How HR can create a better work culture 

SenseHR takes a look at what HR can do to create a positive workplace culture and why it’s so important

John Crowley • 
How HR can create a better work culture

What is a ‘workplace culture’? 

Firstly, what exactly is a ‘workplace culture’? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the ideas and ways of working that are typical for an organisation, and that affects how it does business and how its employees behave”.  

That’s a pretty broad definition, so let’s break it down. It’s how it makes us feel to be at work, the personality and atmosphere of the place, its values, behaviours, attitudes, customs and traditions.  

Take a moment to evoke a little mind-film of you entering your ideal workplace – what does it look like? The light, the physical features, your interactions with people and how you relate to them, how you’re all dressed, the mood, the atmosphere, and the level of formality. That’s all a part of it.  

The ideal workplace culture you’re aiming to foster depends to a degree upon the sector and the values and attributes of the individuals that make up that sector.  

A culture of innovation and critical thinking might be highly desirable in the tech industry but be less welcome in the military for example, where the onus might be more on following orders and deferring to authority.  

One thing remains the same and that’s the root meaning from which the term was derived.  

Culture: from the Latin colere, meaning ‘tend, cultivate’ in the sense ‘cultivation of the soil’.  

HR leaders need to create an environment of ‘good soil’ for their people to grow from and thrive.    

Why is workplace culture important?  

You know that little thought experiment you did earlier? Now inverse it. Imagine a workplace that you would be miserable in.  

For me, it’s grey, brutalist, austere and rigidly formal. The people that inhabit it are severe, punishing and have authority over me that I don’t trust them with. There is no human connection, it’s friendless, lonely and anxiety-inducing, with the ambient sense of doing something wrong and yet not knowing what the ‘right thing’ is. I want to get the hell out of dodge and to freedom.  

Cripes, that was dark, I bummed myself out there, sorry people.  

What problems do you envisage arising from having people feel like that at work?  

They wouldn’t want to be there for a start, so staff absences and turnover are going to become a problem as people fall to misery-induced unwellness and work avoidance and look for any other job that will have them. 

Nobody wants to find themselves in that position, which is why workplace culture is a big factor in what people look for when applying for jobs.  

If you can nail workplace culture for your people, you can have a happy, compassionate team that performs like a well-oiled machine and attracts like-minded new hires.  

In concrete terms, some of the benefits produced by a positive workplace culture are  

  • Team cohesiveness  
  • Strong morale  
  • Alignment towards achieving goals  
  • Increased innovation  
  • Better customer service  
  • Increased wellbeing  
  • Increased productivity  
  • Improved engagement  
  • Increased employee retention   
  • A better reputation 
  • Improved talent recruitment  
  • Improved quality of services 

What’s not to like? Want to know how to get there?   

How to improve workplace culture  

1. Policies and procedures  

The Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, The Ten Commandments, The Office Policy for casual clothes Tuesday…. 

Policies are what cultures are built upon. They define what’s expected of people and what’s unacceptable for employers and employees alike.  

They must be constructed in accordance with legislation and the needs of the industry they serve and they will need to be reviewed and updated when necessary.  

As well as serving the bottom line, company policies and goals must provide for the wellbeing of individuals, if people are expected to align with them.    

  • Ideally, people should be able to participate in policy development, and changes should be introduced with care. As always, communication is paramount.  
  • What is the policy around attendance, the code of conduct, the dress code and the onboarding process? All need to be carefully articulated. 
  • Try and build as much flexibility as possible in your scheduling. Research consistently finds that this is a big factor in whether people take or leave a job.   
  • Clear policies for bullying and harassment need to be in place and actioned if you are to take inappropriate behaviour seriously.  
  • Transparent policy around progression and promotion too will let people know what’s required of them, with performance reviews used to measure development.  
  • The long-term vision of the company needs to be understood by all. 
  • The hierarchy of authority and accountability needs to be understood if you are to engender trust and confidence within relationships.  

2. In people managers we trust  

Leadership is where workplace culture is born. It’s in all the little human interactions, the communication content and style, and the level and method of oversight. 

A lot of businesses are suffering from a ‘them and us’ culture, with 6 in 10 people citing their manager as the reason they left their company and only 32% of employees feeling they can be their authentic selves at work.  

You can’t change things for the better if you don’t know what needs changing, so you need to be realistic about the problems in the culture that you’re currently operating in.  

You can start by observation. How do people interact and treat each other? Are they respectful and welcoming? Do they feel confident enough to speak up? How are dissenting voices received? What example are you setting?  

Successful people managers are constantly assessing the satisfaction of their team and paying attention to their wellbeing.  

  • Conduct employee surveys and use team-based tools such as polls to gauge the mood. The more you know about how people feel, the better placed you are to improve things. A well-crafted survey can be a real eye-opener.  

Did you know for example that the biggest factor driving worker satisfaction in the U.S. is “respectful treatment of all employees”? Good to know and even better if you can gauge how well you’re doing at it and benchmark it over time and against your industry peers.  

  • Invest in employee training and growth so that your people can progress, achieve goals and attain pay increases and allow them to enjoy some autonomy to explore their own chosen directions
  • Be fair and make sure the workplace is inclusive for everybody.  

The disparity in policy, practice and attitude needs to be rooted out and rectified. Nobody should be suffering negative experiences or inequality as a result of bias, whether it’s a case of favouritism, unconscious chauvinism, ageism, or racism.  

There should be equal opportunities to progress and equal access to all perks and rewards.  

Individual differences should be valued and accepted and everyone should feel welcome.  

Ensure signage doesn’t exclude anybody, be sensitive, and don’t use gendered language.  

With only 44% of employees saying their organisation’s diversity and inclusion approach feels sincere, there’s a lot of room for growth here.  

  • Make yourself available.  

People need to have the opportunity to communicate with and build trust with HR leaders.  

Make a concerted effort to reach out to people by stopping by for an informal chat, sending out the odd email to check in, or offering a meeting. This will help foster trust and encourage openness.   

Don’t be dismissive of trivial complaints, if somebody has confided in you, it’s significant to them and rejecting concerns encourages people to internalize the value that nobody wants to hear their problems, making them feel isolated and helpless and impinging on the freedom of expression wanted from a thriving workplace.  

  • Trust is vital and it works both ways. You need to trust people to do their jobs without breathing down their necks and putting undue pressure on them.  

They need to trust that their best interests are being served and that company ideals marry with their own and they need to feel that they can talk openly to HR professionals.  

You all need to trust that you have each other’s backs and are all pulling your weight to achieve the same ends. 

A Harvard Business Review study found 74% less stress was experienced by those working in a high-trust environment. 

Trust takes time to build so be consistent, fair and patient.  

  • Be accountable. People need to be accountable and leadership needs to set a good example here. This builds responsibility, the confidence to take credit where it’s due and to rectify mistakes without assigning blame. 
  • Recognise and reward 

You can’t have a positive culture without valuing people and their contributions to the business’s success. When somebody busts a gut to do a good job or really knocks it out the park, you need to notice. Feeling rewarded for good work motivates people to strive for the highest quality.  

Conversely, if somebody is struggling with poor performance, try and help them as opposed to criticizing.  

3. Foster great relationships  

We’ve established how important it is that people should be happy. So a good starting point is to think about what makes us happy.  

Our favourite people are pretty high on the list. They are the glue that holds us together and it’s the same for businesses.   

The easy shorthand and stimulating collaboration that comes from working with colleagues towards shared goals is an absolute winner when it comes to positive workplace culture and getting things done. 

Research shows that Gen’ Z workers who feel part of a community are 16 times more likely to stay, which has the added bonus of seriously reducing turnover costs.  

  • Hire not just for skill and competency but for shared values and goals so that your people can rally together towards a common purpose. 

That’s not to say you should be hiring a monoculture, all sharing the same ideas and opinions. On the contrary, the evidence is in, that companies that benefit from the inclusion of people from all kinds of different backgrounds outperform monocultural peers when it comes to profitability.  

  • You could host team-building activities to give people the opportunity to bond over fun, shared experiences.  

Make sure that it’s something that everybody wants to do. If people have a horrible time, it could serve only to isolate them.  

  • Set up group goals. It’s great for your top performers to feel valued but a competitive environment can give rise to jealousy, resentment and disengagement.  

Incentivising teams to achieve group goals and rewards will help encourage teamwork and create the opportunity to bond over shared objectives, spreading the cheer for a job well executed.  

4. Make the physical environment somewhere people want to be 

We spend a third of our day at work and the physical environment we’re in can have a huge impact on us. There are innumerable studies on the effects of different colours, smells, lighting, sounds, temperature, even plants – they improve productivity by 15%, studies show.   

Most importantly, your people need to be comfortable and insulated against avoidable injury.    

How the best software can help 

You can use SenseHR’s next-gen human resources software in your implementation of all of this, helping you to manage all your workplace and people data, so that you can cultivate the very best for your people and business.