The Pandemic Taught Us What Really Matters in a Workplace Culture

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what the essentials of good workplace culture really are. When offices are closed and employees work remotely, perks like award-winning coffee bars and napping pods no longer mean much. Wherever they are and however they work, employees need to feel they are part of a strong, focused, connected, and supportive organization. Companies, in turn, are understanding that a positive and high-performing culture is really the best work perk of all.

But what comprises such a culture? And how do companies make sure it is lived daily?

What Workplace Culture Is — and What It Isn’t

Let’s begin by underscoring what such a culture is not. Lavish offices and amenities, while pleasant, do not create culture. All the fine art, gourmet cafeterias, and pickleball courts in the world cannot make up for a weak or dysfunctional culture. They may contribute to a fun and even glamorous work environment, but they don’t inspire and affirm employees at their deepest levels.

A truly great corporate culture emerges from a shared understanding of company values, transparency on business and professional goals, effective communication, and consistent recognition. After more than 20 years of managing teams, I’ve come to appreciate three practices that are essential to making the most of the strengths and opportunities within an organization:

1. Dig in and Meet With Employees Directly

Yes, this takes time, and leaders need to balance employee meetings (even virtual ones) with the dozens of tasks they must tend to every day. But there is no better method for improving and validating workplace culture than one-on-one sessions with your employees.

As a senior executive, I find that one of the most inspiring takeaways from employee meetings is learning about the incredible depth and diversity of talent within my organization. Employees bring a huge array of experiences to their jobs, from backgrounds as diverse as meteorology and the entertainment industry. Appreciating these resources can inspire leaders and kick-start conversations on how to use these unique resources to tackle industry challenges in creative ways.

2. Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

Clarity in the establishment of professional goals allows the organization to move swiftly toward achieving its larger business goals. It instills employees with a sense of pride and sense over their area of responsibility, fosters mutual understanding and respect for colleagues, and fully aligns the workforce with the greater corporate good. These are essential building blocks for a strong, effective, harmonious work environment.

At our company, we’re passionate about “asynchronous clarity,” something that has become even more important in the work-from-home era. Asynchronous clarity refers to an employee’s ability to get the information they need to do their job — despite not being able to stop by someone’s desk to ask about who has responsibility or expertise over a certain area.

Clear definitions of responsibility, along with providing employees with the direction they need to do their jobs, are key to working remotely. They’re every bit as important as an individual employee’s talent, ambition, and expertise.

3. Celebrate Successes

Recognizing the achievements of teams, individuals, and the entire company isn’t a diversion, nor is it trivial. It’s absolutely essential to the quality of company culture.

People thrive on appreciation for their hard work. Time and again, it has proven to be as important as financial compensation. Moreover, success breeds success: When people realize others are grateful for their efforts, they naturally want to prove themselves through ever-greater contributions.

To be effective, recognition must be consistent, warranted, and equal. Executives and team leads responsible for noting and rewarding achievement must ensure that people aren’t overlooked and that the successes they name are truly deserving of celebration.

For major wins or milestones, the presence of the CEO or a senior executive means everything. Don’t just buy the cake or pay for the outing. Show up. Be present in the moment. Employees won’t forget the gesture.

Great Leaders Are Always Under Construction

These three culture-building practices are by no means exhaustive. However, they do speak to the ongoing need in any organization for executives to listen to, connect with, and learn from their employees. Doing so allows everyone to cooperate on building something meaningful together.

Leaders, like their companies, are always under construction. Their development is the most visible kind, apparent to all in the workplace. It’s important to be authentic and transparent. What we say and do as leaders matters, precisely because we are constantly under scrutiny from the entire organization, from those above us and those working in the trenches.

Excellent leadership is characterized by commitment and perseverance. When employees realize their company’s top executives are committed to a strong and equitable culture that recognizes the dignity of the individual and inspires them to a noble goal, they will respond positively. That’s the kind of aspirational workplace that snack bars and ping-pong tables, however popular they may be, can never conjure up.

Kayne Grau is president of Uptake.

By Kayne Grau