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How to improve workplace culture

Creating an office where employees enjoy walking through the door each morning can have major productivity benefits.

Distilling the essence of a successful business culture is never easy, more about but when you look at the common traits of the companies heading BRW’s annual Best Places To Work ranking, find one thing stands head and shoulders above the rest: fun.

Perennial winner Google knew this early on: when it entered the Australian market years ago, it followed Google tradition and filled its Sydney office with fun. Meeting rooms adorned with beanbags, cubby houses, a masseuse, games room and free cafeteria were among the perks that keep staff happy.

Not every company has the resources of Google, however – and when it comes to company culture, fun is a means to an end, and not the end itself. When a small business is in the midst of pulling itself up by its bootstraps, formalising a fun and productive company culture may seem like a low priority – but it can make or break your business.

Just ask Tim Andrew, CEO and co-founder of health insurance comparison provider Split It, which launched its service in May with five employees after a year of planning. Despite having much on his plate, Andrew made sure to address Split It’s culture early on by defining three core company values.

These values – simplicity, transparency, and value creation – underscore the company’s products and services, and also helped define the type of workplace that the company grew to enjoy.

“They’re our method of making sure we’re living up to our promise, whether that’s in hiring people or in talking to the industry that we sell on behalf of,” Andrew explains.

Maintaining this culture was crucial in startup phase, where employee numbers are low and one bad apple can easily spoil the proverbial bunch. To ensure that new hires were a good cultural fit, Andrew let all the current employees conduct interviews and make assessments of potential new staff. If any current employees have concerns, the applicant is likely to be passed over.

 “We value culture fit as highly as we do technical skills,” says Andrew, who founded Split IT after years experiencing the corporate culture at the NAB. “Technical skills can be learned, but having those values resonating within the people that work in the organisation is important to us.”

With little budget for frippery, Andrew has used other methods to build out his company’s culture. Salary flexibility has been one tool: each employees has been offered the option of setting their own balance between salary and company equity, allowing them to participate in the venture on terms that suit their individual circumstances and financial requirements.

Engendering this sense of buy-in has proved invaluable, since employees work harder and more productively if they feel like they are part of a corporate culture they enjoy.
“Most people will turn up to work and do a good job, but where you really start to see the difference is where they have that passion and will put in the extra effort to ensure a good outcome,” adds Andrew. “When people feel valued, they understand that everything they’re contributing to is something they’ll get back at the end of the day.”

Talking the talk

The rise of mobile working in recent years has been a litmus test for the true flexibility of corporate culture. Whereas many managers used to baulk at allowing their employees free rein to come and go from the office, such mobility has become far more common over time – and, more recently, challenged corporate controls with growing demand for bring-your-own device (BYOD) strategies that usurp years of company control over employees work tools.

A recent survey by mobile-device vendor Jabra found 52% of employees were working outside the office at least once a fortnight, while just over one in 10 worked outside the office all day. As this kind of flexibility becomes increasingly common, those companies that fail to adapt their culture to allow employees freer rein will find themselves disadvantaged in the competition for new skills.

Flexibility has its advantages for the company as well: three in four of the Jabra survey respondents said they were comfortable staying in constant contact – via email, mobile or other means – for work-related matters. These results suggest that employees are willing to put in the hours to do their jobs – as long as their employers support their increasingly mobile culture. This is only going to increase over time.

Continuous improvement

As a small-business operator whose business involves advising companies on staffing strategies, Richard Wentworth-Ping has had to both learn what makes good culture, and figure out how to productively put it into practice.

Even he hasn’t always been right, he admits: after establishing his company, Wentworth People, in his UK bedroom in 1990 and doing it again in Australia in 1998, he laid down what he thought was a solid, reliable company mission: that Wentworth People would be “a recognised and respected development partner in Australia and the Asia-Pacific”.
Years later, he was taken aback when a new employee offered feedback he hadn’t expected to hear. “People feel that’s motivational and inspirational?” the employee asked. “To be honest, that’s a bit bland.”

Wentworth-Ping thought a moment, he recalls, and realised he had let his company culture slip into a nondescript rut. “You know what?” he recalls responding. “You’re right.”
What followed was an exercise in team-building as Wentworth-Ping spent half a day sitting down with his six-strong team to talk through what they saw as the company’s core values: enjoyment, fulfilment, freedom, flexibility, and integrity.

“Any small-business owner can do this,” he says. “If the vision is there to inspire people and give direction, it needs to reflect your employees’ values and work not only for you, but for the people in the business.”

“Enjoyment comes down to a number of things,” he adds, “but one is that people work better in an organisation that is aligned to their own personal values of how they want to work. If you’re working in a business where you’re having to compromise your values, it’s death by a thousand cuts – and that’s where people exit after a while.”

Active involvement

Fostering good culture isn’t just about coming up with pithy mission statements that sound good to everyone: the company needs to be genuinely directed by its mission statements, and employees need to know that they can fall back on those values to influence their own careers.

Wentworth-Ping recalled a case where an employee was contemplating the weight of relocating to another city for a major and lucrative profit, but was torn because of his family obligations. He advised the employee not to take the contract if it was going to make him unhappy in his work, but the employee mentioned the ‘flexibility’ value and argued that the company would accommodate his personal circumstances if it were living its values.

Company leaders who ignore their values can breed resentment, dissatisfaction and ultimately damage the business if they’re seen to be doing differently than they expect their employees to do.

“Company culture is, to a certain extent, like a balloon,” Wentworth-Ping laughs. “One prick will pop it.”

If you’re serious about fostering a useful and effective company culture, engage with employees and ensure they are enjoying their jobs. If your employees are treading water and looking for a way out, addressing cultural deficiencies early on will help you identify who’s being let down by the company – and who’s doing the letting down.

In the end, there are no hard and fast rules about whether table soccer and in-office spas are a better motivator than integrity, honesty, transparency and building a sense of employee inclusion. The best type of corporate culture, after all, is the one that produces the outcomes you want for your business – and keeps your employees working at their best.

“It’s not about right or wrong,” says Split It’s Andrew. “It’s just about what works, or doesn’t.”  

5 tips for better culture

1 Keep it simple. Don’t bury your company culture in bland mission statements and ineffective promises. Keep a good, strong, constitution and a belief in what you’re doing.

2 Be flexible. Make efforts to reach out to employees, accommodate their requests, and consider their suggestions to ensure the culture you set is meeting their needs as well as yours.

3 Live the dream. Culture is much more than words on a company letterhead: executives need to support the mission statements and make sure they’re relevant and resonating for employees.

4 Get advice. Don’t be afraid to bring in consultants or business partners who can offer a fresh perspective on your culture and offer suggestions for improvement.

5 Work together. Get your staff together on a regular basis to talk through progress, concerns, and issues so you know everyone is on the same page. And don’t be afraid to have some fun together: celebrate successes, and show your appreciation for employees’ hard work.

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