How to build a company culture

Masha Gribova
16 November 2020
6 minute read

“Thank you. I needed that boost today. Thank you for always uplifting us when we need it most.”; “There have been a couple of days where things weren’t going well, and when I log in to work, I see your emails that truly put a smile on my face.”

When Nancy Prine, Head of Culture and Employee Engagement at Humach got these messages, she didn’t have to wonder whether her team found the culture welcoming. She knew they did. This month, her team celebrated ten work anniversaries with an average tenure of seven years. In the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, that’s impressive.

Building a culture where people feel lifted up, supported and engaged isn’t simple. Research shows employees value lots of different parts of their work life, including:

So how do you build a company culture that manages to reward, recognise, connect and support your employees all at the same time? We asked founders and executives, organisational culture experts and leading HR professionals how they do it.

Company culture

Connection and camaraderie

“Ensure employees have a buddy in place for their first week to two weeks to reduce any potential anxiety they may be feeling” says Natalia Valentina. “Always support a new employee to feel welcome and part of the team, starting a new job is high up there when it comes to stress and anxiety.”

Having a designated buddy doesn’t just take the edge off the difficult first weeks in role. It can also help people forge meaningful friendships at work which make them want to show up each day.

Support doesn’t start on day one in the job, either, says Natalia Valentina. “Start with contact prior to them joining the business. Don't just leave them out in the cold working their 1 month notice elsewhere, with no contact until their first day of work. This gets you both off on the right foot, and shows professionalism and care for the employee.”

Appreciation

“People are less likely to stay in a position where they don't receive adequate support or motivation from their leaders” says Nancy Prine. “Motivate your team with leaders who celebrate their wins, understand their struggles, and encourage safety, transparency, communication, and a healthy work-life balance. “

“Always have a reward and recognition scheme in place” says Natalia Valentina. “This could be both for internal and external achievements, from internal promotion to external passing of driving tests, or completing their studies.” Whether it’s employee of the month, most creative leader or salesperson of the week, find consistent ways to show your team their achievements matter.

Ask for, and act on, your team’s input

“Conduct an employee engagement survey each year in order to obtain true feedback and show areas needed for improvement” says Natalia Valentina. “Don't then just file the survey response, go through it, make any feasible and necessary changes, and feed these back each year. If you have an intranet, publicise the changes made based on the feedback, and thank employees for completing the survey. Without people, there is no business.”

“Allow and encourage employees to make decisions and suggestions, and actually listen to them” says Natalia Valentina. “Invite them to attend meetings, set up a focus group, and show them that their opinions are valued.” But remember: asking your team for their input alone won’t make them feel involved. Worse still, if you endlessly harvest their views but don’t act on them, you destroy trust. Invest just as much time planning how you will act on what you hear, as listening to your team.

Lead from the top

“My experience as a business owner and experienced recruiter is that culture initially starts at the top” says Simon Roderick of Fram Search. “The owner of the company or the senior members of the business are responsible for leading by example” says marketing consultant Shona Chambers. “Show don't tell means so much in business management.” Research suggests that leaders can be powerful role models, so take your responsibilities seriously.

If you’re not sure why your team isn’t behaving in the way you’d like, ask yourself: am I modelling this behaviour myself? If, for example, you’re trying to create a culture of healthy work/life balance, then sending emails at 4am isn’t going to reassure your team that they can really switch off after hours (you might want to try scheduling your emails to send during work hours instead!)

Trust your team

“Now, more than ever companies need to adopt a company culture that recognizes the importance of mental health” says Nerissa Zhang, CEO of The Bright App. “For example, requiring a doctor's note to give employees time off from work is a poor practice if you want to acknowledge and respect the importance of mental health. Instead, allow employees to take mental health days rather than just sick days by letting them decide how they use their time off without having to discuss their private lives or their decision.”

“With working from home being trialled by so many companies it's important to show belief in results over presentism and to build trust with employees by allowing them the time and space to deliver” says Shona Chambers. It can be tempting to check in on your team with constant instant messages, emails or surprise phone calls, but you won’t empower them to your job. The only way to build trust in your team is to show it, sincerely, to your employees.

Their wellbeing is your concern

“If your leaders don’t truly believe that the well-being of their staff is crucial then it’s a nonstarter” says Lukas Vanterpool at The Sterling Choice. “We’re open and honest with our team, we encourage them to take care of themselves physically, mentally and even spiritually.”

Be transparent

“Acknowledge that there will be times when you are going in multiple directions in a way that may feel chaotic” says Wendy Yates of Abigail-Elise Companies. “That’s okay because chaos can give way to a clearer direction or path and it is often a part of growing a stronger team.” Trying to pretend that everything is rosy won’t build a lot of team spirit. Being honest about the challenges ahead and giving your team the support they need? That’s more like it.

Live your values

“In my experience, building a thriving company culture is about understanding and articulating your company purpose and values and finding ways to make sure they are truly lived out in every area of the business (e.g. the people you hire fit, the way you communicate reinforces and reflects the values, the systems reflect the values, the sanctions and rewards reinforce the values and associated behaviours) like the name through a seaside stick of rock” says Benjamin Drury, The Culture Guy.

Company culture belongs to everyone

“Company culture evolves every day and can breakdown very easily” says Danny Denhard of Focus Business. “Therefore company culture has to have a number of internal influential champions across all levels to push this forward and connect the dots to success.”

Culture isn’t just the job of HR or leadership. When we understand that it’s in all of our hands, we can all commit to building a culture that makes work a pleasure.

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