How do you define the culture of your workplace? That may seem like a big question, because the answer has big implications for an organization’s success. A positive, engaging workplace culture can attract and retain talented employees, increase productivity, and even improve financial performance. According to Global Human Capital Trends 2015 pg 36, “Organizations that create a culture defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, job and organizational fit, and strong leadership are outperforming their peers and will likely beat their competition in attracting top talent.”
The generally accepted definition of workplace culture is the beliefs and behaviors of employees combined with the ideologies and principles of the organization (Juneja, n.d.). While no two organizations or teams are exactly alike, there are trends emerging in what employees value in the workplace, and how much workplace culture influences organizational success (What is Workplace Culture, Really? 2015).
Workplace culture can change rapidly with world events, and play an important role in how employees respond to and operate in times of crisis. Many pandemic response measures, such as work-from-home policies, have changed the workplace where the culture lives. Some companies, including Twitter, have chosen to incorporate these response measures into business-as-usual moving forward. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, says “We want employees to be able to work where they feel most creative and productive” (Kelly, 2020).
For all of these reasons, it is vitally important that organizations take a proactive approach to building a workplace culture that ensures productivity, support, and growth for everyone involved.
Workplace Culture: Productive People Make High-performing Teams That Produce Rapid Results
Over the course of this three-article series, we’ve combined established business strategies with human-centered work philosophies to build a foundation for high-performing teams. In Flexible Development and Management Strategies: Intimately Knowing Your Team and Your Product Portfolio, we shared strategies for getting to know an organization from the perspective of those closest to the work. In Organizational Design: Clearing the Runway for Collaboration and Breakthrough Thinking, we demonstrated how to build teams in a way that facilitates sharing and communication to allow both groups and individuals to grow. In our final installment, we’ll show the importance of a positive workplace culture, and the role of engagement, support, and reliability.
Increase Engagement by Making Room for Relationships
The benefits of employee engagement have been extensively studied, and leaders should take note: highly-engaged teams show 21% greater profitability, a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover (Beheshti, 2019). Employee engagement is a crucial and multi-faceted aspect of a positive workplace culture.
High-performing organizations should establish avenues for play, discovery, and engagement within and among their teams. In our second article, Organizational Design: Clearing the Runway for Collaboration and Breakthrough Thinking, we outlined the shared governance strategy for decision-making and management. Employees who feel their voices are heard are 4.6x more likely to feel engaged and empowered in the work they do, and are more likely to contribute positively to their workplace (Behesthi, 2019).
A shared governance strategy is the first step to making room for strong, supportive relationships among team members. Strong relationships within and among teams can lead to more productive communication in the workplace (Schwantes, 2017). Dr. Poole, divisional dean of the Boise State University School of Nursing, has capitalized on this with her, ‘have fun, get lots done’ leadership philosophy. In her words, “The team that works hard together needs to play hard together, too.”
The tone and type of these ‘work together, play together’ moments will be different from one organization to the next. The School of Nursing has held team lunches at local restaurants, held pot lucks, and even taken advantage of the on-campus bowling alley. Most recently, as we are encouraging social distancing and our staff are working from home, staff were encouraged to participate in a virtual scavenger hunt.
Leaders should make space for team members to get to know each other better in a workplace capacity to encourage professional understanding. Organizations are built on reliability: each team needs to be able to rely on every other team to do what needs to be done, so everyone can reach the finish line together (Stevenson & Moldoveanu, 1995). For these reasons, structured get-to-know-each-other meetings can do wonders for encouraging collaboration and breaking down barriers to learning, so our staff can more confidently lean on one another and collaborate.
In the School of Nursing, we set the cadence for staff and faculty meetings by setting an agenda or outline of major topics to be covered. This is a basic tool of any productive meeting, but where the meeting goes from there is up to whoever is leading the meeting that week. Staff members outside of the leadership team often volunteer to help organize and run department meetings, and are encouraged to develop a challenge- or task-based workshop for everyone to work on together briefly during the meeting.
Including a challenge- or task-based workshop for everyone to work on together in your meetings hits on all of the core skills of mindfulness practice: observation, description, and participation (Linehan, 2015). Mindfulness is often practiced on an individual level, but can have notable benefits for workplace teams (Gelles, n.d.). Capitalize on this practice by having teams observe a challenge, describe (and create!) a solution, and participate in actually doing it.
Because we invite all staff members to participate in planning meetings, we wind up with a crazy diversity of activities. For example, we may ask our teams to describe what they want to be known for using photographs, icons, or video clips. Or, we may have small groups or teams write down workplace obstacles or concerns on paper, and have teams swap papers and brainstorm solutions. Daniel Kahneman encompassed this philosophy perfectly when he said, “It’s easy to strive for perfection when you are never bored” (Opening credits, audiobook exclusive).
Prevent Burnout by Finding Flexibility Within Predictability
As mentioned above, we use agendas and meeting outlines to build predictability and consistency into our department meetings. Within that predictability, we are able to give staff members flexibility to include development activities and discussions, and make meetings something to look forward to. This flexibility provided by predictability helps increase employee engagement and prevent burnout (Gerson, 2019).
The importance of predictability in workplace culture cannot be overstated. Predictability is a vital part of the human experience in the home and the workplace, because it decreases stress, frees up mental energy for creative thinking, and provides support for individual and community growth (Stevenson & Moldoveanu, 1995).
Predictability in the workplace can take on many forms, but one of the most universally applicable is predictable workload and task management. Many employees experience burnout when their jobs are fast-paced and stressful, they are overworked, or standards for performance or unclear or inconsistent (Gerson, 2019; What Is Workplace Culture, Really? 2020). You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never written down a to-do list on a scrap of paper, and the market for task management software is steadily growing. Predictable ways of managing workload (for the individual, team, or organization) can go a long way in managing work-related stress and preventing burnout.
In larger-scale organizations, proactively managing and communicating about workloads across teams can be a challenge. Often, administrators and leaders are not frequently in contact with specialized and skilled staff, which can impede communication and accountability. In our first article, Flexible Development and Management Strategies, we briefly mentioned how we faced this obstacle at the School of Nursing. We took advantage of our strongest and most adaptable tool, our people and the relationships they share, to promote predictability in workload management.
Each specialized team in our organization has a supervisor who is part of what we call the Organizational Workstream Leads (OWLs) team. The team chose this name themselves in the early stages, intending to lean in to the idea of wise and knowledgeable owls. Giving opportunities for fun and creative team names is another excellent way to make sure your teams are “never bored” (Kahneman, 2015). These are the decision-makers and connectors, the ones who know the strengths and limitations of their team, and link administrators to specialized teams and staff. OWLs monitor the workload of their team in relation to the organization as a whole, suggest changes to assignments or timelines as needed on behalf of their team, or volunteer to assist another team who may be struggling to complete a task.
In smaller organizations, administrative and leadership staff may be able to regularly meet directly with specialized staff, but the same principles apply. This system is built on communication, accountability, and ‘sharing the load’ when necessary. As an added bonus, it helps develop a support system within and among teams, and gives specialized staff a clear line of communication to tell leadership staff how they want to be rewarded in the workplace.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2015), Daniel Kahneman suggests that in order for an activity to be engaging, there must be a predictable relationship between an effort and a reward. Here is another opportunity for organizations to build predictability into their workplace: meet with your staff one-on-one, learn how they want to be rewarded, and act accordingly.
Some people may want to be rewarded with additional paid time off, flexibility to work from home for a part of the week, or increased autonomy in certain tasks. Others may find the most fulfillment in acknowledgements in meetings, newsletters, or email updates. Depending on where funding comes from, there may be limited flexibility in what can actually be done; administrators and leaders should strive for full transparency in such cases.
Regardless of what you do, make sure you do it consistently and efficiently. Build predictability into your workplace to foster creativity and security. Make room for personal growth and relationships to promote support and sharing of ideas. Take a proactive role in developing workplace culture to grow your organization in new and exciting ways.
As we wrap up this three-part series, we want to thank our readers and our editor, Marc Rupenstein at Disruptor League, for supporting our work. We have shared our ideas and strategies to honor the disruptors, the meaning-makers, and the fearless leaders in all disciplines. We will continue to share, engage, and innovate as the world moves into our “new normal” in the coming months and years.
In Dr. Poole’s own words, “It’s important for [administrative and leadership staff] to lead from where we’re at. Serve your team where they are, lead from where you are, and make changes together.”
This article is written in collaboration with the Boise State University School of Nursing, and the Divisional Dean Dr. Shelle Poole, Ph.D, PMP, MBB.
Beheshti, N. (2019) 10 Time Statistics About the Connection Between Employee Engagement and Wellness. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2019/01/16/10-timely-statistics-about-the-connection-between-employee-engagement-and-wellness/#418404cd22a0
Gelles, D. (n.d.). How to Be More Mindful at Work. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/be-more-mindful-at-work
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Kelly, J. (2020). After Announcing Twitter’s Permanent Remote-Work Policy, Jack Dorsey Extends Same Courtesy To Square Employees. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2020/05/19/after-announcing-twitters-permanent-work-from-home-policy-jack-dorsey-extends-same-courtesy-to-square-employees-this-could-change-the-way-people-work-where-they-live-and-how-much-theyll-be-paid/#41922888614b
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Stevenson, H. & Moldoveanu, M. (1995). The Power of Predictability. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1995/07/the-power-of-predictability
What is Workplace Culture, Really? (2020). Sidekicker. https://sidekicker.com/au/blog/workplace-culture-really/#:~:text=A%20good%20workplace%20culture%20provides,satisfied%20employees%20and%20increases%20productivity.