improving workplace culture

Why Workplace Culture Matters Most Today

Why Workplace Culture Matters Most Today
by Dan Williamson
Director of Enrollment and Instructor, School of Applied Liberal Arts and Social and Education Sciences and School of Business, Technology, and Advanced Manufacturing

What is workplace culture, and why is it important?
Most definitions of workplace culture include something to the effect of how an organization lends itself to shared values, belief systems, attitudes, and/or assumptions that employees share in the workplace. Got all that? No doubt it’s a mouthful and may even sound complex, but when you get right down to it, it’s not that complex at all. I like to think workplace culture is the feeling or vibe you get when walking into an office, production floor, employee lounge, or any other space within a place of business or profession. It’s the proverbial “scent in the air” — does it stink or does it keep you coming back for more?

In short, are staff generally happy and can you sense it? Are staff completing tasks with enthusiasm or are they just putting in their time from 9 am to 5 pm? Do employees present themselves as authentic, or does the attention to service wear off the minute the customer walks out the door? Generally, staff operating in a healthy workplace culture will be more engaged and productive because they enjoy what they do and feel supported. Staff working from the opposite end of the spectrum are just doing it for the paycheck, and so everything else becomes just transactional (a workplace culture killer!).

Why does workplace culture matter most today?
Younger generations in the workforce, a booming economy, and employee retention make having a healthy workplace culture absolutely critical. Allow me to introduce you to the Generation Z and the millennials! These younger generations make up almost 50% of today’s workforce (Simison, C., 2020, And they have goals and expectations, lots of them. They work hard, pay attention to their surroundings, and are looking to grow. Additionally, they seek feedback (both positive and negative), value a strong work-life balance, and push for growth opportunities — openly and unapologetically — some would even say a bit sooner than generations prior that were taught to “earn your stripes” and “pay your dues” before asking for a promotion. Not Generation Z, not millennials. They have a go-getter mentality and a work ethic on steroids.

However, I also find today’s younger generations are more skilled and efficient than their predecessors, and so they desire a workplace that meets their needs. They’ll leave if that isn’t happening. It’s no secret that today’s robust economy offers more opportunities for job-hopping than in years past. This, in turn, impacts employee retention. Most organizations struggle with it on some level or at some point. And keeping top talent is even more difficult for organizations with workers able to search in nearly any direction for a possible “better fit” — be it for more money, better benefits, or different opportunities. So if your organization’s benefits and salaries aren’t too enticing, and promotions are not aplenty for whatever business reasons — what are you offering them to stick around?

How do you keep your workplace culture healthy and strong?
Start with communication. It’s been my experience that effective communication is typically ranked at or near the top of employee satisfaction surveys. Communication is key in any organization for obvious reasons. Providing updates and overviews, hitting deadlines, and relaying company messages are all important. However, knowing precisely when and how to communicate these messages is what separates great organizations from modest ones — and employees take notice of this. Some quick suggestions are to be leery of email overload, opt for managers to hold brief stand-up meetings for critical messages, and get comfortable with texting — not everyone can get to their email so quickly, but a brief text message can be most efficient for certain situations.

Employee appreciation and engagement go a long way.
When bonuses aren’t a realistic part of the budget structure and 10% salary increases are unreasonable, how can you reward your people? Here are some ideas to jumpstart your lagging culture. Get creative with PTO. Time off is a great motivator for most, particularly with the younger generations. Sure, closing up shop may not always be practical, but early dismissals on slower days tend to work well.

Next up: engagement. Try to let staff own the creative side here. We have some truly creative minds on staff in our University’s Admissions Office that absolutely RAN with this on their own and made it incredibly successful. It’s ok to solicit for ideas, but giving the staff ownership is important so they feel appreciated, trusted, and invested. Incorporate themes into casual-dress Fridays (football jersey day, twin day, wear red day, etc.), take team photos and post them in the office to generate some much-needed good vibes. Encourage team potlucks often and happy hours when it makes sense — but not just around the holidays either. Office door decorating contests work well around the holidays (again, our staff came up with this one!) and build camaraderie. Your CFO will love you, too, as most of these ideas cost little to nothing from the annual budget, but the buzz created in the office will pay dividends.

These are not “one-size-fits-all” solutions, but incorporating even one or two of these ideas is important to keep your workplace environments positive and healthy.

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