A Complete Guide to Workplace Culture: What It Is and How to Make Yours Better

Considering 15% of job seekers reject a company because of its culture, you want yours to be good enough to attract and retain top talent. 

Trying to pin down the exact meaning of “workplace culture” isn’t easy. 

What makes your quest harder is that “workplace culture” has become somewhat of a buzzword in the business world, muddying the waters of its true definition and making it harder to uncover and understand.

In this post, I’m going to explain the specific whats, whys, and hows of workplace culture. I’ll also highlight why it’s vital to instill a positive, forward-thinking workplace culture. 

Let’s dive straight in.

What is workplace culture?

If you haven’t heard of “workplace culture” before, you may be more familiar with the terms “company culture”, “corporate culture”, or “organizational culture”.

All of these terms refer to the very same concept.

But what exactly is that concept?

Harvard professor Frances X. Frei and founder Anne Morriss have given the following definition:

“In short, culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. […] Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.”

Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss, Culture Takes Over When The CEO Leaves the Room

To break it down, a company’s culture informs what’s expected of you in the workplace — it’s a set of: 

  • Values – Principles companies use to guide internal and external conduct. 
  • Norms – Informal (and often unspoken) guidelines dictating correct and incorrect behavior. 
  • Goals – Objectives set by the company to create a common purpose for employees. 

Workplace culture examples

William Craig, the founder of WebFX, explains:

“Not every business was blessed with the foresight to completely flesh out a long-term plan for company growth and culture. In fact, exceptionally few businesses do this, because it demands a certain confidence in your company’s long-term survival – something that can be hard to come by in these uncertain economic times.”

William Craig, What is Company Culture, and How Do You Change It?

With that being said, REI Co-Op, Southwest Airlines, and Process Street have landed at a point where their company cultures are being celebrated internationally.

Let’s see how they did it.

REI’s workplace culture

REI doesn’t only help consumers succeed out in Mother Nature — they also help their employees succeed in-store time and time again thanks to their unique take on workplace culture.

REI’s successful track record is largely down to it being a cooperative, value-driven company with sustainability, eco-friendliness, and outdoor exploration at its core. Those values trickle from the top-down, with REI actively supporting its employees’ interests and adventures. 

For example, every six months, all employees are allowed to go on a “Yay Day” — a non-working day which takes place in the great outdoors. To help them on their “Yay Day” – or on an extended journey – all employees can get their hands on 300 dollars worth of products for a personally-challenging outdoor activity. 

The culture at REI is so exemplary that their employee retention rates are double the industry standard. REI wants their employees to stay; for dedicated, long-term workers, there’s a paid sabbatical after 15 years of service, then more paid sabbaticals every 5 years after that.

A “Yay Day” may not fit with your company’s brand or industry. Nonetheless, REI is an example of a company which, through its values, takes care of its employees, provides opportunities, and encourages employees to grow. Because of this, it’s no surprise that 93% of their employees say they’re proud to work for and be associated with REI.

Southwest Airlines’ workplace culture

Airlines and their staff notoriously have it hard. If a packed plane can’t take off due to mechanical issues, passengers are bound to air their annoyance both in-person and online. 

That isn’t all. This event always leads to the flight crew and ground staff facing more stress on top of what’s already a stressful job. 

While other companies have a “miserable” company culture, Southwest has created a culture which is applauded across the globe.

But how did they do it?

To start, when they aren’t serving cabin passengers 30,000 feet in the sky or helping fraught customers on the ground, employees have the opportunity to develop their skills and abilities via Southwest’s training, development, and empowerment programs

These include initiatives like “Days in the field”; this scheme allows employees to get a taste of what it’s like to work in another department. The company also has a tuition reimbursement program, which empowers employees to continue their studies or training. 

The perks – which reinforce Southwest’s commitment to their values of providing employees with the necessary tools to succeed – don’t end there. The Southwest Airlines Gratitude Points program (aptly named “SWAG”) means employees are rewarded with incentives for having perfect attendance and performing well. The points can be used to purchase gift cards and other goodies, such as iPads. 

Then there’s the ultimate perk all us non-airline workers are envious of: Employees have free and unlimited travel privileges not only for themselves, but also for their dependents. To boot, employees additionally receive a range of discounts when it comes to hotels, car rentals, theme parks, and more. 

However, it’s not only Southwest’s progressive values and initiatives that have helped create such a positive culture – it’s also their goals.

As Tammy Romo, Executive Vice President and CFO of Southwest Airlines, says in an interview with Jeff Thomson:

“We are driven by our purpose: connecting people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. It takes all of us working together as a team to accomplish our vision to be the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline. This instills ownership and pride because we all have such a meaningful purpose.”

Tammy Romo, Company Culture Soars at Southwest Airlines

It’s through this mixture of progressive values, norms, and shared, achievable goals that make Southwest’s culture at the workplace exemplary. 

Process Street’s workplace culture

What would an article about workplace culture be if I didn’t mention Process Street? I mean, would I even be working here, writing this article for you, beautiful reader, if I didn’t like the culture? I think not. 

Process Street’s workplace culture is built on transparency. Everything is clear from the get-go, which helps us all know what’s expected of us. Our all-hand team meetings present our goals in a way that doesn’t only think about the company, but also employees. 

Even as a small little writer fish in this big Process Street pond, I have a voice. From the moment I started my onboarding journey, my opinion has mattered to my colleagues. This collaboration and interest in what I think still remains. 

The list of values we have also gives us direction. With these, we know that our workplace encourages us to: 

  • Act like an owner
  • Focus on the process 
  • Default to action
  • Practice prioritization 
  • Pay attention to detail 
  • Over-communicate everything, twice

Our list of values not only reinforces our own workplace culture, but also helps us do the best work possible. With the environment these core values create in our remote workforce, I don’t just feel encouraged to do the best work, but I’m excited to add value to a company that values me. 

How to improve workplace culture 

While you don’t need to offer free, unlimited travel to your employees like Southwest (although I’m sure many of your colleagues wouldn’t mind!), what you do need to do is instigate a culture which is positively value-led and goal-driven.

Here’s a few tips to help you instigate this workplace culture effectively: 

Celebrate diversity

From where we come from to where we live, how we were educated to how old we are, all of us have had different experiences which help form our own unique perspectives.

While, from a business-angle, many may think that a team should be comprised of similar-minded people, it’s our differences – our cultural diversity – that help us to be innovative. But for a company to be diverse, a culture has to be in place where diversity is celebrated. 

The benefits of an environment where diversity and, particularly, cultural diversity, is allowed to thrive are second-to-none. There’s increased productivity, increased creative-thinking, and even increased company profits

It’s easy to say that you should celebrate diversity, but how can you actually celebrate it? Diversity can start when you’re hiring. Or it can be encouraged in the way you encourage your employees to conduct work. Empowering employees to bring their different perspectives to the table can help you highlight and celebrate their diversity. 

Workflows can be used to encourage this diversity and help ensure you don’t miss any steps in the process. Here are three to help you get started: 

Prioritize inclusivity 

While diversity in the workplace is incredibly important, having an inclusive workplace is just as crucial. Think of diversity and inclusion similar to Yin and Yang – two different elements which, when they coincide, complement each other brilliantly. 

The Society for Human Resource Management – perhaps better known as the acronym SHRM – define inclusion in the workplace as:

“The achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”

The Society for Human Resources Management, definition of diversity & inclusion

Not only does inclusivity help employees to individually thrive, but there are real overall business benefits from sustaining an inclusive culture in the workplace, too. Research by Juliet Bourke, who leads Deloitte Australia’s Diversity and Inclusion Consulting practice, has shown that organizations with inclusive cultures are:

  • 2x as likely to meet or exceed financial targets;
  • 3x as likely to be high-performing;
  • 6x as likely to be more innovative and agile;
  • 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

Inclusion, therefore, brings a myriad of positives from social, cultural, and business perspectives alike. But, while the benefits are evident, how exactly is inclusivity made possible at work?

Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillion created an inclusion model for Deloitte, which is built of four separate parts: 

1. Fairness and respect
2. Valued and belonging
3. Safe and open
4. Empowered and growing

To boil down what Bourke and Dillon say in Waiter, is there inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance, inclusivity in the workplace can only occur when employees feel they’re valued, treated fairly, and are in a safe environment in which they can bring their whole selves to work.

Introducing and maintaining fairness, belonging, openness, and empowerment may not be the simplest of tasks. It also won’t be an overnight endeavor. But, it’s a necessary step should a business want to develop its company culture, outperform its competitors, and bolster its business efficiency.

Establish clear goals

Goals unify teams in an impressive way. Through a shared common objective, people are brought together and made more motivated. All in all, having a set of goals is a great way to influence culture in the workplace for the better.

One of the best methods for establishing goals is the SMART method, which can be quickly and easily brought into any organization wanting to boost their workplace culture. 

For those who haven’t encountered the SMART method of goal-setting before, SMART is an acronym, meaning:

  • Specific: What exactly should be achieved? Where? When? How?
  • Measurable: The goal(s) should be measurable, meaning you can see and track progress.
  • Attainable: So that you’re not wasting time, money, effort, and morale, the goals should be attainable as opposed to unachievable.
  • Relevant: The goal(s) should be relevant to the company or team tasked.
  • Timely: Set flexible, realistic deadlines so the goal(s) can be achieved on time.

At its core, the SMART method is a way of creating and presenting clear, practical, and actionable objectives in which there’s no confusion and everyone’s on the same page.

From a work culture standpoint, SMART goals help foster teamwork and collaboration and reduce the sense of anxiety around certain tasks.

As Tony Robbins, life coach and the author of Unlimited Power, rightly says:

“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

Tony Robbins

Referring back to the earlier list of attributes that make up workplace culture, establishing SMART goals would come under the “goals” section. 

Like with most methods, having a set process in place helps ensure no steps are missed. Here’s our comprehensive SMART Goal Setting Workflow to help you establish and implement clear goals for a better workplace culture. 

Once you have these goals outlined, you want to keep them in a place where all your employees can access the list. Not only does this improve transparency, but it can also keep employees motivated by what goals the company is trying to achieve and how they can help. Pages is one place where you can record, store, and easily share this documentation. 

Effective management

Once the company leaders have set the foundations of a positive workplace culture by introducing diversity, inclusivity, and goals, it’s then management’s job to help foster the culture by what’s known as culture management

With effective management, HR employees can successfully put in place procedures, policies, and measures to help sustain a healthy company culture. From here, all employees will feel compelled to do their best work possible.

Culture management consists of many different aspects within an organization. Having a set process in place for these varied aspects can help you stay on top of your game. We all know how important organization is. 

Disorganized management will manifest as a disorganized and unhealthy workplace culture, which you don’t want. These workflows can help you stay organized and aware of what needs to be done and when: 

Start strengthening your company’s culture today!

At Process Street, we know how important culture in the workplace is – especially as it not only affects the company as a business, but also the lives of your employees. A healthy workplace culture can quickly become a chaotic mess if your culture management is unorganized. Even worse, if your employees don’t feel valued or encouraged. 

Setting goals, encouraging inclusivity, and diversifying your workforce are all ways to sustain a healthy workplace culture. But, without effective management, all of this work goes to waste. 

Workplace behavior is always evolving, but with the right management, you can observe these changes and take the right steps towards bettering your culture. This is how you sustain a healthy culture where your employees look forward to coming into work. 

Do you have any other tips for building an effective workplace culture? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments! 

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Thom James Carter

Thom is one of Process Street’s content writers. He’s also contributed tech-related writing to The New Statesman, Insider, Atlassian, G2, The Content Marketing Institute, and more. Follow him on Twitter @thomjamescarter.

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