What makes a great workplace culture (and how you can build one in your own office)

You’ve seen the lists. “100 Greatest Companies to Work At”, “15 Best Workplace Perks You Won’t Believe”, “28 Companies With the Highest Employee Satisfaction.”

As an outsider, we seem to be able to determine whether another company’s workplace culture is good or bad. But when it comes to actually defining workplace culture, we struggle. “Culture” seems to be an amorphous concept that’s either present in an office or not.

Why is it so difficult to pinpoint? A company’s culture is defined by the people who work there. Since no two workplaces are the same, we shouldn’t expect a predetermined set of values and norms to create a “good” workplace culture.

Workplace culture is what every single person at your company shares when daily to-dos and numbers are off the table. Your front-end developer’s daily goals might include crafting the most visually appealing website possible, while your salespeople might aim to close a certain number of deals each day. Company culture is the factor that unites these seemingly separate pursuits and micro-level goals. It’s the sense of mission that the people at your company share, and the norms and behaviours that push everyone closer to fulfilling that mission.

Why does workplace culture matter? Isn’t it just another buzzword?

Many managers give up on or never even try to establish a workplace culture because they don’t see the connection between culture and their business’ bottom line. As they see it, success at the workplace will lead to employee satisfaction -- and until the company succeeds, it’s best for everyone to just put their heads down and grind.

However, we should be thinking about employee happiness the other way around. It’s not necessarily the employees who put in the most hours or check off more things on their to-do lists who are the most successful. The most successful employees are those who are already happy.

The logic behind this makes sense. If your employees are coming into work every day dreading what they have to get done, they’re bound to procrastinate more. On the flipside, if they come into work excited about their coworkers, the office atmosphere, and the work they have to get done, they’re much more likely to jump right into their work.

Think about the most energetic employee at your company; the one who gets her work done efficiently and is always excited about the next project. We rarely associate high energy levels and productivity with bad attitudes. Happier people get more done.

Where does culture come into this? Workplace culture matters because it plays a critical role in determining your employees’ happiness levels. And since happiness is contagious, any positive changes in your company’s culture have greater potential than you think.

How do you go about defining and implementing your own workplace culture?

1. YOU must commit

So a healthy company culture is desirable. We know that.

But just as implementing a new technology, marketing strategy, or sales tactic can be a rocky road, growing a healthy company culture from scratch is difficult, too. People are naturally opposed to change.

You must be willing to commit yourself fully to the culture that you envision. If you want the people at your company to communicate more effectively, you need to be the first one to open your door. If you’re striving toward a culture of trust, you need to be the first one to put your trust in others. If you want a “fun” workplace, you need to be present at Taco Tuesday and dress up on theme days. We’re social beings, and we instinctively look to each other for cues and inspiration.

Commitment is a prerequisite for seeing any substantial change. If you aren’t willing to participate, you can’t expect your employees to want to, either.

2. Think about your beginnings

To define your ideal workplace culture, begin by thinking about why your company started in the first place.

  • Why does your business exist?
  • What separates you from others in your industry? Do you offer technology that allows your clients to do their jobs far more efficiently? Are your services backed by unparalleled expertise and experience?
  • What problems does your company strive to solve, and whose problems are they?

Whatever you offer becomes your mission. Even though your colleagues are contributing in different ways, they must be united in why they want to contribute in the first place.

2. Make a list of your governing principles

Think about the attributes you’d like to see consistently in your employees. What values do you prioritise over all others? Perhaps you value adaptability, out-of-the-box thinking, or accountability. Maybe you envision a more transparent workplace, or one where everyone feels their voice has been heard. Whatever those values are, make a list of anywhere from 3-10 qualities that characterise the people and relationships you’d like to see. Remember to keep the focus on character rather than skill set. Ideally, you’ll whittle these down to a few memorable points later.

At HubSpot, every single employee is familiar with our culture code. It’s been viewed almost 3 million times by people working inside and outside of HubSpot, and it’s something our co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, poured hours and hours of time into creating. It really underpins the way each of us tackles our challenges and strives to meet our goals on a daily basis. That wouldn’t be the case if what we stand for as a company hadn’t been so brilliantly communicated.

3. Make those principles crystal clear and put them into practice

A strong corporate culture begins with clear articulation of your vision. You can’t expect people to act in-line with your values if they don’t have a clear understanding of what those values are.

Again, it begins with you. Exemplify everything you’d like to see in your employees, and you’ll set a new standard.

If you don’t see results immediately, don’t give up on your attempts to establish a culture. Cultural norms and behaviours are fundamentally long-standing aspects of any environment, and they can take a long time to take hold. Making note of incremental changes, and giving those changes some internal recognition, will keep the process going and validate your efforts.

How can you maintain the workplace culture that you’re working so hard to build?

A healthy workplace culture is self-reinforcing. If the culture at your company is improving, people will be increasingly excited about coming to work and propelling the business to new heights. Still, there are two specific ways you can nurture your workplace culture.

1. Consider employee feedback

Without your employees, you don’t have a culture. Even if you believe that your vision is the one that will take your growth to a new level, your employees may not feel the same way. Remember: happier employees are more productive employees.

At HubSpot we take our internal employee net promoter score (NPS) very seriously. It’s how we manage feedback, how our employees instigate change, and how we evaluate the success of our management. Just as you’d ask your customers for what they like and don’t like about your product, regularly ask your employees what elements of workplace culture they’d like to see. When they feel their feedback has been considered, there will be much greater cultural buy-in.

2. Hire people who fit the culture, not just the role

Instead of hiring people who have a defined skill set, search hard to find people who fit your culture, too. Someone who believes in your company’s vision and is willing to pull out all the stops to propel your business forward is likely to add far more value than someone with a great technical skillset but no affinity towards your culture.

Those who believe in your company’s culture and are excited about making your vision a reality will be more committed in the long run.

Culture can be hard to quantify and define, but it comes down to the people who surround you -- so make your vision known and be willing to throw yourself behind it.

Lucy Alexander works on the Asia Pacific content team at HubSpot.