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  • Writer's pictureLaetitia Gordon-Furse

"We have a great culture here" - how to turn the corporate strapline into a genuine reality

When trying to find some inspiration for this article, I was having a browse looking for 'hot leadership topics' for 2018 and came across this world cloud (credit @ DDI) showing a nice overview of what's been on people's minds this year.

Credit @DDI

My overwhelming feelings reading this word cloud is that concept of 'hot topic' also tends to translate to 'talked about so much that I'm sick to death of reading about it', and so I had to think quite carefully about what I could write about without inducing instant boredom.

Unfortunately, this boredom may still of course happen (sorry) but I can try to avoid it by selecting a 'hot topic' that, although talked about no end, also happens to be appropriately vague and attractive enough for organisations to liberally sprinkle it on their social media and recruitment platforms in an effort to lure us to come and work for them. Thought I'd start off non-cynically...

Startups seem to have been the first to latch onto this trend of "having a good culture", with the big corporates sneaking up on them and trying also to capitalise on this concept. The pool tables / beers on a Friday afternoon were once a novel idea, a bro-culture, borne from the Silicon Valley Garage companies where work was play and play was work. Google took this to a new level when they decided to spend a casual £1billion on their London behemoth offices and include a vast array of free eateries, a 'wellness' centre, a half-sized olympic swimming pool, sushi and chocolate fountains for lunch. There was much mention from Google of these extravagant purchases building a 'great culture'.

But -

Does it take £1billion to buy great culture, or does beer and pool achieve the same result? What makes a culture 'bad'?

Well firstly, culture doesn't equal office furniture and swimming pools, because the environment is not the only component of a workplace culture, of course. Environment by definition is our surroundings - and arguably the most important component of our surroundings is the people we work with. It's worth clarifying - as often organisations believe that improving one improves the other, when it's clearly not necessarily the case.

So there's no doubt that the working environment makes a huge difference to how you feel about work. A quick google of whether office equipment can affect productivity and foster culture - good or bad - returns a staggering array of articles and studies - and 148m hits. Yet, we don't really need to read these. Most of us reading this article have experienced the flourescent-lit offices, the grey cubicles, the chiropractor-requiring chairs, fishbowl meeting rooms, project 'war rooms', and the aggressive hot-desking environment (I'm referring to those workplaces where there really, really aren't enough desks to go around). All of these elements to an office can be demoralising at best, and maddening at worst. I worked at one international employer where there were over 300 employees for fewer than 150 desks, 50 mysteriously unavailable lockers, less than 20 feet from an enormous building site, and WiFi that never - ever - worked. Maddening covers it well. Soil-like coffee, sawdust-filled teabags, UHT milk and soft free biscuits can all contribute to feeling undervalued and low when walking through those doors each morning, but luckily most places seem to have cottoned on to upping the ante a little bit when it comes to tea and biscuits; we are British after all.

But, does buying fancy furniture and tea/coffee, improving the lighting, providing enough desks to go around and painting everything in primary colours solve the problem? As with all annoying articles, the answer is of course yes and no.

Startup office with hipster exposed brickwork? Tick.

I've worked in three different organisations, and with an array of different clients in their own cultural environments. Therefore I've experienced a wide variety contexts, many proving my previous point that office environments and people cultures often mismatch. However, there was a one exception worth mentioning. I was very fortunate to spend time in an organisation where a considerable effort was put into the office environment, where it did indeed match - there was a 'great culture' of both the physical surroundings and the people working there. You can see how this can happen - somewhere that cares enough about how their people feel when they walk into the office each day is more likely to care about people's wellbeing, and in turn more likely to listen to their employees' concerns and act upon them where they can. A nice environment can help you to feel comfortable and relaxed at work. It also makes you less likely to be irrationally angry when walking into a meeting because you've spent 15 minutes doing laps of the office, desperately trying to find a desk while carrying your worldly possessions, after a not-so-nice London commute. A pattern repeated constantly in one of my particular roles.

So we've discussed the grey, miserably-decorated and badly-designed offices and the effect this can have on your environment,

but what about the effect that people have on your environment and the office culture?

Grey grey and some more grey.

I'm absolutely positive that many of you will have your own 'bad people culture' experiences that vastly out-do mine. Anecdotes from some of my finance and lawyer friends are truly exceptional. But, to mention a smattering of my own, they have ranged from: clients throwing objects ( me) about an email they didn't like (...from someone else), over 100 emails received per weekend from an individual who was indulging a casual pharmaceutical habit, a colourful array of violent swearing episodes, hideous working hours, observing others' considerable mental/physical health issues due to work, "keeping-calm-and-carrying-on-at-all-costs-even-though-we-all-know-this-isn't-working" (aka denial, my favourite), and unfortunately some ubiquitous yet minor #metoo instances.

I don't think these experiences are exceptional at all. Sadly I think these are seen as standard experiences in many first world capital cities. However, culture is still a 'hot topic' in the workplace chatter and organisational marketing, because employees find 'good culture' so difficult to come by, and because employers find it so expensive to get wrong.

News travels about companies, as we've seen. We see it unfold almost daily in our newspapers. Employers are expending more and more money and energy into satisfaction surveys and employee feedback, because the workforce is clearly valuing it, which is vastly evident in the exit interviews where people cite 'bad culture' (and are usually referring to people culture) as a reason for leaving.

Seems like a nice guy

Well it goes without saying that culture and people are inextricably linked. Costly employee satisfaction surveys, extensive PR lauding your new offices, and strategically placed Glassdoor reviews are all a lot less expensive than lawsuits, arbitration, and the cost of attrition. In the famous and cliched words of Warren Buffet, it takes 20 years to build a reputation and just five minutes to ruin it. Disgruntled former employees can induce snowballing costs in terms of the network effect they can create in their circles, with their unhappiness sometimes causing costly recruitment efforts through a self-fulfilling prophecy of attrition. The higher your employee turnover, the harder it is to safeguard knowledge, and the more frustrated existing team members feel in on-boarding yet another person into a problematic role(s). This in turn makes them more likely to leave. More leaving = more employer HR budget funnelled into into recruitment, rather than spending it on listening to their employees and making a collaborative effort to improve the employee environment. In short, it pays more to give a sh*t about culture than it does to not.

So what does make a good culture?

We've discussed some of the examples of what can really improve the physical surroundings in which we work. The people culture issue is a different matter, and is much harder to solve. Bad people cultures can be extremely difficult to solve. Client-based work brings its own challenges, where our tolerance threshold for bad behaviour might be extended due to financial incentives. In a client-facing role, you may be working 5 days a week with that particular client, and their poor people culture practices that would never be tolerated within your own company are brushed aside. Yet this can then have a significant impact on your perception of your own company culture.

Hierarchy is also a classic challenge, where poor examples set further up the company reinforce and encourage similar behaviours lower down, and the graduates previously uncomfortable with such behaviours take them forward in their career, continuing the cycle.

So to bring another 'hot topic' / buzzword into this article, leadership is key. Our first way to build a great culture -

1. Your leadership have to live and breathe a collaboratively built set of values, and extend them beyond the realm of their own company - to the partners with whom they work, too.

We can already see a shift in this. An example is how consumers make choices with their money over the political party connections of their companies, due to their disagreement with the party values, and companies are beginning to respond. Positive behaviours with integrity must start at the top, as employees are not mindless gophers. They will cotton on pretty quickly if you're not setting the example, and that breach of trust can further denigrate the culture. Values cannot be a token wave to appearing to care and connect, people are judged on their behaviour and not their words, and organisations are no exception.

2. Recruit better

Don't hire nasty people. There is an abundance of literature on the dangers of hiring the 'brilliant as*hole'. Hire people who fit into the culture you would like to build in the future, even if you're still working on getting there. I say this knowing that recruitment bias is a real challenge, so get a range of opinions before you hire, and try not to hire a load of people who look and talk exactly like yourself. Investing more in the recruitment process can really pay off, and trying other angles such as 'trials' (bringing someone into the office for a day, or even a half day, to see how they work with others), or bringing some of your most junior employees into the interview process to see how they are treated by a candidate can be surprisingly more revealing. Otherwise, you risk making an ill-informed decision on a relationship that is potentially years long, on the basis of a couple of hours of face time. An HBR article on 'cultural vampires', aka toxic employees, demonstrates pretty well the colossal damage certain individuals can do to your company culture. Invest up front to avoid being bitten.

3. Listen to your staff

Not all the best ideas come from you (don't be the brilliant as*hole). One of the most untapped resources are those who work for you. To explain: people don't necessarily want an anarchistic workplace, or somewhere where you need input from the entire office before moving forward, but allowing people to feel like they can make an occasional impact on the place in which they work can have an amazing effect on morale. Growing organisations can lead to an inevitable decrease in employee freedom, but building in some formalised, non-token mechanisms for giving a voice can only allow for more informed decisions. I recently attended a conference where some companies discussed the unprecedented value of 'MD for a day', where people from all levels could enter a competition to run the show for a day, to see what they would do differently - a CEO with an OBE said it was one of her most valuable working experiences. So a little lateral thinking as to how you can listen, and most importantly follow through, on your employees suggestions can only be a good thing.

4. Invest healthily in your team

Token away-days that involve a brief presentation followed by heading off for a drinking session is dated and not particularly valuable. I agree that team bonding off site, (sometimes in the form of drinking..), can of course build relationships and allow teams to see more human sides to each other. However, I believe it is important to add genuine value in increasingly pressurised and competitive environments, and employees putting effort into thinking about how they are working day-to-day is not only valuable but completely essential. Teams going through significant transformation or scaling can experience extreme pressure, and adding alcohol as a way to 'blow off steam' can not only harm some relationships, by reducing inhibitions and allowing for a little too much 'honesty', but also foster some unhealthy habits and not ultimately deal with the problems or communication tensions that may be lurking.

I am deeply passionate about building completely bespoke, sustainable, embedded and meaningful team sessions. Anything that encourages the building of emotional literacy, creates an open space for people to share concerns and have them listened to, and gives them tools to combat some of their challenges, can hopefully be a way to provide some genuine and thought-out investment into your team, that they will recognise and return to you with loyalty and the building of a great people culture.

'Having a great culture' is not something that can be built overnight. Places struggling with this can take a long time to salvage their reputations and iron out the workplace negativity. However the statistics show that this is no longer something that can be ignored - millennial employees are moving on quicker than they ever have before, and in return companies are struggling to keep up with the required pace of recruitment. Keeping people for longer and ensuring they don't want to leave will create the ripple effect needed to gradually grow and develop a great people culture. And the physical environment? Just invest a billion or two and you're sorted.

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