How to improve workplace culture in four steps

Culture is key when it comes to keeping employees engaged this year

How to improve workplace culture in four steps

In a world of lockdowns and virtual working, keeping employees engaged has never been more important. The last 12 months have been tough on workers – and the future isn’t looking certain just yet. As businesses begin to map out what the future of work looks like, maintaining workplace culture is going to be high on every HRD’s priority list. As the foundation for any business’s success, poor workplace culture permeates every layer of the organisation.

HRD spoke to workplace culture expert, Colin D Ellis, author of the new book, Culture Hacks, who said the pandemic has made the importance of culture more visible.

“What we saw during the pandemic was that behaviours that stood in the way of getting things done had to be overcome and all of a sudden, organisations found it easier to do cultural initiatives that they weren't able to do before,” he said. “Things like flexible working, addressing poor behaviour, poor performance, and making collaboration more deliberate. “The organisations that thrived were those ones which quickly relaid the foundations for success. They redefined what was required in order to continue to be successful whilst everybody wasn't in the same space.”

Forward-thinking companies recognised that the pandemic had sparked an acceleration of workplace trends and to keep up, they needed to stay one step ahead. They knew that rather than scaling back, doubling down on culture initiatives was going to be key to ensuring remote work would be successful long-term.

Read more: Culture is key to surviving COVID cuts

Four steps to reinvigorate workplace culture

Ellis recommends that businesses start off by taking the time to define exactly what they want workplace culture to look like. He said all too often, workplace values are simply decided upon by the senior leadership and relayed to the staff – creating an ‘us and them’ dynamic.

“The first thing they should do is to bring staff together and do some targeted exercises to agree, for example, how people will behave, how they’ll work together and how they’ll make time for new ideas,” he said. “Without defining the culture you need to be successful, you'll never be able to get there.”

The second point is around challenging unhelpful or outdated cultural norms that don’t lend themselves to a productive, balanced workplace culture. Ellis said practices such as back-to-back meetings or regularly communicating with staff out of hours create a culture of presenteeism, rather than fostering an environment for quality work. This is particularly important for a remote workforce, where the line between home and the office is becoming less defined.

By creating a culture that supports and actively promotes the importance of downtime away from the office, employers can help to stop the onset of burnout before it begins.

The third step involves becoming crystal clear on your business’s priorities are and how they link to success. For many businesses, the pandemic changed the way they operated overnight and strategic goals were thrown up in the air. But successful companies quickly re-evaluated priorities, rather than getting bogged down in the sheer volume of change up ahead.

“Most organisations are stuck in this cycle of busy. But when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” Ellis said. “Organisations should be really good at not only regularly reviewing what their most important things are but making them public as well. That way, employees always know what they should be working on, and how it contributes to the organisation's success.”

Read more: Woolworths' head of D&I: 'My favourite aspect of our culture'

After drilling down on culture values and priorities, the final key step is around leading by example from the top down – something we’ve seen many Australian employers fall down in the last year. Some of the country’s most prominent employers, like ANZ, Crown Casino and most recently, the Australian government, have been plagued with scandals involving execs and senior employees.

In 2021, bad behaviour simply won’t be tolerated by other employees or shareholders. It undermines any previous work to foster workplace culture, hampering a company’s ability to survive long-term.

“Senior leaders must always demonstrate the behaviours that they expect of everybody. Culture starts and ends with them,” Ellis said. “Particularly for HRDs, they should demonstrate what they expect of others and help other senior leaders build the kind of teams that they need to be successful. Being a role model is crucially important.”

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