Corporate Culture

Building a Magnetic Work Culture from Where You Are

(11 min read)

Have you ever compared your company's current workplace culture to another, and thought, “It feels like I am doing everything wrong.”? That is not the case! Like every company, you (and other leaders in the organization) have strengths and weaknesses. Who doesn't? You're doing a lot right with the work environment. You're still in business. You've been able to weather recent economic and cultural storms. You've recruited some employees who want to be loyal and productive. You're making a profit.

The last thing you need is an organization or cultural overhaul, a silver bullet solution or another long to-do list when you get back to work--and the costs that such a gigantic undertaking involves. And the good news is you don't have to flip your organization upside-down to figure out how to improve company culture. Many companies are discovering this truth right now, as improving company culture is a trending conversation and priority among businesses small and large alike.

Instead of thinking about major investments that you have to budget for and put off until the next fiscal year, don’t overlook the simple, elegant solutions that are right in front of you. Not every innovation requires a bright, shiny and expensive object.

Commit to simple changes. Remember Occam's Razor, from 14th Century Philosopher of Logic, William of Ockham when he said "the simplest solution is almost always the best.” And the brilliant minds over at Harvard would agree. According to the Harvard Business School, when you move your focus from “big bang” priorities to low-hanging fruit, you are more likely to succeed. By acting and fixing small problems first, you smooth the way for larger-scale solutions."

Be on the lookout for 1-3 action items that you can implement and leverage now for improving company culture. Are you unsure where to start? Below you'll find a practical guide to discovering this proverbial fruit in your own organization.

Begin from a place of respect

So you need to know how to improve work culture? Let’s start with what was taught by the late, great Aretha Franklin– R-E-S-P-E-C-T. According to a job satisfaction survey by SHRM, respectful treatment ranked first on the list of job satisfaction (67%). A positive work environment is built on respect for employees. If you start making changes from the standpoint of improving productivity, cutting recruitment costs, and increasing profits, employees will see right through that.

That's not to say that all of this won't be yours as you determine how to improve company culture, but changes can backfire if employees perceive you're doing it for the wrong reasons.A recent HBR survey of 20,000+ employees (worldwide) found that every single employee rated respect as their most important factor.

Robust employer branding impact on the bottom line

Ultimately, this is about your employer branding. Richard Branson of Virgin Group says, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” If you're spending all of your time pounding into employees' heads how important customer service is while at the same time neglecting to show your employees the same courtesy and respect, "you ARE doing it wrong", at least in this area of the business.

Like a customer-facing brand, an employer brand is the image that employees and potential employees have of your company. In essence, they're thinking: Is this somewhere I want to work? Does this employer genuinely respect the contributions of employees? Or are they forcing a work culture to boost profits?

Building a robust employer brand is worth its weight in gold... a.k.a. ROI. The ROI is tangible with benefits like these:

  • Improve recruitment. According to Glassdoor, 86% of employees read employer reviews before applying.
  • Attract top talent
  • Increase credibility in the community
  • 28% reduction in turnover (Employee retention was ranked #1 metric for HR recruitment success)
  • Increase productivity
  • 50% reduction in cost-per-hire
  • 1-2X faster hiring process
  • Improved customer brand. A strong employer brand improves product/service quality and consistency, so it definitely impacts how customers see you.

How to show respect to employees

Respect goes far beyond saying, "I respect you."

Employees feel respect through your actions, tone of voice, and where you place your priorities. To show respect, you must advance past superficial signs of respect and enter into a realm where many leaders fear to tread. That's empathy and connecting. Yes, employees feel respected when you can relate to them as people with real emotions, real problems, achievable hopes, and dreams.

The days of telling employees to "leave their personal lives at home" are essentially over. Employees want to know you care about the individual, not just their production.

This is new to a lot of people. You don't want to be taken advantage of if you show "weakness". But having a heart in business is not a weakness. It's good business. And, remember, little changes can equal big wins.

Start truly seeing others. Be fully present and practice empathic listening. Do you feel this isn't your strong suit? This is a skill worth cultivating among your leaders. It builds trust. Forbes reported a study of 7000 employees nearly a third of employee loyalty can be attributed to "trusting" the boss.

Foundational feeling on contribution, trust, and altruism are all derived from one thing…human relationships. You can change the conversation by transforming a single question of, “what’s the matter with you?” into “what matters to you?

You won’t need to worry if you treat people well. Just listen to them and give them room to grow. People experience the most happiness in the workplace when they feel in control of their performance.

Finding your company's low-hanging fruit

You don't have to do the next 20+ things because that's how to improve company culture.

Instead, let them get your mental wheels turning, so you can identify the low-hanging fruit in your own organization that leads to the big wins that change company culture and create a positive workplace. From there, you can build a strategic plan to start knocking out some of these goals and measuring how they impact various employee culture metrics.

Lead by example

Change happens from the top-down and the inside-out. When the CEO treats the vice presidents and departmental directors with respect, those individuals treat their own direct reports and peers with respect. Regardless of where you are in the chain, start with you and how you treat "your people" and "your peers". Demonstrate to other leaders within the organization the power of magnetic work culture. A more respectful, empathetic business culture grows.

Dialogue, not monologue

Start a conversation, and take time to listen to others.

Create a work environment of psychological safety, trust, and dignity

That's easier said than done. You'll get a lot more out of an employee when you create an environment in which people feel safe sharing ideas and solving problems creatively. If someone has a pie-in-the-sky idea, don't shoot it down immediately. Hear what they have to say and seek to learn about their thinking process. They may be onto something others missed.

Strengthen others

Build others up, not artificially, as in telling them they're doing a good job when they aren't. But encourage them to work together and achieve personal and professional goals.

Unravel the policies, bureaucracy, and status quo that are getting in the way

Within many organizations, you'll find a patchwork of this stuff. Maybe it served a purpose at one time. But is it still relevant? People change. Social norms and expectations change. Generations of people respond the different methods.

Eliminate multi-tasking

Don't reject science. Multi-tasking doesn't work. Researchers have performed experiments on "good multi-taskers". They're very unproductive, error-prone, and often spend much of their day in a heightened state of stress. Promoting work habits that are bad for health increase absenteeism, presenteeism, burn-out, and turn-over.

Improve delegation (business & personal)

If you want to earn trust, you must show you trust others. Delegate more to help those around you grow.

Invest in ongoing leadership development

Invest in your leadership. Often "good" employees get promoted to leadership, but that drive that it takes to produce a quality product isn't always the same as what it takes to be a good leader. However, most people got where they are for a reason. They're determined, and you can coach them for success. When you invest in the soft skills they need to lead, you'll see the ripples throughout work culture.

Foster an environment of human connection

Encourage eating together rather than at desks. 62% of employees reportedly eat at their desk at least several times per week. #Saddesklunch. Plan a weekly or monthly lunch period that brings the team together in a "non-work activity". It will help employees see each other as people, not just co-workers.

Rethink meetings

Take a closer look at your calendar.

  • Do you have standing meetings that no longer serve a purpose?
  • Can you establish a meeting free day every week?
  • Can you change meetings to huddles? Where you meet in a central location, remain standing and limit time to 7 minutes or less.
  • Are those running meetings unorganized and wasting participant time?

Get a bottom-up view of workflow

  • Do you have tasks that no longer make sense & need to be revisited?
  • Are there policies or bureaucracies that are bogging you down?
  • Are you making decisions that can be delegated?
  • Do you have “gap” times during your day or slow periods over the course of your year that can give you time to recharge and refocus?

Emphasize wellness

Business may be doing well, but the employees are exhausted. They're stressed out, and struggling to the point that it affects their work and life. Focusing on wellness is a simple, cost-effective, yet impactful way to show you care about people over production--and by doing so increase production. Sneaky, right?

Support healthier employees with physical and mental health & wellness programs. But wellness goes beyond the programs. When you consistently and regularly convey respect, value, and appreciation for each individual, the result is more motivated, united, and inspired group of employees.

Feeling undervalued is a major stressor and bad for health. When people feel undervalued by their boss, everything they do becomes "harder", including being motivated to do a good job.

According to market research, most organizations underestimate employee work stresses. This is a blind spot that you can steer into a competitive advantage by taking a proactive approach. Make work less stressful while increasing engagement to see your existing employees bloom into their true potential.

  • The HBR recently found 83% of employees name work as their greatest source of stress
  • 53% are closer to burnout than they were five years ago
  • 55% of employees surveyed say they feel like they can’t leave their desk for a break

According to Gallup research, stress is contagious. But you know what? So is well-being. When you cultivate well-being, it spreads.

For example, Gallup studied over 1000 people across 105 teams and found that employees who reported to a supervisor that had self-reported that they were "thriving" at work, were 15% more likely to also say they were "thriving" six months later. Employees who said they were "thriving" at work were 20% more likely to have the team members around them reporting that they were thriving six months later. That's even after these other team members initially reported that they were not thriving. "Thriving" is contagious.

What does this tell you? You don't have to think "whole organization at once". If you can reinforce the well-being of one person, then one team, that thriving mentality will grow.

From strategic planning how to improve organizational culture to execution

What now? Let's put a plan into action. Regardless of the above best practices you choose to call your low-hanging fruit, take these steps to get results.

Step 1: Do you notice common gold standard attributes from the best practices listed above in your own experience? If you do, these are your current strengths. Amplify those first. That's the very low-hanging fruit.

Step 2: Choose strategies above to create an environment of psychological safety, trust, and dignity. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Step 3: Work to build these human connections and apply 1-3 of the above strategies within your leadership circle. Then branch out.

Step 4: Commit to strengthening others -- always. Make it what you're all about. The stronger those surrounding you are, the stronger you are. It's not the other way around.

Step 5: Unravel the policies, bureaucracy, and status quo that are getting in the way of these big wins you get from small changes.

Final Thoughts

There are so many business reasons to want to improve workplace culture. The power of the employer brand is real and well-documented. What do you want your business legacy to be? Don't you want creating a work culture filled with happier, healthier employees to be a part your reputation in the community and with customers? You'll find plenty of low-hanging fruit in your organization, those little things that create a winning situation for your company and the valued employees who make business success possible.


Scott Foster is CEO of Wellco. Scott is a frequently-invited expert and speaker regarding well-being, engagement, & leadership.  Wellco provides award-winning solutions to measurably improve health experiences & outcomes. For more information, contact Wellco. 

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