Company culture matters – more than we think

By Anne de Kerckhove, CEO, Freespee.

Recent research has confirmed what many business leaders already suspected to be true: company culture really does matter. The Culture Economy, a survey commissioned by breatheHR, reveals that a third of British employees have left jobs due to them not fitting the workplace culture, and that a company’s culture directly influences its productivity.

Meanwhile, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has pointed out that the effects of adverse working cultures go far beyond the obvious costs of frequent recruitment and sick pay. It has identified a pressing needto overhaul the traditional British workplace culture if the nation is to thrive in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Of course, it is all very well to talk about making a company’s culture more inclusive, balanced and positive, but quite another thing to quantify it and specify what changes are required. The research tells us that greater trust in leaders, transparency and support for employees at all levels are ‘must haves’ — but how can business leaders achieve this?


What does a positive workplace culture look like?

There are many versions of a positive workplace culture, because in each case the concept will be shaped by the nature of the work, environment and individuals involved. For example, while the option to dress casually or work flexibly from home is viable in many office-bound jobs, in retail it’s a little trickier (although not always impossible). Another example is social events; bringing staff together for social activities may be difficult in an automotive plant, where many staff members work shifts, but much more achievable in a dealership or small business. In general, a culture that fosters happiness, collaboration, flexibility, diversity and creativity is deemed healthy, and likely to promote the best interests of staff and enterprise alike.

A recent survey of 2,200 employeesby McKinsey & Company concluded that greater gender diversity in European workplaces could add as much as $2 trillion to the GDP by 2025,while another study by the same company found that not only did diversity of both gender and ethnicity correlate with profitability and value creation, but that these findings were also replicatedin countries around the world.

So, if diversity is a commercial advantage, what must employers do to attract a wide range of talent and persuade them to stay? A dynamic workplace culture is important in this respect, because it helps employers secure the best from the talent pool availablefor long-term employee retention, according to a study an article by Harvard Business Review. It also stands to reason that happy employees are likely to be more engaged with their work (and thus, it might reasonably be assumed, more productive) but they are also generally more engaged with their colleagues, which fosters collaboration and in turn drives up quality and productivity.


Proactivity is key

Employers are aware that employees can easily lose trust in management, that the traditional means of shaping and enforcing workplace culture are no longer effective and that, after a tough few years, the overall employment market is becoming more buoyant and competitive. Businesses simply cannot afford to pay lip service to workplace culture anymore; they must change – which will not only benefit their employees, but in turn boost productivity and thus performance.

There is a great deal that companies of all sizes can do to enhance workplace culture and nurture a sense of engagement, inclusion and enthusiasm. Defining the firm’s cultural priorities, flexibility and values in a clear manner, and then cascading these down through the organisation, helps to ensure that they become widely acknowledged foundations of the business.

Surveying staff — not merely to assess their happiness, but also to ask them for feedback and suggestions —and localising/customising initiatives so that they are of practical use are all positive steps towards embedding a genuinely healthy workplace culture.

People expect the messages their employer sends them to be timely, accessible and tailored. They also, expect to see evidence of a response to the ideas or suggestions they contribute to feel recognised and valued.

For example, at Freespee we have recently re-launched our website and before going public we invited all employees to provide feedback. Over 50% of the company’s employees sent their feedback within a week and they’ve all been reviewed and acted.

None of this is rocket science; it is based on the concept of a reciprocal relationship and mutual respect.


Lessons learned

Defining a ‘good workplace culture’ is not easy and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to building a great environment. There are clearly lessons to be learned from companies that are already getting it right – often SMEs. Many smaller businesses are working hard to instil the right company culture from the top down – often a task lower down the priority list at bigger firms – and thriving from this approach.

In order to compete in a changing and evolving business landscape, UK companies must not only have well-trained and well-educated workers; it must also give all employees the support, confidence and opportunities they need to thrive and to drive them forward. At the moment, research shows there is a chronic lack of quality engagement between management and workers, and that this is not only compromising quality and productivity at the moment but also, perhaps even more alarmingly, threatening to stifle the development of talent that is crucial for this country’s future.

British workplaces need more diversity, transparency and equality, according to the CMI. The organisation calls for employers and the government to improve productivity through people. It is very difficult to see how that can be achieved without a wholehearted and practical decision by businesses to create workplace cultures that not only foster these ideals, but positively enact them.