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Workplace Culture: 14 Steps

Having been asked to support a number of companies recently undergoing change, who are battling the challenges of ongoing remote working or who are looking at bringing their workforce back together after a disjointed year, one theme has become clear. And that is about developing a culture that fits where they are at now, moving into 2021, with a clear sense of identity and team. Increasingly, companies are becoming aware that it is their responsibility to address the challenges around engagement, productivity and wellbeing, and that it is no longer an individual employee’s problem.

It is no longer a surprise that poor workplace cultures have a significant negative effect on individual health and wellbeing, and cost businesses a huge amount of money (£15.7 billion, according to Breathe) yet it remains an area many companies struggle with. More effort has been made to address culture needs for white-collar workers but that leaves a significant chunk of the workforce experiencing a climate that is not fit for them to thrive.

Workplace culture has never been more important to business success than today. It is not a soft option. Neuroscience and economic outcomes reveal that building a culture that supports and develops people, that empowers employees, that enhances customer relationships and that celebrates achievements is key for business success. It does reflect feelings but that doesn’t make it fluffy. Culture shapes our responses and when we acknowledge that human behaviour is driven by emotion, this is a pretty good place to start.


So what is the ‘C’ Word?

Culture is the collection of experiences and our responses to them; traditions, beliefs, values, relationships, communication, attitudes and purpose. It’s the stuff that can be hardest to measure, to identify in a tangible way, yet it’s what can make or break a company. When your culture isn’t right and isn’t being treated as a priority, it is reflected in employee performance, productivity, and retention. And reputations for toxic organisations stick.












Mark Stephens, author of The Engagement Revolution, makes an important point when he says,

“It is often forgotten that engagement is an outcome not an input.”

As the Breathe report says, employees do not arrive engaged or disengaged; this is an outcome of their interaction with the working environment. And reassuringly, their research revealed that 88% of SME decision-makers recognise the importance of culture to their business. Sounds good. Yet still 21% of British employees have quit a job due to their workplace culture, clearly demonstrating that we’re not simply motivated by money – we value and need more than that.

So let’s get down the bottom line: Performance. Data from Breathe’s 2020 report shows that soft metrics such as morale and idea generation are aligned with harder performance indicators including productivity and staff turnover.


Only 43% of SME employees trust their business leaders and management – a 16% point decline since 2018 (Breathe 2020). Yet we know that those who trust their employer are also far more likely to advocate on their behalf, to show loyalty, to be engaged and to be committed (Edelman UK). Older employees are less likely to trust than 18-to-34-year-olds but what ever their age, employees’ trust is dependent on their leaders and managers. Gone are the days of hierarchical power; staff now look for values-based relationships and behaviours.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

It is not surprising that work has a significant impact on mental wellbeing, and that the ability to perform at work is affected by our mental health. A positive finding by Breathe’s research was that 75% of leaders and 62% of employees agreed that mental health was a legitimate reason to take time off sick. However, only 39% of line managers and 34% of employees actually felt personally comfortable doing so. This figure falls to only 25% among low skilled workers, many of them aged 18-24. The disparity is a gap we need to close in order to prevent paying lip service to accommodating mental health needs. And a good starting point is with managers, cited by the CIPD as one of the top reasons for continued workplace stress and poor mental wellbeing.


McKinsey claims that the relationship with your boss is the single most important reason for unhappiness at work. I have talked a lot about this middle group in companies who are often the least supported and acknowledged in their role. The Chartered Management Institute describes the UK as:

“a nation of accidental managers.”

The impact of poor management, underskilled, lacking confidence and lacking guidance has very real consequences. Whether that’s about mental health, staff turnover or presenteeism and it’s proving a significant cost to companies. Be the Business reports that 75% of businesses lose two hours per person per week due to poor management. What is striking is the ONS analysis of UK management effectiveness that suggests a mere 0.1-point increase in the management score positively correlated with a near 10% increase in worker productivity. And research by the CBI shows that 69% of the UK public believe that treating staff well is the most effective way to improve the reputation of UK business. We have to prioritise management as a key factor in improving workplace culture. I talked about the need for this on the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce Webinar yesterday, reminding participants that line managers are individuals too, also exposed to the same pressures as their workers with many also experiencing anxiety and overwhelm. I’ll be writing about how to bridge this gap in future blogs.


Finally to where it all starts. Managers are feeling under-supported and too many are left to their own devices to judge what the priorities are and how to turn rhetoric into action. This is a failing of leadership when the ‘top’ level omits to lead with authenticity. Or when they undermine the great work of their employees and create toxic cultures. Managers require role-models and if they are not experiencing for themselves opportunities for meaningful engagement, the seeking of feedback and their ideas being put into practice, they have no model to follow. Authenticity and trust are central to culture and leadership today. Claiming to have a fulfilling culture is one thing; living and breathing it is another.


Are your cogs turning in the right direction… and are they in sync?


Creating a culture that achieves great results, that your staff are proud to be part of and that creates an atmosphere of engagement and performance, takes effort. Here are 14 critical aspects for development if you want your company to be known for all the right reasons:

  1. Define your shared purpose. Consciously set about creating it: your mission, values and behaviours. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Where do you want to get to? Where are you at on the journey today? What has changed? How aware are employees that they make a difference, about their contribution to the big picture?
  2. Define your culture, driven by leadership, informed by employees and supported by HR. Consciously align your strategy, communication, measurement and rewards around this. Turn words into action. How do your employees achieve a work/non-work balance that meets flexible needs? How easily can they seek help and share ideas? Are all staff behaving in a way that you are proud of?
  3. Plan for employees as whole people. With increasing blurring of boundaries and greater realisation of the need to embrace everything a person is about, provide meaningful experiences. Flexible working (for all ages and stages, irrespective of family) is now a given but think wider in terms of financial wellbeing, mental health, gender identity, opportunities for shared experiences that are not only about exercise or based around alcohol. Ask employees what they would like to experience/ benefit from.
  4. Provide communication channels that all staff can access according to their own preference, so that everyone is aware of plans for what needs to happen, when, how and by whom. Informing all employees about what your company is focusing on, why, and the challenges enables them to support you on the journey. Company updates should occur weekly and employees should be provided with voice back to leadership.
  5. Create a learning culture that all employees, including leadership and managers, are committed to be part of by regularly sharing and learning from each other. Opportunities to meet in solution circles or coaching groups empowers participants to take control of their business.
  6. Develop managers’ capability to fulfil their role in terms of supporting individual needs, mental health, meaningful performance management and reward systems (what are you rewarding/ encouraging?), time for feedback and progression planning. Are they confident and competent to have emotionally intelligent, compassionate, listening conversations? This is about identifying clear, realistic, holistic development plans for managers and rewarding them for progress towards achieving the desired culture.
  7. Be seen! Relationships are what culture centres around and the the most effective way to develop this is for leaders to spend their time interacting with employees.
  8. Capture what is really going on for employees in terms of their own role experience and their perceptions of the wider company, using a process such as Insights. Provide real opportunities for all staff to contribute feedback, to challenge and to ask questions within a transparent process that turns information into action.
  9. Use existing data, for example around sickness, staff turnover and complaints to identify patterns and hot spots so that you know where to allocate resources to make a difference. It may be one manager or one policy that needs development to impact widely.
  10. Provide clear processes for dealing with inappropriate behaviour, whether that is bullying, harassment or neglect in terms of receiving appropriate care and support that employees have a right to expect. This is subjective which is why clear policies and processes shaped by employees is essential. This entitles everyone to have a voice that is heard, respected and considered.
  11. Recruit based on soft skills. Emotional intelligence is a key factor to success. Identify which are valued most in your company and look for these. You need the right people onboard who are willing and able to learn the hard skills that are often easier to master. But in order to attract and retain top talent, your culture has to be a priority.
  12. Be aware of supplier and customer cultures. Develop clear expectations and boundaries about the organisations you partner with to ensure their approach and values fit with yours. If their behaviour does not fit with your conscious culture, you are likely to experience tension and conflict and it could undermine your efforts.
  13. The wider community should experience the same values and behaviours that are evident throughout your organisation. CBI research shows that consumers today see the treatment of staff as the primary indicator of a responsible, trustworthy, business. People buy people; how do you really connect and what messages do you convey to those outside of your organisation?
  14. Avoid going alone. Everyone has their part to play. But the first step is recognising a need for change and getting the right people involved. Learn from other companies who have a reputation for getting their culture right. If you would like to have an external voice to make observations, to share insights into best practice based on evidence and to guide you along this journey, get in touch – this is what I love to do!

Ref: Breathe Culture Economy Report 2020; CBI Great Job 2019