Getting the balance right: why workplace culture must be carefully cultivated

Office Culture

Every business should have a sense of what it stands for and what it aspires to be, but allowing culture to form ‘naturally’ can be risky.

Rather, workplace culture should be carefully managed and shaped by a combination of leadership, management, policies and people.

Victoria Bickle, managing partner at UM explains that culture comes first and foremost from the top though. Some businesses have thrived as benign dictatorships, but typically in their early stages. More mature ones, particularly those within larger networks, are more complex beasts.

It can be hard to define a singular culture within an organisation that has multiple teams and business units. You can’t please everyone so reaching total consensus is – sadly – improbable. In these situations, it’s sometimes simply easier for the senior management team to start by deciding what it doesn’t want the business to be.

The macro vision is just a first step, the next is to gauge how it bears up with reality, so you can set out an action plan. It makes sense to ask as many people as possible what they feel the defining characteristics of the business are. Remember feedback from an apprentice can be just as useful as that from a managing partner – so it’s vital to encourage a frank and honest discussion!

Therefore, it’s all-important that communication structures are in place to offer everyone the means to speak openly, whether that’s publicly or anonymously. Structured audits, surveys and forums enable staff to offer feedback in the knowledge it will be reviewed, taken on board, and when appropriate, put into a pre-determined process to address the issue(s).

Of course, you might not like everything you hear, but it does offer a foundation to develop or refresh internal perceptions. Shaping culture in the right way is a continual work in progress. It can only be refined by listening closely to staff and being responsive to what works – and (more importantly) what doesn’t.

It is hard to objectively measure culture, but it isn’t wholly intangible. Active and structured listening allows you to evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses lie. More importantly – and regardless of what the issue(s) may be – satisfaction in the workplace stems in part from knowing you are heard.

The problem is businesses sometimes listen in the wrong places and, worse, treat culture like a box-ticking exercise. In their efforts to be seen to be doing the right thing, they are sometimes guilty of paying more attention to what other employers are doing then to the specifics of what their own people are saying.

Previously, some businesses have gone out of their way to blur the lines between work and leisure time to encourage staff to spend longer in the office. This may motivate some people, but we all work differently and have individual needs and motivations.

Not everyone lives to work, and many divide their responsibilities between work and family. Others may have a side hustle that takes up significant portions of their time. It would be both unfair and unrealistic to expect that the 9-5 will be everyone’s sole purpose. So long as people are meeting their responsibilities to the best of their abilities within their role, this should be enough.

A modern business must be willing and able to work around the needs of their staff. Moreover, it should actively encourage them to find the time to pursue whatever they are passionate about outside of working hours. Happy and fulfilled staff go a long way to creating a positive workplace culture.

Also, we can’t assume to know what people want. Social activities and team building may actually be ‘forced fun’, or actively stressful for introverts. Flexible working is another case in point. Some will find it affords them the luxury to enjoy those personal moments that matter to them. Others find being away from the office lonely, unstructured or demotivating.

Building the right working culture means listening to everyone, accepting and supporting difference. We should remember that initiatives like flexible working are strategies, not philosophies. Culture has to play equally to both. It should start from the top but ultimately has to cater to the needs of everyone. This means putting processes in place, not just to listen, but also to act.