Workplace Culture: What It Is and How to Make Yours Better (With Examples)

What is company culture

The word “culture” alone is hard enough to define.

So when it comes to “workplace culture”, those trying to pin down its exact meaning have their work cut out for them.

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 what’s, why’s, and how’s of workplace culture, on top of discussing why instilling a positive, forward-thinking workplace culture is not only commendable, but critical to success. (Companies with strong workplace cultures have employees who are 12% more productive, in addition to seeing a 20% increase in sales and 21% expansion in overall profitability.)

Read through the following sections to understand workplace culture thoroughly:

Let’s dive straight in.

What’s the definition of 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?

Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss, two renowned leaders who’ve helped countless companies change their culture for the better, have given the following definition:

“In short, culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. 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, norms, and goals, which can be intentionally or unintentionally instilled.

Seeing as, together, values, norms, and goals make up workplace culture, let’s examine them in closer detail.

Values

Company values are the principles that companies use to guide internal (and external) conduct. Values are the attribute which has the most influence on a company’s culture.

At Process Street, we have our own deliberately-written set of values.

The list of values, which not only reinforces our own workplace culture, but also helps us all to do the best work possible, is repeated every week during our all-hands marketing meeting.

Specifically, the values are:

    1. Act like an owner
    2. Default to action
    3. Focus on the process
    4. Practice prioritization
    5. Pay attention to details
    6. Over-communicate everything, twice (also known as asynchronous communication)

Norms

Norms are informal, often unspoken guidelines that dictate correct and incorrect behavior.

Just as values guide conduct, norms do too.

Goals

Goals are the objectives the company or team wish to achieve.

Having a set of goals is a way of having employees share a common purpose. By sharing a common purpose, not only are employees more inclined to stay motivated at work, but they are also found to be overwhelmingly more satisfied with their jobs.

Seeing as you’ve now gotten to grips with the individual attributes of workplace culture, let’s look at how other organizations have established a positive workplace culture themselves.

Workplace culture examples

The next three companies – REI, Southwest Airlines, and Google – have all somewhat future-proofed their survival by establishing successful workplace cultures.

However, their cultures have had to evolve and change with the times, and the companies in question didn’t necessarily start out with exemplary cultures, either.

As 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, these three forward-thinking companies, through trial and error, have landed at a point where their company cultures are being celebrated internationally.

Let’s see how they did it.

REI’s workplace culture

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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, under the scheme known as the “Employee Challenge Grant”.

The culture at REI is so exemplary that their employee retention rates are double the industry standard. REI want 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.

Although having a “Yay Day” may not fit with your company’s brand or industry, REI is an example of a company which, through its values, takes care of its employees, provides opportunities, and encourages employees to grow. This not only bolsters their effective, positive workplace culture, but also helps employees perform better and boosts the company’s overall financial returns.

Although creating and sustaining a positive culture in the workplace can be a tall mountain to scale, REI has firmly placed its flag at the mountain peak: 93% of their employees say they’re proud to work for and be associated with REI.

Southwest Airlines’ workplace culture

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After an REI employee has planned an adventure for their “Yay Day”, they may need to catch a flight to get to their destination – let’s say, Yosemite. And if they choose Southwest Airlines to get them to California, they’ll be in the presence of another company that has a celebrated workplace culture.

Airlines and their staff notoriously have it hard. For example, if a packed plane can’t take off due to mechanical issues, not only will the passengers air their annoyance both in-person and online, but the pilots, stewards, stewardesses, and ground staff will face more stress on top of what’s already a stressful job. Considering this example is fairly tame compared to the range of the other intense scenarios flight staff find themselves in, it’s safe to say they work in a high-pressure industry.

While other companies, such as RyanAir, have a “miserable” company culture, Southwest has avoided nosediving and instead created a culture which is lauded 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 their various “Leadership Training for Leaders” initiatives, their “Days in the field” scheme which allows employees to get a taste of what it’s like to work in another Southwest department, and their tuition reimbursement program, in which employees continuing studies or training can be reimbursed thousands of dollars, dependant on the degree.

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 not just free, but free and unlimited travel privileges not only for themselves, but also for their dependents, too. (Dependents are defined as spouses/partners, children, and parents.) To boot, employees additionally receive a range of discounts when it comes to hotels, car rentals, theme parks, and more.

Although the chance to limitlessly travel is indeed extraordinary, it also has real benefits from a culture perspective: The work/pleasure, work/life balance can be restored with value-led initiatives such as these, helping Southwest to have a more inclusive, forward-thinking company culture.

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. And judging by the other perks mentioned in the Glassdoor listicle, life at Southwest certainly doesn’t sound… Boeing. (Sorry.)

Google’s workplace culture

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Google is an estimable example when it comes to company culture.

They’re listed as the top company the U.S. workforce wants to work for by LinkedIn, are listed as one of the best places to work at in Glassdoor’s annual Best Places To Work award, and named by Comparably as the tech company with the best corporate culture.

For such a mammoth company, which employs over 100,000 full-time workers, it’s an impressive feat that they’ve managed to create an environment which is commended by many.

A large part of its success is due to Google’s commitment to inclusion and diversity in the workplace. With their value-driven diversity and inclusion initiatives – such as their unconscious bias training programs, their ERG networks, and an organizational structure which encourages openness – Google understand that, to have a positive culture in the workplace, employees need to know they’re valued, appreciated, and well looked after.

One of Google’s most well-known schemes – which also happens to be one of their most inclusive – is its flexible working scheme. 80% of companies say they offer flexible working initiatives, but only 19% of employees could access those initiatives – and Google wanted to change that.

With Google’s “Remote”, “TimeShift”, and “MicroAgility” ways of flexible working, parents can take their kids to school. Caregivers can balance work around care duties. Those who suffer from burnout or fatigue can amend their schedule so they can rest before diving back into work. And considering flexible working increases employee productivity, there are benefits across the board.

As Muhammed Othman says:

Google has been one of the first companies to really understand the need for employees to have a flexible schedule and work on their terms to unleash their creativity and a greater level of productivity. They’ve let their employees explore how they’d like to work and given them the freedom within the environment to approach work in a way that suits them.” – Muhammed Othman, 13 Reasons Why Deserves Its ‘Best Company Culture’ Award

Another lauded Google practice is its “g2g” (Googler-to-Googler) program. It’s an employee-to-employee learning program where workers voluntarily help their colleagues to learn new skills. No matter if the Googler in question wants to learn Python or improve their public-speaking skills, it’s an initiative that encourages and inspires growth.

Like Google says on their re:Work site:

Organizations that embrace a culture of learning create an environment that encourages curiosity and knowledge sharing, which in turn leads to better business outcomes. A strong learning culture can better position your organization for future needed skill shifts and primes employees to think and act more like owners when it comes to their own development needs.” – Google re:Work, Guide: Create an employee-to-employee learning program

Earlier, I mentioned how, at Process Street, we have our own set of values which help guide us at work. Google has a list of ten values which they stick to. They are as follows:

    1. Focus on the user and all else will follow
    2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well
    3. Fast is better than slow
    4. Democracy on the web works
    5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer
    6. You can make money without doing evil
    7. There’s always more information out there
    8. The need for information crosses all borders
    9. You can be serious without a suit
    10. Great just isn’t good enough

Google calls these ten values their “ten things we know to be true“. Before listing the values themselves, they say: “We revisit this list to see if it still holds true. We hope it does – and you can hold us to that.”

By being open and honest themselves, Google is proving that their commitment to creating a positive company culture is real. This is why Google’s workplace culture isn’t just known as a culture – it’s known as a culture of success.

Now that you’ve been shown 3 companies with great company culture, it’s time to look at how you can boost workplace culture yourself. As you’ve seen with the 3 previous examples, it’s all to do with establishing positive values, norms, and goals.

Ways to better your company’s culture in the workplace

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While you don’t need to have nap pods like Google do at Googleplex, or 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.

Below you’ll find examples of how to do that effectively.

Celebrate diversity:

As human beings, we contain multitudes. From where we come from to where we live, how we were educated to how old we are, all of us had and have 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.

To illustrate my point further, two of the most hard-hitting statistics concerning workplace diversity has been uncovered by MIT and McKinsey respectively.

MIT found that a company’s revenue increased by 41% when there was an equal balance of male and female employees, while McKinsey’s research shows there’s a 35% increase in financial returns for companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity.

To refer back to the earlier list of attributes that make up workplace culture, diversity would come under the “values” and “norms” sections. However, diversity is only one half of the equation.

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 and wrote Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? How Diverse Teams Create Breakthrough Ideas and Make Smarter Decisions, 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, and while it won’t be an overnight endeavor, 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.

As 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.

Effective management:

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

By putting in place procedures, policies, and measures to reflect the company’s commitment to sustaining a healthy company culture, all employees will feel compelled to do their best work possible.

Resources for strengthening your company’s culture

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 all the company’s employees.

So, to help organizations across the world facilitate culture management properly, we’ve included several templates you can use straight away and for free, with our BPM software.

The featured templates are intentionally broad in scope, so that you have access to a range of reliable resources and processes you can use to make your company’s culture exceptional. From a diversity training process to a SMART goal setting checklist, we have you covered.

Remember, you can edit the templates to your liking. If there’s any information, tasks, or procedures you’d like to change within the templates themselves, you can do so by hitting the ‘edit this template’ button. Then, you’ll have a personalized template that’s been tailored to your own specific requirements.

To round off, here’s the SMART goal setting checklist we mentioned earlier. Use this simple-yet-effective checklist to set a goal for yourself or your team, then follow the provided steps to see the goal through to its completion.

What’s your workplace culture like? Have you thought about changing it for the better? If you’ve already made changes, let me know the course of action you took in the comment section below. I’d love to hear your success stories!

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Thom James Carter

Thom is a junior content writer at Process Street. He has previously worked in copywriting and content creation for multiple start-ups and SMBs. He’s interested in technology, culture, homebrewing, and hiking up the hills and mountains near his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.


One Comment

Thanks for sharing. The example of Google’s workplace culture inspires me a lot. Most business owners don’t understand that they need to give their employees the feeling of being valued, appreciated, and well looked after. Some bosses just keep criticizing their staff’s mistakes and ignore their contribution to the company.


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