How to Create an Outstanding Workplace Culture

Creating a workplace culture that works for everyone is within your reach as a leader. Here’s how to make it happen.


For many small businesses, terms like “workplace culture” feel like the domain of giant companies with thousands of employees and massive budgets for cool employee perks.

But you don’t have to be a tech giant like Google or Netflix to create a thriving place to work where everyone feels empowered and like they belong. It’s a matter of creating a set of values and living by them through your workplace culture.

Many smaller shops develop an unspoken culture based on the values of the owner and the way their employees interpret them. While this is an organic approach that may work fine for a very small team, it’s not particularly helpful when more employees come on board and have to figure out for themselves where they and the work they do fit in.

So let’s look at nine ways you can create a workplace culture that rocks. But first, let’s understand it better.

What Is Workplace Culture?

According to author, speaker and inclusivity consultant Dr. Pragya Agarwal, “workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.”

Above all, think of your culture as the intangible thing that sets your workplace apart from others. You may not be the only PR agency or IT consulting firm in town, but you definitely have values, traditions, beliefs and processes that are unique to your business. So think of the work you do as the “what” and your workplace culture as the “how” and “why.”

Why Is Defining and Cultivating Workplace Culture Important?

In a word: people. More and more, successful businesses are shifting away from making the customer their sole focus and creating strategies to increase employee satisfaction. This in turn creates higher productivity and increased innovation. Both of which ultimately serve the customer and the bottom line even better.

A 2019 Glassdoor study found that among the top three things that matter to employees around the world are the culture and values of an organization. (The quality of senior leadership and access to career opportunities within the organization are close seconds.)

A defined set of values that manifest in a workplace culture is an organization’s North Star. Here at FreshBooks, our customer support staff live by our eight support values, which empower them to serve our customers in a consistent yet singular way.

When done well, a positive, well-defined workplace culture will:

  • Attract top-notch staff
  • Reduce or eliminate staff leaving
  • Be home to engaged team members
  • Perform better than competitors—a toxic workplace can only be “successful” for so long before employees burn out

How Can You Create a Workplace Culture That Rocks?

Here are nine ways you can develop a world-class workplace culture that sets the stage for business success and growth.

1. Define Your Company Values

The basis for most successful businesses is a well-defined business plan. In addition to hard data like sales forecasts, it answers fundamental questions like:

  • What does our company do?
  • Who do we serve? Why? How?
  • What sets us apart from our competitors?
  • What does success look like?
  • Where will we be in five years? Ten? Fifteen?

Workplace culture works much the same way by building on the work of the business plan. It answers questions like:

  • What’s important to us as a company?
  • How do we treat our customers? Each other?
  • How do we communicate?
  • How do we celebrate?
  • What is our place in the world?
  • What actions do we take that reflect our values—in and out of the workplace?

Though the business owner may start the process, defining a workplace culture can be a collaborative effort involving all staff members. It can also evolve over time as you conquer new markets, change direction and evolve. It’s important to include everyone in the brainstorming process to defining company values.

2. Foster Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I)

We can all do better. At the heart of every healthy workplace culture is a sense of belonging and equal opportunity for everyone.

Today, this may mean starting by acknowledging unconscious biases and actively working to overcome them, examining your hiring practices, and listening to racialized employees about their experiences in and out of the workplace.

Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, says inclusive leadership is key to opening up the potential for a truly cohesive and innovative workforce. She says the six key behaviors of an inclusive leader are:

  • Ensuring everyone speaks up and is heard
  • Making it safe to propose risky ideas
  • Empowering team members to make decisions
  • Taking advice and implementing feedback
  • Giving actional feedback
  • Sharing credit for team success

These behaviors are helpful to consider as you define your workplace culture.

3. Optimize Your Hiring Practices

We hear a lot about hiring for “fit,” as in, “We need someone who will fit well with our culture and team.” Be wary of this concept. It can be code for, “She thinks/looks differently than we do so she probably wouldn’t fit in well here.”

Although it’s important to hire people who share the core values of the company, particularly overarching ones like integrity and respect, it’s also important to consider how someone with different experience and viewpoints might breathe a new dimension of life into an existing workplace culture.

Some helpful ways to find the right talent for your team include:

  • Look beyond the resume at what candidates do in their spare time or community. How could their perspective, hobbies or passions contribute to your workplace?
  • Prioritize character over experience. Instead of hiring someone who has the exact skills and experience of the job you’re hiring for, consider candidates who have other kinds of experience or talents. Often, someone who is pivoting to a new career brings a wealth of new ideas and innovation.
  • Hire for “culture add” not “culture fit.” Don’t look for someone who looks and acts exactly like you. Bring diversity and balance to the team by actively searching for a candidate who can bring something else to the table.

4. Empower Individuals

Accept that your employees have their own unique priorities—personal career goals, plans for higher education, family matters, desires to pursue other passions and more. They might not always mesh with where your company is or where it’s headed. But by respecting everyone on your team and learning about these individual needs and values, you can open up the dialogue and strengthen the relationship between that employee and your company.

And just as employees are focused on company goals, they’ll also bring their own ambitions to work with them. As the cultural craftsperson, you should learn those goals and care enough to include them in your company vision. As a result, you’ll create an environment where everybody feels included, healthy and happy, which can boost productivity across your entire organization.



5. Value Communication and Collaboration

It’s not enough to say, “We are a communicative and collaborative workplace” in your values statement. How do you live that? Open communication and healthy teamwork require intentional and constant attention and well-defined protocols.

Ideas to consider include:

  • Creating documentation on how to give and receive constructive feedback—from leaders to employees, peer to peer, and employees to leaders.
  • Encouraging cross-collaboration between different areas of the business, e.g. have a sales rep job shadow an accounts payable or customer service specialist, and vice versa.
  • Having regular group and one-on-one meetings so employees can have a space to collaborate.
  • Using communication tools like Slack so staff members can easily have one-on-one and group chats on various projects and topics.
  • Issuing a weekly email update, which allows all employees to get the same news at the same time and feel connected to the company and each other. Encourage staff members to share news about their lives, such as birthdays, welcoming new babies or pets, or participating in an exciting event such as a half-marathon, etc.

Try lots of ways to nurture communication and collaboration. Not all of them will “stick” with your workplace so it’s best to keep experimenting and asking staff to share their ideas.

6. Be Transparent

Nothing kills a workplace culture faster than secretive plans and processes. It’s critical to lead with transparency and communicate openly—and often. Once made, every business decision—no matter how minor—needs to be shared with your team so they feel included and connected to you and each other.

It’s not enough to simply share information about a new hire or a new policy. Employees need to explain the rationale behind it to feel engaged and willing to embrace a change. (Bonus points if you can connect it to your company’s mission or values.) If possible, engage them in decision-making processes. Even if things don’t go the way they would prefer, they can at least feel heard.

Agarwal suggests extending transparency to your policy for internal progression and promotion with measurable performance indicators. “This kind of honest policy statement would help avoid negative feelings and resentment amongst the team members towards each other,” she wrote in Forbes.

7. Recognize and Reward Employees for Living Your Company’s Values

Leaders like Michael Monteiro, CEO of Buildium, a Boston-based property management software company, cultivate their workplace culture by giving out “culture awards” monthly and annually to employees who best exemplify the business’ core values.

“All of our awards are peer-nominated. We think it’s a great way to celebrate those who consistently live our values and go above and beyond,” he told Ed Nathanson for the LinkedIn Talent Blog.

Other ways to recognize, reward and celebrate employees include:

  • Regularly recognizing staff in employee communications
  • Including workplace culture-related goals as part of annual performance reviews
  • Creating opportunities for team members to share their expertise in lunch and learns or webinars
  • Building a formal program with tools like Bonusly or Motivosity

8. Consider What Matters to Your Employees

A strong and healthy workplace culture is connected to individual and collective employee values. As you develop your culture, be sure to think about—and consult staff members about—what drives them.

David Sturt, an executive vice president of O.C. Tanner, a global recognition and culture company, says extensive research of more than 10,000 companies revealed that there are six aspects of culture that people look for in a great place to work:

  • Purpose: Connecting employees to the organization’s reason for being
  • Opportunity: Providing employees with the chance to learn new skills, develop and contribute
  • Success: Giving employees the opportunity to do meaningful work and be on winning teams
  • Appreciation: Acknowledging and recognizing employees’ outstanding work and unique contributions
  • Wellbeing: Constantly working to improve employees’ physical, social, emotional and financial health
  • Leadership: Empowering employees to do meaningful work and creating a sense of camaraderie

These are good starting points as you address your company values and define your workplace culture.

9. Encourage Social Connections

There’s a lot of research that affirms the power of positive social connections at work. People are sick less frequently, are more connected to their colleagues and their company, and are more innovative and productive.

A positive workplace culture is usually nurtured by ensuring that team members connect on a personal and professional level. You might consider:

  • Weekly coffee breaks or walk and talks
  • Team building exercises on- or off-site
  • Group volunteering opportunities
  • Monthly trivia nights, bowling or ping pong tournaments where family members are invited
  • Annual company retreats

Employees of companies that offer opportunities to get together on a social level report a deeper connection to their co-workers, their leaders and the company as an entity.

Conclusion

When it comes to workplace culture, the buck stops (and starts) with you as the leader. You have the power to set the tone for every interaction by defining a workplace culture that speaks to everyone.

In his book Give and Take, organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes that leader kindness and generosity are strong predictors of team and organizational effectiveness. Happier employees make for more innovative, engaged and productive people.

And isn’t that the goal for any workplace culture?

This post was updated in June, 2020.



about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Heather Hudson has been a freelance writer for more than 17 years. As a small business owner, she understands the triumphs and challenges of life as an entrepreneur. And as a longtime FreshBooks customer, she’s always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder. You can learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.