first.
He says:“Organisational culture determines what a company is like to work in – whether people feel motivated, whether it’s a culture of blame or of freedom to take risks, whether people feel supported and challenged or micro-managed and picked upon. It ultimately determines whether the organisation is productive and whether it’s a place people dread going into or eagerly anticipate entering.”
Organisational culture is the sum total of myriad company traits – from transparent communication and coaching programmes, to staff empowerment and progression schemes.
In order to provide a benchmark for organisational culture in the UK, we analysed the values and benefits promoted by the top 5% of UK business. Our research honed in the following:
Values of top achieving businesses:
Benefits provided top achieving businesses:
With this criteria, we put together 10 questions to determine the state of an organisation’s culture. The results formed the basis of a survey of 1600 employees – here’s what we found:
Traditional workplaces offer the basics such as paid leave and employee reviews, but have struggled to adapt to the dynamic working environments as found in the most successful businesses in the UK.
Organisations with emerging cultures are beginning to offer more benefits such as perks and improved work-life balance, but are in a process of transition – from traditional to modern.
These organisations live and breathe strong values and offer a variety of benefits to their employees – and have the retention rates to prove it. Whether it’s providing free food in the office, extra holidays or promoting a steady work-life balance, they’re leading the way in progressing working cultures.
Like closed sales and ROI, company culture is a reliable predictor of successful business performance. And like every revenue driver, it should be analysed and measured.
So before launching any initiatives, it’s a good idea to gauge the pulse of your existing culture. We asked Henry Stewart how organisations can set about analysing their existing company cultures. “Talk to your front-line staff,” he explains. “Find out what they love about the workplace and what they would love to see better. Spend time on the front line experiencing what it’s like, and what systems and processes people have to battle to get things done.”
In addition to this, you should use the HR data that’s available. Benchmark your organisation's turnover rates, net promoter scores and employee satisfaction rates against the industry averages.
Take a step back from your usual duties and observe the day-to-day life of your workplace. Ask yourself the following questions:
Following Henry’s advice, ask the people on the front line of your organisation how they feel about the culture. Randomly select a small group of people from different departments to participate in your research.
As culture is a difficult concept to articulate, your questions should be indirect – this will help to build a fuller, less bias view of the state of your culture. Here are a few questions to ask your sample:
An excellent mission alone won’t guarantee a winning culture, nor will great people or values or benefits – the most successful brands have a blend all of these characteristics.
Jason Touray, Freelance VP of Talent (Europe) at Casper and VP of Talent & Culture at Huckletree, says the first step to moulding company culture is deep questioning. "First, define the purpose of your organisation, and what it's values are. This will inform its reason for existence beyond simply making money, and can form the foundation of its workplace culture.
"If these are clearly defined they can be infused into every aspect of your business – in the same way your mission and brand values should inform every aspect of your consumer brand and every touchpoint that your customers have, these values should underpin your employee experience and every touchpoint employees have.
"This can include internal systems, management style, the onboarding experience, communication and feedback, perks and socials, and training and development. Once your purpose and values are clearly defined, you'll be able to scale them across the business."
A mission can determine the success or failure of an organisation. It’s what adds purpose to all your business’ pursuits, and helps marshal employees to achieve a common goal. The best are original, positive and inspirational. Here are some examples:
What to do
Pull together champions from each department of your organisation to craft a pithy one-liner that expresses exactly what your organisation is trying to achieve. Try to use plain English, and avoid industry jargon or cliché. It can be as ambitious as you desire, as long as it’s plausible.
If your mission is your North Star, company values are the tools that will get you there. Defining a unique set of principles that will guide everything you do is a critical step in creating a successful culture.
Zappos is an online shoe and clothing shop famed for its thriving company culture. Within the company, all HR activities – employee job descriptions, hiring processes, training opportunities and so on – are underpinned by a set of 10 core values that reinforce their culture:
What to do
While these are unique to Zappos, the below examples are stable values that you could steal for your organisation. Whichever you choose should reflect what’s important to your organisation, and what employees should expect from the environment.
The term ‘feedback loops’ has probably followed you around your professional life. It’s a piece of jargon that simply means asking for and giving constructive feedback.
Empower your employees and managers alike to treat your organisation as their own. This means giving them full ownership of their role, and encouraging them to take pride in everything they do.
Pride in workplace, work, and team
This value works as an extension to ownership. If employees are empowered to have a say in their working environments, they’re more likely to be productive and enjoy their experience at the office – or shop or site.
Most organisations prize communication top-down, but few have mastered the art of conversing upwards and across. That means breaking down silos and training managers to take on feedback from their employees – something that doesn’t come naturally to traditional organisations.
Innovate and simplify
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter,” said philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, “so I wrote a long one instead.” He was of course referring to the truth that simplification is, ironically, difficult. The business world is awash with jargon that obstructs meaning. A key component of culture is transparency and ease of communication.
Employees are more engaged with the task in hand when they know what’s going on around them (and why they’re doing it in the first place). To get the most out of their people, managers should be open and honest on both an individual and organisational level.
Living and breathing this defined set of values won’t just be felt by the job-seekers and employees day-to-day, but also visitors, customers and partners too.
“Fundamentally you have to be prepared to fully trust your people,” says Henry Stewart. “You have to believe the best of them. Sweep away all the rules and handbooks and nonsense that annoy people. Yes, agree guidelines but then trust your people and give them the freedom to innovate and find new ways to do things. Get rid of all the layers of approval and instead pre-approve – approve the solution before they’ve thought of it.”
This is why the best businesses often have the most rigorous recruitment policies. They realise that the perfect candidate possesses far more than the hard skills required to do the job: they also have the right character traits, attitudes and sense of humour.
The leader then becomes less a decision maker and more an enabler. Don’t try to show how clever you are, try to show how clever your people are. Focus on building great leaders among your people.
People hang around at cultures they like, so while the fanatical recruitment processes pose hurdles, it’s worth it when it comes to the savings on recruitment and retention alone, not to mention boosted productivity and performance.
What to do
Hold a mirror up to your company. Check out your Glassdoor reviews to see how the reality of your employee experience matches up with your cultural goals. With that data, club together with the senior leadership team to put together an employee engagement scheme that will address the issues uncovered.
In a recent Perkbox study, some 66% of UK employees agreed that regular personalised benefits would be appreciated as recognition for their loyalty and personal investment. You just need to figure out what to give them.
To identify which perks would make the biggest impact to employee engagement, as part of the study we asked respondents which benefits they would reward their employees with if they were managers for the day.
Surprisingly, just 27% would increase pay to motivate their team. Some 22% said they would provide inspirational appraisals and 21% would introduce benefits and rewards.
Work-life balance ranked as the most important driver of new employment after salary. Employee benefits packages (32%), career development opportunities (32%), and an increase in annual leave (30%) closely follow as incentives to change work.
When it comes to proactively retaining employees, a huge 59% said a personalised benefits package would either influence or highly influence their decision to remain at the company, while a further 15% were undecided. Therefore employees are more willing to remain loyal to their employer – if they’re given reason.
What to do
Put simply, ask your employees which perks they would like to receive. If they’re anything like our sample of 2000 UK workers, career development opportunities and relaxed working hours might be a couple of the relatively cost-free perks that driver a happy company culture.
This also works on a recruitment level. Before hiring a candidate, research their demographics to find out what motivates them in the way of perks. It’s a broad stroke of the brush, but millennials are consistently proven to value work-life balance and development opportunities unlike older cohorts (generation X and Baby Boomers) who most value salary and more traditional benefits.