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7 Powerful Practices to Improve Workplace Culture

Company culture. It’s the social operating system that influences how your employees work with each other, customers, and the community. It has both the potential to help a company thrive or cause it to suffer.

That being the case, how do you improve or upgrade your operating system? What specific strategies can you put in place to ensure that your organisation is committed to improving culture in the workplace?

Truth is, the answer differs for everyone. Leaders must be willing to explore many ideas to improve workplace culture. One reason is because there are several types of workplace culture: From adhocracy culture and clan culture, to customer-focused culture and hierarchy culture, to market-driven culture and purpose-driven culture (read more about each type in our Company Culture Guide).

If you’re a leader in human resource management, part of your directive is no doubt to help improve your company culture. But good company culture doesn’t happen by itself. It takes some planning and effort. In this article, we present seven powerful practices with specifics on how to improve workplace culture:

1. Build strong employee relationships

Our 2019 Global Culture Report outlined how leadership is the foundation for a meaningful employee experience. Leaders play a central role in shaping corporate culture. The research indicated that if the link between leaders and employees is weak or negative, employees will be disconnected from other aspects of culture as well.

How important is it for leaders to set the overall tone of workplace culture?

Our workplace culture survey found that when leaders are mentors, actively advocate for employee development, and proactively connect their employees with meaningful opportunities, employees and leaders feel more successful, become more deeply connected to one another, and contribute to a stronger workplace culture.

So how do you teach leaders to be mentors to their employees?

First, it’s important for leaders to focus on developing the people who report to them. Leaders are in the unique position to advocate for and mentor their teams. Organisations should teach managers how to cheerlead their employees instead of just being the gatekeeper to their internal careers.

When a leader is an active mentor, our research shows employees feel a:

• 76% increase in feeling like part of a larger purpose
• 72% increase of connecting strongly with leaders
• 102% increase in feeling motivated
• 320% increase in a favorable perception of their leader

Another winning practice for leaders is to get to know employees on a personal level.

Leaders who talk “with employees” instead of “to employees” elevate the employee experience and help form the basis of a good workplace culture. When this happens, employees feel more appreciated and supported, and feel like they belong in the organisation.

When contemplating how to describe workplace culture at your organisation, sometimes actions speak for themselves. Take a look at the difference in the two leaders below:

Leader 1: “The program manager came in to meet an assistant store manager that had been with [our company] for 19 years. He didn’t even stop to shake her hand. He just shook her hand while he was walking by. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the respect you give somebody that’s been with the company that long?’”

Leader 2: “Our CEO was in my office yesterday. I had a conversation with him and he was listening to what I had to say. He can probably tell you the names of half the people that work here. And it’s like that with all of our senior leaders, so I’m very appreciative of that because I feel like they care.”

You can read more about how leadership affects culture in our 2019 Global Culture Report

2. Connect people to a purpose

Connecting employees to a purpose is a powerful way to improve workplace culture.

Our 2019 Global Culture Report describes how purpose is your organisation’s reason for being. Without a sense of purpose, it’s almost impossible to identify the things you want to do, like make an impact, help others, or change the world.

Remember that purpose is different from mission, strategy, or values. Mission is what you do. Strategy is how you will meet your goals. Values are behaviors you want your employees to live by. But purpose is why you do all of these things. Your mission, strategy, and values are all subservient to your purpose.

When evaluating purpose, our data shows Gen Z and Millennials average about a 10% higher sense of purpose at work than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. In fact, Millennial and Gen Z workers are more likely to work for and stay with companies that have a clearly defined purpose and meaningful opportunities and are loyal to individual leaders with a strong sense of purpose.

One area that this can make a significant difference is to identify purpose during the hiring process. That’s because attracting the right talent can be more successful when you find people who identify and believe in your organisation’s goals. It only makes sense that the employees who will be most committed to working for a company long term are those who identify with its core beliefs.

Human resources teams can be more successful at recruiting by making sure that the organisation’s purpose is not only defined, but tied to their employee value proposition, customer value proposition, and social good. Be sure to articulate the difference your organisation makes and be specific on how it serves employees, customers, and others.

Another strategy is to help current employees see how their work contributes to the organisations purpose. The best way to do this is to communicate it clearly and often. When employees see reminders of their organisation’s purpose throughout the workplace, they are 30% more likely to believe their organisation inspires employees to work towards a common goal.

Connecting both current and potential employees to your organisation’s purpose is a critical step to improve workplace culture.

3. Encourage frequent employee recognition

Perhaps nothing can increase workplace culture more substantially than employee recognition.

How do you define recognition? In Your Comprehensive Guide to Employee Recognition Programs, we make a distinction between appreciation and employee recognition. Appreciation is feeling valued for one’s unique point of view, attitude, talents, and contributions. Recognition, on the other hand, is the action of showing appreciation.

When employers regularly show appreciation for their employees, a lot of good things happen. One of the positive consequences is rising employee engagement. In fact, 78% of employees say they are highly engaged when they feel strong recognition from their organisations, compared to just 34% of employees who feel highly engaged in companies with weak recognition.

Recognition also carries many other powerful benefits as well. This includes attracting talent, retaining talent, increased job performance, and more innovation. It’s such a vital component to building or improving workplace culture, hundreds of corporate programs have been built just for this singly important purpose (see the leading Victories employee recognition program from O.C. Tanner). It’s also sometimes referred to as company culture software.

Specifically, what are the ways to create a positive workplace culture through recognition? There are hundreds of ways to show that appreciation. A recognition program is there to guide you, but leaders and peers who make it a high priority are the ones who make the program a success.

For great ideas for everyday appreciation, check out 20 Creative Ways to Show Employee Appreciation. In this article, you’ll discover that even the little things can warrant a big thank you. Actions like bringing in live music, providing treats for the team, or giving extra days off around the holidays are all great examples of showing appreciation that can lead to increased satisfaction and personal growth.

Appreciation doesn’t have to stop during difficult times, either. That’s what the first few months of a global crisis taught us. In 7 Suggestions for Appreciating People During this Pandemic, we outlined some thoughtful strategies for recognising people during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Find the Silent Heroes,” for example, stressed the importance of looking around to see who is getting things done behind the scenes, even in more difficult working conditions. Another idea was “Make Virtual Personal,” with tips on how to make recognition come across as sincere, even when working virtually instead of at the office.

As you consider how to build a culture of recognition in your workplace, consider looking for programs that can handle both recognition for accomplishments as well as recognition for service. You’ll also want to make sure that peer-to-peer recognition is enabled and promoted, not just leader-driven recognition.

4. Create positive employee experiences

The employee experience is at the heart of any effort to understand and improve your desired workplace culture. The primary reason for this is because company culture and employee experience are intrinsically connected. This means culture not only affects the employee experience, but the employee experience also affects culture.

All of your employees’ many experiences and how your employees feel about them, when combined, make up their employee experience. This includes conversations, emails, team interactions, leader messages—and even things like technology, tools and work processes. But  when it comes to creating a culture, it’s important to remember that employee experience is made up of all the interactions your people have with your organisation—both the positive ones and the negative as well.

Negative experiences, such as a degrading comment from a leader, a lack of connection in a team, or not being able to get much-needed resources for a project, can all contribute to a poor employee experience.

Employee satisfaction more than doubles when employees report that their organisation has a thriving workplace culture (87% vs. 43%). Employees are also 13 times more likely to be highly engaged when they have positive employee experiences.

So how do you foster positive employee experiences, the experiences that lead to greater employee engagement and increased enthusiasm?

Instead of top-down efforts that hit only on the major touchpoints of your employees’ lifecycles, try to focus on employee experiences based on micro-experiences that impact your employees every day. Examples of micro-experiences include conversations between coworkers about various topics, the physical spaces they work and meet in, or the regular emails they receive from human resources.

Some of the best ideas to improve workplace culture are built around these everyday interactions and processes. Strategies for creating positive experiences include:

• Giving employees a vehicle to share ideas, voice concerns, and make suggestions
• Encouraging regular team activities and discussions they can look forward to
• Sending leader communications that convey enthusiasm, appreciation, and support

You can also create peak experiences rather than trying to fix negative ones. It’s easier to create amazing everyday moments and it will be more impactful on the overall employee experience, as peak experiences have a longer lasting impact.

Read more about enhancing employee experience in our Glossary of Corporate Culture.

5. Open up transparency and communication

An important measure of the heart and soul of company’s organisational culture is the way its people communicate with each other. It’s not only the content of the communications that are important, the way leaders and teams choose to communicate sends a message in itself.

A while back, we reported that companies were moving toward more of a team approach to leadership, one that includes more transparency and feedback. That trend continues. Transparency is a business strategy about communication that applies to the entire organisation, not just to senior leaders or decision makers.

What’s the advantage of a team approach to transparency? It deals with not only how leaders interact with employees, it describes how all leaders and employees can communicate more openly with each other to breed more trust throughout an organisation. This openness leads to greater collaboration, mentorship, and inspiration.

During the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, we learned that transparency is critical.  Our weekly pulse surveys found that even when jobs were on the line and bad news had to be delivered, organisations that were more transparent and clearer about these developments enjoyed more engaged and positive employees.

On the other hand, organisations that held back and failed to communicate had fewer positive feelings. Even worse, less than transparent organisations risked damaging their cultures and losing good employees. When transparency is not part of a company’s goals, the culture suffers.

During the early months of the pandemic, our study showed that organisations that increased transparency earned positive returns:

• 85% more employee engagement
• 75% increase in employee satisfaction
• 17% increase in the likelihood of employee retention.

This example of how employees look for direction during a crisis shows how important transparency really is to improve workplace culture.

In 4 Ways to Build a Thriving Team Culture, we further highlight how teams can foster transparency by holding an honest team review after projects where team members can talk about success and failure as a team—without singling out individuals. Sharing honest, critical feedback with each other drastically increases the odds of having a psychologically safe company culture.

6. Give teams the autonomy they seek

We stress the importance of autonomy and psychological safety in the team setting in the white paper Two things top teams need to succeed. Giving team members this kind of self-governing power is one of the keys to building a culture of teamwork and contribution.

Surprisingly, research from our 2020 Global Culture Report showed that only 37% of employees report having high autonomy at their organisation. This can be damaging to any workplace culture.

Rather than micromanage their teams (like setting goals for instead of with them), but by setting the tone and expectations for how the teams function, leaders can build great teams that encourage autonomy.

Teams don’t always need to be told what to do. They need guidance. Good leaders know how to inspire, mentor, trust, and connect with their teams. They know how to get to know and treat their team members as people.

In the typical work environment, it’s important for team members to influence the direction of ongoing projects and assignments. If teams can’t set their own goals, make important decisions, and decide how to manage projects without constant leader direction, then they will feel less likely to collaborate together and share ideas.

Our research suggests that there are six elements to focus on when trying to encourage autonomous teams. They are: Freedom to be creative; Latitude for innovation; Flexible work schedule; Flexible work location; A say in projects worked on; and Ability to prioritise workload. When leaders empower teams to exercise each of these freedoms, they improve the work and help teams to thrive.

Yet with great autonomy comes great psychological safety—another important ingredient to building workplace culture. This simply means “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.” That is why both of these traits, autonomy and psychological safety, combine to form a strong team-building core.

When employees feel psychologically safe at work, there is a 154% increase in the incidence of great work.

7. Schedule regular and meaningful one-to-ones

Our final powerful practice to improving culture in the workplace is to implement one-to-ones, which are periodic conversations between employees and their leaders. One-to-ones are most effective when they are focused, regular, and allow both parties to speak openly. The outcomes of these meetings can result in motivated employees with higher morale, engagement, and productivity.

In An Opportunity to Become Better Leaders, O.C. Tanner VP Gary Beckstrand points out that too many of us are still stuck in a traditional-leadership mindset and an outdated management style. He underscores that “we often fall into old habits of trying to control work by directing rather than coaching, evaluating rather than developing, and holding back information rather than trusting our teams with transparency.” Holding regular one-to-ones with team members is a powerful way to move past outdated models and build a modern workplace culture.

HR leaders can promote several highly effective ways to make one-to-one conversations more productive. The first one is simple—increase the frequency.

We learned through our COVID-19 pulse surveys that a single one-to-one over a 30-day period was not enough to yield positive results. In contrast, leaders who held weekly discussions during the crisis resulted in many positive measures such as a 79% increase in engaged employees and a 53% reduction in fearfulness.

Of course, scheduling one-to-ones on a regular basis can yield great results outside of times of crisis as well. When done properly, they can lead to a decrease in employee burnout, greater engagement, and a strong sense of leadership. Suggested best practices for one-to-ones include:

• Schedule weekly one-to-ones with direct reports and follow up with short conversations in between.
• Invite reports to co-create the agenda with you. Co-created conversations make the interaction more meaningful.
• Honor the time. Don’t reschedule.
• Have a real conversation. Rigid and formal one-to-ones are less meaningful.

When leaders do give feedback, they should make it personal. In How to Give Effective Employee Feedback, we explain why it’s important to check in with employees mentally and emotionally. Leaders should ask employees how they are feeling about their roles, their workloads, and if there are areas they need help. Research shows that 77% of employees feel their leaders are strong advocates for their personal development when leaders take time to get to know them.

It’s time to build your culture

Building and improving your workplace culture does not happen overnight. It takes a commitment to understand your current culture climate and then implement the types of strategies that will be most effective in improving the culture in your organisation. As mentioned, the formula for success is different for everyone.

But keep in mind, building a culture of engaged, productive, and happy employees is worth the effort.

To learn more about common terms on the topic of how to improve workplace culture, review our Glossary of Corporate Culture in this guide.

Want to know the current state of your organisation’s workplace culture? Take our Culture Assessment

Ready to start improving your company culture? Check out Culture Cloud

Read more about the latest trends in workplace culture in our 2020 Global Culture Report

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