“We have a great culture here.”
Now that’s an often-stated phrase that probably gets thrown around a bit too much in workplaces. Especially in those that potentially haven’t earned the status. Visions of ping pong tables, Friday drinks, staff picnics outside of work hours and more come to the fore.
But the reality behind building an exceptional workplace culture is far more difficult to achieve.
The stats back it up. In Deloitte Access’s Global Human Capital Trends survey a whopping 82% of respondents said they knew having a strong workplace culture was a competitive advantage, delivering better business outcomes and happier staff. However, the same survey revealed only 12% of leaders felt they were driving the right culture. Worse, only about one-fifth of leaders said they actually had the right culture.
So what makes building a workplace culture that helps people and profits thrive so damn difficult?
Everledger CEO and Founder Leanne Kemp – also Queensland’s former Chief Entrepreneur – says building culture is a marathon that takes experience and, unfortunately, the acceptance that it won’t be right for everyone.
“Getting culture right can be hard. It takes time and it takes practice,” she says.
“Everledger isn’t my first business; over the course of my career (if you can call it that!) I’ve had time to try things out and see what works. So in many ways, Everledger is benefitting from those experiences.
“I do believe in having a strong culture – this doesn’t mean appeasing everyone because it’s impossible to always make everyone happy. What’s more important is creating a shared sense of connection and harnessing that to ensure the company can keep moving forward and in the same direction.”
The numbers stack up for kings of culture
If you replace the words “company culture” with “shared sense of connection” and endeavour to achieve that across your whole business, you’re probably heading down the right path. And while the language may sound slightly fluffy, consider the statistics around businesses that do focus on connecting its employees meaningfully right from their first to interview through to their exit from a business. Fortunately, the cost of a terrible workplace culture is easy to measure thanks to the following statistics from workplace review site Glassdoor.
About 80% of workers say the first interview is vital in deciding how a business values their staff – they’re watching you right from the get-go. Additionally, an employee who feels engaged in their role and the company are on average 125% more productive than a merely satisfied staffer, and those businesses experience 60% less turnover. And we all know the cost of replacing talented employees.
It’s something Kemp says businesses of pretty much any size need to be wary of if they intend to grow sustainably.
“At Everledger we have six operational centres in different time-zones and countries around the world,” she says.
“We are fortunate to be a truly diverse company and we embrace what makes us different as much as what brings us together. Our culture is driven by our shared values, which we articulated as a company and which serve as a springboard for how we make decisions – from onboarding staff to keeping us aligned to our core business.
“Culture is more than drinks on a Friday afternoon, especially in a global company: it’s a sense of belonging and unity.”
When crisis hits, culture is a rock for businesses
Yes, we’re all living a global health crisis. But when any crisis hits – from pandemics to disasters to downturns and more – Kemp says culture is a deciding factor in how businesses emerge from the other side, or if they emerge at all.
She says Everledger went all in on communication and connection, and only through already fostering that culture did it succeed in keeping things cool, calm and collected.
“We did what a lot of startups did – we increased our virtual contact with an increased schedule of standups, all-hands meetings, and lots of communications across the company be it on big issues, fun stuff or small wins,” she says.
“We were already skilled up with a high level of virtual literacy – our staff already knew how to conduct Zoom meetings and we had processes and systems in place to have continuity of workflow despite not being able to meet in person.
“The culture of working remotely was already entrenched so it meant we didn’t lose time in skilling up the company by creating new processes or finding enough equipment to adequately work from home – that was all done and part of our culture. This gave us what looked like a headstart on those companies that had to build this from scratch at a difficult time.”
And the data shows having that positive cultural headstart is vital in maintaining business success. In an analysis during the pandemic late last year, researchers from MIT found that the top 500 companies ranked for excellent business culture became even more popular among workers, and their success was put down to a handful of things: great communication from leaders, honest and transparent communication with colleagues, acting with integrity, and leaders having the strength to resolve difficult issues quickly.
So where do you start when building a strong culture?
Kemp says wanting to build the right culture is the first step towards having the right culture. But be warned – there’s no one-size-fits-all for business and it’s a marathon, rarely a sprint.
“I don’t think there’s one right way to go about this. It’s a word that gets bandied about a bit too much these days,” she says.
“But culture has to be genuine and authentic. If it doesn’t align to the values of the company, it won’t work. For culture to work, people have to want to be a part of it.”
And what’s the best way to tackle people who just won’t get on board? Tough decisions sometimes require a stiff upper lip, but Kemp says if you set up your culture expectations from the very start, it sorts the keepers from the leavers pretty quickly.
“If you set those foundations early, I think people largely self-select in this manner. If people don’t like the culture, they’ll leave,” she says.
“I think in the world of startups and scaleups, culture is very important. Startups often don’t have the luxury of big budgets and huge headcount so we rely on people being aligned to a core culture and set of values to propel forward.”
And propel forward we must – a strong workplace culture demands it.