November 16, 2017 • 7 minute read • by Saeed
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle.
I was having a conversation with my son, who was about 13 at the time, when he said something that floored me. He said: “everything is about atmosphere.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that he thinks family life, office culture, and everything else comes down to the atmosphere that the adults and leaders create. OMG, I thought, this kid is brilliant!
I have used what he said ever since in my talks.
Now let’s break this down…
Google the phrase, “healthy workplace” and you get 20,600,000 results! Clearly it’s a hot topic. And just as clearly, there are thousands of interpretations of what the phrase means.
The key to a productive business is investing time and effort in understanding what makes people happy at work. Yes, competitive pay and benefits are important but keeping employees happy at work can come down to subtle changes in the values of an organization and how the organization treats its employees. The best places to work are those in which people can flourish, flex their creative muscles, and generally be their best selves. The best places are those that foster a healthy atmosphere and workplace culture.
What is workplace culture?
Workplace culture is a combination of employee values, attitudes, expectations, and beliefs blended with the principles of the organization. To a large extent, the culture shapes employee interaction, productivity, and loyalty to the organization or team.
A workplace culture study conducted by Deloitte found that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. Moreover, 83% of executives and 84% of employees rank having engaged and motivated employees as the top factor that substantially contributes to a company’s success.
These studies show that leaders understand that positive work culture means greater productivity and a negative work culture can be counterproductive or even toxic.
So why then are so many employees unhappy at work?
It’s one thing to know that healthy work cultures lead to productivity. It’s another thing altogether to know how to create such a culture. While leaders know this, all too often they don’t put their money where their mouth is. As a result, a 2017 study of 17,000 U.S. workers in 19 industries found that 71% were either “actively looking for new job opportunities” or were thinking about it. That’s a staggering number of unhappy workers.
What can you do?
At some level, we all have to take responsibility for our own happiness and engagement. But in an organizational context, maximizing employee happiness and engagement is a key management responsibility because of the direct correlation to productivity.
Creating a positive work culture isn’t as difficult as you might think. However, to be successful, leaders must become more strategic on key issues such as recruiting talent, building teams, providing a broader scope for personal and professional development, developing future leaders and influencing company culture.
The first thing you can do is look around. Ask. Do an audit of organizational culture by surveying your employees on their perceptions. In sifting through the research, I have narrowed down ten of the most important indicators of a positive work culture. If any of these indicators are subpar, you need to start building intentional strategy around each one immediately and then ensure that they are working together as a whole to make up an organizational culture of excellence. They are:
1. Leadership. It all starts here. People don’t leave jobs, they leave supervisors. Positive, accessible and fair leadership is critical to fostering a healthy work environment. When leaders express genuine appreciation – up, down, and across the organizational structure for employees’ contributions and recognize these contributions regularly, employees feel empowered and engaged. Leaders are not micromanagers. They are not rigidly tied to static job descriptions, titles, hierarchies and ranking systems. They are focused on hiring great people, playing to their strengths and putting their skills to the best use. They do not immediately take out the ‘blame thrower’ every time something goes wrong.
2. Trust and Respect. Employees respect their fellow workers and work meaningfully to avoid personality conflicts, gossip, and backbiting. They laugh WITH each other not AT each other. When employees face challenges such as accidents, illnesses or personal tragedies, leaders address these challenges with empathy, support and understanding. Trust is the cornerstone of all relationships. There is a high cost to low trust within organizations. Recognition increases trust between leadership and employees. So does honesty and integrity.
3. Open Communication. Employees feel they have the freedom to speak, ideate, and provide alternate views. There are no hidden agendas, no secrets and no rumor mills. Gossip is banished. Furthermore, employees are not surprised with any information and new information is communicated well throughout the company. Employees understand the direction their team and organization is headed in because the mission, goals, and strategies are clearly articulated and inculcated.
4. Growth and Development. Employees are offered the chance to grow professionally through regular training, career tools, and different assignments and experiences. Employees feel that they are learning and developing. They are not made to feel bad or guilty about seeking out professional development opportunities. They have regular access to new training, workshops, mentoring, coaching, and presentations to learn, grow and develop. Senior staff mentor junior staff as part of the culture. When employees feel this sense of investment from their employer, they are willing to reciprocate and invest back into the company with their hard work and creativity.
5. Teamwork and Collaboration. Employees work better when they feel they have quality, supportive, and energizing relationships with fellow workers. Team members help each other with critical tasks – they don’t hear “that’s not my job.” Instead, they hear “we’re all in this together.” Space (both physical and mental) is created so that employees can collaborate when needed, but have time alone for calls, and deep thinking work. Collaboration is built into company goals and values. One study even found that 40% of Millennials (who are soon to comprise the majority of the workforce) are willing to pay out of pocket for social collaboration tools to improve productivity. Transparency and clear communication are the keys to fostering strong teamwork and collaboration.
6. Mutual Accountability. Closely related to the idea of teamwork and collaboration is mutual accountability. Leaders and employees make and keep their promises and as a result, mutual accountability, trust and respect are fostered across the organization. Peers hold peers accountable for their commitments. They are direct and assertive when promises are missed, and they are quick to thank others for keeping their promises. Accountability to customers is no less important than accountability to one another.
7. Engagement and Empowerment. Workplace happiness depends on leaders who know how to empower employees. There is a sense of pride and enthusiasm for the company and work that is being done. Employees own their work and they encourage others to stay engaged. Employee empowerment means sharing of information, resources and tools that make it easier for employees to carry out their roles and responsibilities. Employees feel engaged because they feel they are part of a bigger picture, a grander vision. But Gallop tells us that employee engagement is stagnant in the US at 32%. Something is wrong.
8. Contribution and Value. Employees feel that they are making a contribution to the team and that they are justly recognized for their contributions. They feel challenged to grow and they feel part of the bigger picture. Employees feel that their work exercises their creativity and imagination. Their contributions are recognized, encouraged and valued. Employees believe that their personal strengths are utilized, nurtured, and supported. They are happy to start the day because they know their work and contribution has meaning.
9. Fairness and Inclusion. Employees feel empowered because they have access to data and information. They have equal access to leadership and feel that their performance is assessed fairly following a set of standards that are evenly applied. There is equal opportunity for every employee to realize their full potential and a fair chance to move up within the company if they so desire. There is nothing worse than favoritism for diminishing employee morale. Fair treatment is a standard followed by all and every person is recognized as valuable; not just the star performers.
10. Flexibility and Autonomy. The best workplaces offer people flexibility and autonomy. Flexibility is crucial to employees’ ability to optimally manage their work and their lives. Autonomy is fundamental to human happiness. One study of more than 2,000 people across three continents found that workers were nearly two and a half times more likely to take a job that gave them more autonomy than they were to want a job that gave them more influence.
A healthy workplace environment is not stress free. But a healthy workplace environment encourages employee well-being, safety and skill development with programs established to mitigate the inevitable stressors that are present on any job. Turnover, in most organizations, is a result of management issues, communication breakdown, and the lack of opportunity to make meaningful contributions. It goes without saying just how beneficial it is to productivity and to your business bottom line to be attentive to your organizational culture. You could offer high salaries, great benefits, and half a year’s vacation, but none of this would make an impact on an employee’s attitude and work ethic. True empowerment and engagement comes in the form of fostering a healthy workplace culture and atmosphere.
Even a 13-year old can tell you that much.
Wait, before you go…
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Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.
©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.