Workplace culture is one of those things that’s always there. Like the sky. It’s also one of those things that’s constantly changing whether we like it or not. Like the seasons. And that means it can be hard to impact culture in a meaningful and lasting way. But not impossible.
It starts with understanding that workplace culture isn’t something you control or create. Rather, it’s something that’s nudged in a certain direction over time by the collective actions of everyone involved. Usually these actions aren’t intentional. They’re simply the outcome of a group of people working together. And the outcome isn’t always good.
Each of us contributes to our workplace culture, whether we know it or not. So, what if you could have a more deliberate and positive influence on how your workplace culture evolves? Sometimes we feel powerless as individuals to effect positive change. But like being prepared for the changing seasons with rain boots or sunglasses, you can get in front of the change.
Here are five easy tips to put into practice right away:
1. Use your internal network
The easiest place to start is to take a look around where you are in your organization. I don’t mean your role or physical position. I’m talking about the team(s) you’re on and the relationships that you have. Once you understand what your internal network looks like, it’s time to hone your internal networking skills.
Global recognition and engagement company, O.C. Tanner, recently surveyed almost 4000 employees to understand key drivers of great work. One of the problems they uncovered is the obstacles and barriers to working together that some employees experience. They suggest that “it's internal networking, in particular, that can help an organization create a closely knit culture of employees even if they don’t necessarily work together every day.”
This doesn’t mean that you should plaster on your fake smile and talk about the weather at the water cooler. Instead, you should look for opportunities to get to know individuals and understand and recognize the contributions they make. Maybe this means showing up at the next social event, or putting up your hand when you have a chance to work on a different team or special project.
O.C. Tanner tells us why this is good for every employee (and your workplace culture): “As they get to know their colleagues on a deeper professional and personal level, they will feel more involved in the company culture. That supportive environment can help them be ready to produce their best work—which, in turn, benefits the entire organization.”
2. Focus on micro goals
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with something as nebulous as workplace culture. That’s why it’s important to focus on small, achievable goals. Instead of deciding that you’re going to change how your team communicates, why not focus on improving how you work with one person. If you feel that your culture could be improved by tidier shared spaces (like the often-neglected office kitchen), start by setting an example for others to follow. Think about your work day and soon you’ll identify areas that’ll benefit from simple changes in either attitude or behavior, and have a ripple effect in your workplace.
Ben Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Bamboo HR, offers seven ways that you can impact your company culture. This sums up his advice nicely: “The purposeful and deliberate action of working on culture is one of the best things you and your company can do. So don't quit just yet. Figure out what you can do today, don't bite off more than you can chew, then sit back and watch as things get better.”
3. Don’t get distracted by gimmicks
It’s easy to think that food, freebies, and frolics will improve your workplace culture. It may make people happy in the moment, but these (and other) types of gimmicks don’t have a lasting positive impact. In fact, they often combine to work against your culture when there’s nothing of substance to back them up.
When you’re contemplating how you can be an agent for your culture, think about how you can impact meaningful areas of your organization. Which processes are holding people back (I’m sure you already have your own list of frustrating practices)? Do you have rules for the sake of rules? Are there bad habits that should be changed (ahem, those directionless meetings that suck the life out of everyone)? These may seem hard to change, but if you start with one focused action, you’ll have quick wins that turn into long-term success for everyone (and so the upward cycle will continue!).
4. Use technology to do some of the heavy lifting
If you’re feeling as helpless in your quest as Frodo and Sam on their treacherous journey to Mordor, take heart. Help is close at hand. There are many ways that technology can help you achieve your (small, focused, meaningful) goals. Think about the tools you have at your disposal. Look for ways to share information about people, projects, and the purpose of your organization. This is what makes a culture connected and vibrant.
If your company has an intranet, become a regular contributor to the company news section. You can write about something related to your profession, industry, or even a special personal interest. Perhaps you could interview different employees across the organization and post this on a weekly basis. Or write a summary of social events as they happen with photos and memorable moments captured.
If you don’t have intranet, you’ve still got options. See if there are other tools in use like chat apps or even email (yes, it’s unfortunately still with us). Talk with your peers and see if other teams are using technology to help them work and communicate better. Or be bold and make a recommendation to introduce a new tool if you think it can do the job. Maybe one of these will do the trick.
5. Be kind
This is probably the simplest tip of all. Just be kind. I previously made a case for kindness in the workplace. It creates positivity, boosts productivity, and it’s contagious. Those small gestures of saying good morning, recognizing a good deed, or letting someone go ahead of you to use the microwave, all matter. They add up to create an environment where people feel respected and welcomed. Isn’t that what you want for yourself?
If you’re unsure how to be kind, or how to express this in the workplace, it’s not hard to learn. Start with one person or one action and go from there. If you know that a coworker is having a tough time, buy them a coffee or just ask how they’re doing. Volunteer to take a shift on reception duty to relieve the person who usually does this. Thank the janitor for cleaning the office every night. You get the idea. The Dalai Lama once said “Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.” I think that’s sound advice.
Nurturing a healthy workplace culture isn’t the job of managers or the C-Suite. It’s everyone’s responsibility. However, most people don’t think about it this way. Regardless of your role or position in your organization, you can (and should) impact and change your workplace culture, for the better. So the next time you think there’s something wrong with your workplace, reflect on your part in its evolution, and realize that you can make a difference. Start today!