The Workplace

Does Your Office Care About You?

Forget away days, table tennis or bonuses – attract talent by making company culture a top priority

Like human culture in general, company culture can be an elusive beast. It’s an incredibly powerful force and yet almost impossible to condense into a neat formula or set of best practices. Traditionally viewed as a “nice to have” that can be added as an afterthought once you get the nuts and bolts of your business in place, a focus on creating happy, engaged, motivated employees is now becoming increasingly essential.

Deloitte recently released research finding that “organisational culture, engagement and employee brand proposition” were top priorities for executives in 2017, with nearly 80 per cent saying employee experience was “important or very important”. Only 22 per cent felt that their companies were actually any good at creating conviviality, however. A recent Gallup poll backs this up showing almost 70 per cent of employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged at work.

It’s no accident that Fortune’s list of top companies neatly mirrors workplace comparison site Glassdoor’s ranking of best places to work, demonstrating that a good culture means a good business. Here, we explore some of the ways to create a thriving company culture (spoiler alert: it’s not about beanbags, Ping-Pong tables and away days).

HR rethink

The very concept of “HR” starts things out on the wrong foot. By thinking of humans as resources, you’re forgetting to first approach them as people. Changing the language we use may sound wishy-washy, but it also gives you the opportunity to re-evaluate your entire approach to talent. With LinkedIn estimating that employees account for 80 per cent of a company’s operating expenses, this could be transformative for your business.

Burberry has cited company culture as their sixth key business pillar for 2017, appointing the brand’s first “chief people officer” (CPO) to help bring it about. This goes far beyond the traditional paper-pushing HR functions of payroll and holiday forms, instead combining traits of psychologist, anthropologist and strategist. Rather than dispensing free breakfasts and yoga sessions, CPOs help to identify your company mission, translate it into practical guidelines for hiring and inspiring staff, and coach senior management in how to really get the most out of their people.

As so often, looking to Silicon Valley can also give a window into the future. Here, even the CPO is beginning to look out-dated. Airbnb appointed a “global head of employee experience” back in 2015 to lead its HR functions, while Netflix’s 124-slide “culture manifesto” outlines how it reward values such as curiosity, courage and passions. The manifesto espouses tough love, emphasising the fact that Netflix is a team, not a family, even outlining a “keeper test” for managers to apply to their employees: anyone a manager wouldn’t fight to keep gets a severance package. This hard-line approach may not sound like “culture building” as we know it, but it has proved incredibly successful (and has been viewed almost 16 million times online). If the billion-dollar unicorns of the West Coast are taking culture seriously, maybe you should, too. Bin the freebies and perks in favour of solid, strategic steps that make culture the concrete bedrock of your business.

Spatial awareness

Instinctively, you’d think that an open-plan office would help improve transparency, openness and collaboration, and indeed so highly are these qualities valued that it’s estimated 70 per cent of US workers now work open plan. Much fanfare greeted Facebook’s new 40,000sq m Mr Frank Gehry-designed campus, where almost 3,000 staff share the largest open-plan room in the world and have access to a giant communal rooftop park.

There is a growing body of research that shows open-plan spaces can have exactly the opposite effect on some workers, however. A recent report by Auckland University of Technology found that although extroverts can thrive here, introverts actually respond by developing coping mechanisms such as withdrawal and uncooperativeness. Professor Cal Newport of Georgetown University argues in his latest book that we’re losing our ability to achieve concentrated “deep work” because of constant distractions, and that we need to bring in measures such as blocking out 50 per cent of our diary time for quiet focus, banning social media from the office and working remotely when needed.

Academic Ms Susan Cain set up the Quiet Revolution in 2015 to help champion the power of introverts at work, and has since advised brands including LinkedIn, Nasa and GE on how to create more nuanced working environments. One such environment is the recently opened Kanarie Club in Amsterdam, where a hulking 19th-century tram-shed has been converted into a range of modular work zones that allow different approaches to work at different times of the day.

Spreading the word

Creating good company culture in a small family business is relatively straightforward, relying on good face-to-face communication. The problem comes when trying to do things on a larger scale. Anthropologist Dr Robin Dunbar famously found that the maximum number of people in a stable social group is around 150 – any more than that and bonds begin to unravel. So how can you maintain a feeling of intimacy in a company of hundreds or thousands of people?

It’s important to first recognise that culture is both horizontal and vertical: it’s led from the top but also built between peers. Leadership has to set the right tone (and that means everyone from the CEO down), but you also need to ensure that it’s embedded at every level. Looking at your organisation as an ecosystem and rethinking the company “org chart” can help clarify things here. Apple famously transformed its business by elevating the design department and making chief design officer Sir Jony Ive report straight to the CEO.

It’s all but impossible to keep a sense of cosy interaction on a global scale, but there are now a host of digital tools that can help create a better sense of integration, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook. Deloitte’s survey found that 56 per cent of companies are redesigning their HR systems to leverage digital tools while 33 per cent are embracing artificial intelligence, meaning that smart solutions are going mainstream.

Mission control

If you’ve ever worked in a company where the culture is flat lining, you know how toxic it can be to getting work done. The temptation is to focus on specific conflicts or individuals, but this is often a case of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. To really enact change when things are going wrong, you’ll need to address the entire ecosystem, and this will likely be the toughest task you’ll ever take on.

Communicating an inspiring mission is one of the most powerful ways to steer a struggling culture. Research from Global Tolerance consultancy has found that 62 per cent of millennials want to work for a company that has a positive impact on the world and around 50 per cent would prefer a greater sense of purpose to a pay rise. A mission is far bigger than your business: Google may make its money through search, but its mission is “connection”; Airbnb provides cheap rentals, but its mission is “belonging”; Uber is a taxi firm with a mission focused on global “mobility”. Inspire more to pay less? That’s the kind of solution a CEO likes to hear.

As business and leisure become ever more enmeshed, it’s no longer enough for a company to focus on quarterly reports and five-year plans. To truly create a thriving culture in the long-term, your business needs to find a purpose beyond the bottom-line and convey it to your team, on all levels. A business plan can provide a roadmap to growth, but have a think about how a “purpose plan” could provide a roadmap to culture.

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