As 2021 draws to a close, it’s no secret that both workers and workplaces alike are finding themselves in a state of change. Catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote work or hybrid plans that completely transformed the employee experience, workers have been rethinking and reevaluating what they’re looking for in a job — and even what work itself means to them. And after almost two years of reimagining the way they do business, many companies are reevaluating not just how they’ll operate going forward, but what kind of company they want to be, too.
In a competitive labor market, ensuring that your firm has a strong — and strongly positive — organizational culture is an advantage for recruiting and retention. But what goes into the kind of robust, positive workplace culture that engages current employees and attracts prospective ones? And how can HR help create and support the core values that create the foundation of company culture? Lattice asked the experts — here’s what they said.
6 Best Practices for Creating a Positive Company Culture
1. Culture starts at the top — so leadership needs to set the tone.
At a recent virtual roundtable hosted by Lattice entitled “What Is HR's Role in Promoting a Positive Work Culture?” experts agreed: When it comes to setting the agenda, it’s got to come from the top. No matter what a company’s culture is, they said, it reflects the priorities and company values of its leadership. And HR teams looking to define, refine, or grow a strong company culture need to understand where it comes from.
Parker Hansen, Director of Human Resources and Culture for kid-oriented technology company Gabb Wireless, said he has one piece of advice he passes on to new People professionals: “Meet with your leader — your CEO or that person [who’s] the ultimate [authority] on culture [at your organization] — and find out from them what they think the culture needs to be,” Hansen said.
“Our leaders are some of our biggest influencers [at our company], and as long as our leaders are enthusiastic and promoting that excitement and what we value, that is really contagious,” said Tania Molinar, former Human Resources and Payroll Manager for clean energy company Avolta, during the same discussion. “We make sure our managers all the way up to our owners are continuing to show their excitement and represent [our] culture, and that really fires up their teams and makes sure it’s being passed down.”
2. Flexibility and support are critical.
While every company is different — and every industry has its own norms and expectations — two traits came up again and again when experts described the kinds of positive work cultures that employees value: flexible and supportive.
Karen Mangia, VP of Customer and Market Insights at customer relationship management firm Salesforce and author of Success from Anywhere: Create Your Own Future of Work from the Inside Out, said companies that offer employees agency to perform their work are widely attractive.
“Culture is personality,” explained Mangia. “People want to connect with a corporate personality just like we want to click with individual personalities, and one of the most powerful tools to construct a corporate personality that's positive is choice.
“All employees value the gift of choice,” she continued. “What choices are you willing to offer your employees about how they work, when they work, and the style in which they work? How could you engage employees to create choices they view as positive? Positive cultures are best built and sustained one choice — rather than one mandate — at a time.”
Paola Accettola, principal and CEO of HR consultancy True North HR, said that making sure employees know they are supported in their choices — and valued for their contributions — is critical. People like to feel like they belong, she said.
“When people feel valued at both the individual...and the group levels, their levels of engagement increase because inherently, this is what drives people’s happiness and overall satisfaction,” said Accettola. “Companies that put their people’s needs first and create a structure to support this philosophy have more focused, dedicated, and empowered staff.”
3. Ask questions — and be willing to act on the answers.
While leadership determines a company’s set of values, HR professionals said a firm’s current culture comes from its staff — and fostering a stronger, more positive atmosphere means listening to employees.
In an episode of Lattice’s All Hands podcast, Katarina Berg, Chief Human Resources Officer of music-streaming service Spotify, said that in 2014, Spotify went to great lengths amid an enormous expansion to not tell its employees what the culture was, but rather, to ask them.
During the “The Hard Work of Building a Culture of Belonging” episode, Berg told podcast host Katelin Holloway that in order to create the firm’s mission statement or “Band Manifesto” as they call it (Spotify refers to its team members as “band members”), their HR team traveled to all the different locations where Spotify employees worked to host a “workshop on the direction, vision, and mission of the company.”
Calling it the “2014 Passion Tour,” the Stockholm-based company treated it like a rock tour, with tickets and t-shirts with the tour stops on the back, said Berg. The purpose, she said, was to “give everyone a voice, trust the process, and have conversations and dialogue.” Only then, she added, could the company decide what the culture of Spotify looked like.
At the Lattice roundtable about HR’s role in promoting a positive work culture, Adriana Clark, HR Manager at HR software firm BambooHR, said Bamboo uses employee net promoter score (eNPS) surveying, an employee-focused version of the consumer surveying technique that asks customers how likely they are to recommend a given product to others, twice a year to measure satisfaction at work and engagement in the company. Getting consistent employee feedback, she said, can be hugely beneficial. But, she cautioned, if you ask your people for their thoughts, you have to do something with what you learn.
“It doesn’t go well when an organization is constantly asking for feedback but if employees provide it, nothing happens. You start losing culture and trust,” warned Clark. And, she added, the company response should go beyond just acknowledging what was shared. “You need to have action items for the feedback you’re asking for and receiving,” she said.
4. Don’t make assumptions.
It’s crucial to take employee feedback into mind, Human Resources pros said, especially when HR teams are brainstorming initiatives to promote employee wellness and well-being or employee satisfaction. Initiatives designed to bolster a positive company culture — even if well-intentioned — won’t pay off if they aren’t actually serving the staff.
Hansen said that earlier in Gabb Wireless’s history, the company had wanted to emphasize to its staff that they encouraged employees to take breaks during the day to connect with coworkers and have fun, so the firm added things like games and a ping-pong table in the common area. And it worked, he said, for a while — but eventually, the games and ping-pong tables stopped being used.
It wasn’t because there wasn’t a company culture of having fun or of valuing breaks, said Hansen. But they found that employees wanted to work while they were at work. The feedback was, “I want to do my job and help who I’m helping, and then I want to go on vacation with my family or not come in and read a book for six hours,” he said. “What we thought was going to be a big add was a nothing.”
5. Consistency counts.
Once the overarching company mission has been determined and set, building and maintaining a positive and supportive company culture boils down to consistency, HR pros said. Whether it’s through mentoring, onboarding, performance reviews, employee recognition, or even just everyday business, companies with strong company cultures say their core values are infused into every interaction.
Hansen said Gabb Wireless’s company culture is trust, and that informs the way the firm approaches not just Human Resources, but how they approach their consumers as well. “[Families] trust us to provide safe tech, [and] we trust employees to do their work and [that] the right decisions will be made for the end user.”
To set the team up for success, Hansen said, Gabb invested in training managers on how to hold one-on-ones, and when the pandemic started and work shifted to a remote model, on how to find ways to do team events — virtually or in person. Hansen shared that the message to their whole leadership team was, “You’ve got to be the shining light of our culture — it’s not just the People team and not just at orientation. The culture has to be lived by every leader.”
6. Don’t be afraid of change.
Of course, after a company has homed in on its values and worked hard to build a supportive and positive culture, the hardest part comes next: Preparing for the culture to change. No matter how robust a company’s culture is, change is inevitable — and it’s a sign of strength, not failure, experts said.
“Your people are the culture, and your culture is the people,” Spotify’s Berg said. “When you’re in hyper-growth, the culture and values will change and evolve, and they need to.”
Spotify may be an extreme example — since its founding in 2014, the company has grown to almost 7,000 people, and at one point was onboarding 350 people a quarter. But any company needs to be prepared to let its organizational culture grow and change as the company and its employees grow and change. It’s crucial to employee engagement, said Berg — and to business success.
“You have to trust and believe that there’s a big difference between having a strong culture and having the right culture,” she said. “And if you believe in having the right culture, you understand that it changes.”
Employees are drawn to positive corporate cultures, and that’s never been more true than in our current environment, having navigated the pandemic for the past close to two years. “People are more vocal now,” Hansen said. The pandemic, he added, has “shined a light on where things are,” and companies that didn’t adjust their work environments as a result will have to face the consequences.
But the upside, experts agreed, was that firms that invest in their people — and in creating the kind of positive, supportive culture that lets employees thrive — have tremendous potential. As Berg said, “Anything is doable if you have the right people, and you treat them right.”