Developing an attractive and inclusive company culture is particularly important for small businesses today. Post-COVID, job seekers have been handed the recruitment reins, with industries such as hospitality seeing a mass exodus of staff, leading to labour shortages and headaches for recruiting managers.
In the past, increasing wages would have helped to alleviate the issue. But, in the current economy, many SMEs are simply unable to afford salary rises.
Instead, having a well-defined work culture has become one of the best ways to distinguish yourself from competitors and improve employee engagement. It’s also a win-win situation for SMEs. Employees are far more likely to thrive within a supportive, conflict-free work culture, leading to new ideas and ultimately, greater business success.
In the below article, we’ll go through how to cultivate your own unique organisational culture, including what to avoid and the benefits that can result.
Organisational culture is a difficult thing to describe, because it should be unique to each company.
Loosely speaking, it can be characterised as the embodiment of a brand’s personality. Your culture influences how you behave. Because of this, it should reflect your company’s values and expectations, and align closely with your company mission statement.
For example, one company might have an autonomous culture, by organising a flat hierarchy with little difference between the executives and the frontline employees. Another might want a mentoring culture with lots of middle-management positions to pass down knowledge. Neither approach is better than the other.
Developed properly, organisational culture will create a positive work environment that will see employees working towards a common objective.
But, a poor company culture can quickly become poisonous, infecting your workforce with negative traits. This can lead to staff burnout, high turnover, and rotten GlassDoor reviews.
Workplace norms, including individual beliefs and behaviours, need to align in order for there to be a cohesive organisational culture. However, business owners should be aware that they can’t have too much control over the concept.
Ben Elliott runs recruitment company, Found By Few, alongside his co-founder, Danielle Bowman. As Elliott describes it, “your culture should not be a defined thing that people must fit into. It should be [based on] a set of values. And when people join the company, they share your values but can add to your culture rather than fit it.”
Successful businesses will have a clear set of values and a company culture that they jointly use to promote their brand identity.
Both are closely linked and deserve a proper amount of attention. That said, values can be more easily-defined, whereas culture is much more subjective. It’s recommended that a business finds its values first, to use as the building blocks that will shape your culture.
Here are some examples of a set of values you might choose to commit to:
Your culture will emerge depending on how successfully you communicate and uphold this set of values. It may also need to be responsive to the emerging needs and concerns of your staff and the wider culture around you.
Bowman uses the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as a case in point. “[Pre-BLM] a lot of companies weren’t looking at DEI, or perhaps overlooked race in that conversation” she recalls. “When the BLM movement happened, companies that were championing themselves as diverse companies to work for, but that really had no racial diversity, said ‘we need to be better here.’
“That’s an example of why company values will define your culture and why culture should constantly evolve.”
Put simply? Having a good organisational culture will make your employees be more engaged with the company they work for, and likely stay there for longer.
Culture can shape the way your staff behave and interact with one another. If there are positive traits – your culture is supportive, innovative, or inclusive – then staff turnover can be dramatically reduced. This is one of the most positive impacts when workers enjoy engaging with their colleagues and manager.
Staff can feel inspired and motivated to work harder, increasing productivity and driving up your bottom line. Hiring will also be made easier, as you can boast honestly about your successes and how happy your employees are with their roles.
Knowing your brand personality will also make it easier to narrow down the type of talented professionals who will fit in well in your company.
It might sound utopic. But all of these benefits genuinely are possible with a strong company culture.
Businesses that are just starting out will not have had time to develop their own unique company culture. This has led to the phenomenon of startup culture, a set of organisational practices and beliefs first originated by the early ‘dot-com’ startups of the late 1990s.
Startup culture began as a move away from ‘boring’ corporate culture, bringing lots of positive outcomes. Moving away from rigid processes and a defined management pecking order can create the ideal atmosphere for innovation and accelerated growth.
But, de-emphasising rules can also be a dangerous mindset that pushes employees to engage in certain behaviours. As a result, there have even been several high-profile cases of ‘startup culture’ becoming one of mismanagement and poor duty of care.
In an extreme example, WeWork’s policy of free beer was withdrawn after a former employee sued the company for sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.
Pros and cons of adopting a ‘startup culture’
There is no secret recipe for building a positive company culture. As Elliott states, “I think I’d be a bit worried if the CEO of a company prescribed ‘this is our culture’ rather than something that is coming from the employees. Company values are the thing the CEO has control over, and they will inevitably shape the culture.”
With that in mind, the key to defining a successful company culture is to ensure that your ideal scenario is supported by strategy and structure. Here are some of the ways you can use policies and programs to develop your desired company culture:
Finding someone who immediately blends into your workforce is a near impossible task. But it’s also a task worth doing – 81% of hiring managers believe a candidate is unlikely to leave an organisation where they are a good cultural fit.
Take a smart approach to your hiring strategy and ensure any interviews or aptitude tests assess a candidate’s cultural aptitude as much as their skillset or experience.
For example, design your questions around your values. You might choose to conduct a group interview, such as a metaphorical crisis management scenario, to see how well each candidate works in a team.
Be wary of trying to find someone who’s a perfect fit – it is healthy for new candidates to bring a new energy into your team. If you are a group of extroverts interviewing an introvert, for example, don’t get hung up on whether or not they’ll be keen to join your after-work socials. Their different personality will likely be a valuable trait that is currently missing, and it can help grow your culture.
Just because a candidate impressed during an interview, doesn’t mean they will just fall into place and become a cultural ambassador for your company.
New hires have to learn your organisation’s way of doing things. Set up an introductory workshop or welcome day to teach every new employee about the company’s beliefs and values.
That way, they can immediately see how your organisation’s culture might differ from their previous role – helping them to align accordingly.
Reward those who embody your company culture with tangible benefits and perks, as this provides motivation for staff.
Rewards don’t have to be given out on an individual basis. For example, if you want to promote teamwork, you might offer a free lunch to an entire department when it hits a certain target.
As these happen regularly, they are a good method by which to reinforce your company values. Structure your employee feedback on how well they perform against certain cultural standards, such as by asking coworkers for feedback on their ability to work in a team or simply to help others succeed.
You’ve decided on the key touch points through which to develop your organisational culture. Now, it’s time to put your vision into practice and ensure you properly embed your values into your everyday operations.
Actions speak louder than words – but that doesn’t mean you should forget about the latter.
Share stories about your company culture in action, such as by giving a shoutout to a staff member who you think really acted with integrity during a key project. By communicating your company culture and how it enables your business, it becomes more consistent and more effective.
As a brand, Found by Few champions diversity and inclusion. Bowman says the business conveys this value “in our marketing, what we talk about, the subjects that we’re passionate about, internally with our staff, and then also to our partners as well.”
Good organisational culture is also one of the biggest value drivers for potential investors, as it typically leads to long-term business success.
Found by Few CMO Danielle Bowman and CEO Ben Elliott
Small business owners should ensure that, having made a significant investment in resources to create a positive company culture, they capitalise on the efforts by communicating any achievements to potential partners – increasing shareholder value.
Don’t shy away from transparency about the problems within your company. If you claim to promote DEI, but discover a gender pay gap within your company, don’t hush it up. Acknowledge the issue and communicate to your staff that you are taking steps to fix it.
Your staff are not blind. If they are being fed conflicting messages about the company they work in, this could cause workers to believe management is disingenuous, and become cynical about statements from higher-ups.
The same is true of your customers. By all means, be aspirational about your company culture. But stay away from cultural inconsistencies. It might feel like a white lie, but people are increasingly clued into company falsehoods.
Largely, this is due to social media. Channels like Instagram and Facebook have empowered people to form their own views about who a company is during their own research.
Bowman stresses that, if a business is using social media to promote its culture, it should be wary of appearing dishonest by sharing conflicting messages.
“If [what they see] doesn’t add up, people aren’t going to feel like you are a safe space or a culture for them,” she says.
Long-term, the main tenets of your organisational culture are likely to stay the same. But, make sure you’re not being too steadfast in your approach to company behaviours and beliefs, as these will naturally be affected by external social factors.
“People have liked to define their company culture as something static that individuals must fit into. But that concept is inherently exclusionary. What staff really want is a company culture they can add to rather than fit” Elliott reveals. “That’s one thing that probably wasn’t the same five years ago.”
Bowman points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a global event that has had a big impact on shaping company behaviours. As attitudes towards the daily commute into the office shifted, work culture has pivoted to allow for a more flexible working dynamic.
“Prior to COVID-19, to define themselves as flexible, [a company] probably would have offered people one day a week working from home,” says Bowman. “During COVID-19, employers [switched to] ‘if we really are a flexible company, that means letting people work where they want and as they deem best.”
The leadership team must demonstrate a similar commitment to the company’s culture. Not doing so risks undermining the very behaviours you are trying to establish throughout your business.
If you promote a collaborative culture with an open door policy, don’t hide away in your office with the door shut every day. Instead, lead by example.
Embedding the ‘right’ kind of organisational culture for your business also means squashing the wrong kind – before it can take root. This will avoid causing conflict within the team further down the line.
For certain inappropriate actions, such as if a staff member exhibits prejudice or aggressive behaviour, there are clear paths to follow, such as asking employees to report it to a line manager.
But, for those who simply aren’t a ‘cultural fit’, a more personalised approach is needed to help them engage with the established beliefs and practices.
Oftentimes, employees simply need to open up about issues or struggles they might be facing. Managers might organise a simple informal chat to a lunchtime walk or a coffee.
Let’s say a staff member has taken sick leave without telling their manager, exhibiting poor communication and teamwork. Remind them of the process for taking sick leave. Ask them if anything is wrong and set goals and boundaries that may help them to communicate better.
Helena “Len” Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.
Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.
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