Where business is concerned, there are very few simple answers to what appear to be obvious questions. One such question is – what do we really mean by workplace culture?

Not only do you need to know what it is, you need to know why it matters and perhaps most importantly, how to define it. Put simply, workplace culture is the character and personality of your business and the reason why it’s so hard to describe is that the character and personality of a traditional merchant bank is likely to be very different to the character and personality of a modern digital agency. And everything and everyone in between. But there is common ground – it’s what makes a business unique. It’s the collective sum of a set of values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, attitudes and behaviours.

Why Does Workplace Culture Matter?

Dare we say workplace culture is as important as your business strategy? Put both together and they have the power to either strengthen or undermine your core business objectives because:

• Your culture attracts talent. In today’s job market where potential employees not only evaluate the job but your organisation and its climate, you are more likely to secure talent that fits into both camps.
• Your culture drives engagement and retention. It ensures your employees can engage with both their own work and your organisation as a whole and buy in to what you’re trying to achieve.
• Your culture impacts on happiness and job satisfaction. There are hundreds of reports available proving that employee happiness, job satisfaction/retention and lower than average attrition rates are inextricably linked to workplace culture.
• Your culture affects performance. It has been strongly suggested that businesses with a strong workplace culture financially outperforms competition that can’t boast such strong culture.

What Impacts Your Workplace Culture?

In short, everything you do as a business. The Leadership Team Your corporate culture must be defined from the top down. How management communicate and interact, what they communicate, what they celebrate and recognise, their expectations, how they make decisions, how much they are trusted and the beliefs they reinforce. Management How your business is managed including systems, procedures, structure, hierarchy, controls, visions and goals. Your managers should empower staff to make decisions and they should be supported and encouraged. Policies and Philosophies Amongst other corporate policies, working hours, dress code, a code of conduct, hiring, salary levels, compensation and internal promotions and transfers go a long way to define your company’s culture.

People It’s all about the people – their individual personalities, beliefs, values and everyday behaviours. With such a set of diverse skills and experiences, cultures and opinions, it makes for a creative, coherent workplace that values collaboration over confrontation, mutual support over personal agendas and an open and inclusive social climate over a closed shop. Mission Statement You don’t necessarily need a written mission statement, rather through everything you do you need to communicate a clarity of mission, vision and values that genuinely reflect your business and inspire your staff to work towards a shared goal.
The Working Environment Is your office an inviting and inspiring place from where your staff can be as productive as possible? As all businesses are different (and if you’ve got your recruitment right, your staff will instinctively understand), your workplace culture will be defined as to what people have on their desks, what art adorns the walls, how the office is decorated and configured and how breakout or common areas are used and shared.

Communications It’s not necessarily about what you communicate (although that is important), it’s more about how you communicate and with what frequency. It’s about the relationships between management and staff, the transparency offered and how you all come together to make the right decisions.

The Most Common Mistake

No business is perfect, just as no person is perfect. We all make mistakes but it’s how we learn from them that matters. When Jose Mourinho became the manager of Spurs in November 2019, as part of his first press conference he said to the gathered press corps ‘I realised I made mistakes. I’m not going to make the same mistakes. I’ll make new mistakes, but not the same ones.’ A great metaphor for business.

It is a mistake to let your workplace culture define itself. It’s up to you to clearly define it, otherwise you are liable to:
• Create policies and procedures based on what others do and not whether they are a good fit for your business
• Hire employees who are good at what they do but end up not fitting into the culture you want to create
• Tolerate management styles that don’t get the best from your employees and worse, threaten employee engagement and retention
• Not communicate a clear and unambiguous vision and value proposition
• Have an uninspiring working environment
• Not consider how your actions (or inactions) as leaders impact the creation of a workplace culture

This is why it’s important to define your workplace culture and not let it form organically because it may not happen the way you’d like.
Take Netflix, For Example…

Alongside Amazon, Apple and Google, Netflix has captured the zeitgeist. For £9 a month, we have almost unlimited access to a global catalogue of TV shows and films and as a business, the figures are pretty impressive:

Market Cap: Approx. $160 billion

Employees: 7,100+

2018-19 Sales: $15.8 billion

#78: Forbes World Best Employers 2019

#4: Forbes Top Regarded Companies 2019

6: Forbes Best Employers for Diversity 2019

And their corporate culture is equally as impressive.
In their own words ‘Entertainment, like friendship is a fundamental human need; it changes how we feel and gives us common ground. We want to entertain the world. If we succeed, there is more laughter, more empathy and more joy.’ Of course it’s worth noting that every company considers themselves special (nothing wrong with that at all) but Netflix claim to have ‘an amazing and unusual employee culture’.
Like every company will claim, Netflix are always looking to hire the very best staff and as a business, they value integrity, excellence, respect, inclusion and collaboration. Nothing out of the ordinary there but talk is cheap.

How do they back it up?

It’s about people over process. They put ‘dream teams’ together that:
• encourage independent decision-making
• share information openly, broadly, and deliberately
• are extraordinarily candid with each other
• avoid rules

Using this broad approach, the workplace becomes a more ‘flexible, fun, stimulating, creative, collaborative and successful organisation.’
The full Culture at Netflix document is available here and it’s easy to get miffed at the very American ‘yee-har, woo-hoo for us’ way it’s written but it’s Netflix and they’ve given us a lifetime of boxsets to gorge on so we must look past the prose and focus on the key pull-quotes which, if you run a business of any size, are worth taking note of because they will come in very useful if you’re trying to define a workplace culture.
Freedom & ResponsibilityThere are companies where people ignore trash on the floor in the office, leaving it for someone else to pick it up, and there are companies where people in the office lean down to pick up the trash they see, as they would at home. We try hard to be the latter, a company where everyone feels a sense of responsibility to do the right thing to help the company at every juncture. A decent metaphor for never thinking ‘that’s not my job, someone else will take care of it.’ Informed CaptainsFor every significant decision there is a responsible captain of the ship who makes a judgment call after sharing and digesting others’ views.Decision by committee slows everything to a grinding halt so there’s always someone whose responsibility it is to make the call. Disagree OpenlyIf you disagree on a material issue, it is your responsibility to explain why you disagree, ideally in both discussion and in writing. Discussion can clarify viewpoints and helps people to realise the wisest course of action and again, there is a captain in charge of the ship.

Context Not Control

We want employees to be great independent decision makers, and to only consult their manager when they are unsure of the right decision. The leader’s job at every level is to set clear context so that others have the right information to make generally great decisions.
The aim is for senior management to make fewer decisions, not more. Don’t seek to impress the boss, seek to improve the business. Highly Aligned, Loosely CoupledAs companies grow, they often become highly centralised and inflexible. Debate strategy, agree strategy, implement strategy. Above all, collaborate and trust each other to get the job(s) done. Seeking ExcellenceNew employees often comment in their first few months that they are surprised at how accurate this culture description is to the actual culture they experience. Never rest on your laurels. It’s not about preserving culture, it’s about constantly refining and improving. They end with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an early 20th century French writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist and pioneering aviator from his book The Little Prince. Supposedly a children’s book, it’s about a young prince who visits planets and it addresses poignant themes including loneliness, friendship, love and loss:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
That’s Netflix, that is. It should also be your business.

Jules Peck
Vital Minds Business Training Ltd

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