What role do HR professionals play in shaping a company’s culture? What can they do to understand it better, improve it, and make their workplace a great place to work?
We decided to ask a dozen HR industry thought leaders, authors, and experts (from Airbnb, Shopify, Greenhouse, and others) a simple question to shed some light on this matter.
Here’s the question we asked:
What is the #1 thing HR leaders can do to improve workplace culture?
The responses were as varied as the experts themselves, who hail from a diverse range of professional backgrounds in organizations of different sizes, industries, and beliefs.
Despite their differences, every single one of the contributors had thought-provoking insights to share, and now we’re very excited to share them with you. (BTW, you can follow all of them on Twitter here.)
Here are some over-arching insights that were consistent among responses:
- As a leader, you need to work with everyone in the company to help foster culture. A great culture is not an outcome of one person’s doing; it’s a result of many people collaborating, contributing, and taking ownership of the culture together.
- Listening, both literally and figuratively, is a key skill. If you genuinely seek to measure and understand how your people feel about the current culture, what’s working and what isn’t, listening to feedback and data will reveal a treasure trove of ideas on how to improve it.
- Company culture and performance go hand in hand, influencing and reinforcing one another. Be thoughtful about how your goals and strategy reflect and affect the culture, and how your culture either helps or hinders company success as a whole.
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Without further ado, here are 12 experts sharing their best advice on how to improve workplace culture:
Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb
“Listen to your employees and involve them in co-creating the culture through your mission and core values.”
Maia Josebachvili, VP Strategy & People at Greenhouse
“Culture comes from two places: the people in an organization and the norms and behaviors that are celebrated in the company. Organizations need to be deliberate about both when working to improve workplace culture. One of the best things HR leaders can do to support this is to hire explicitly for culture-add people. Once a company has identified the values that it wants to propagate, there should be an entire interview dedicated to screening for those traits. For example, if a company’s value is collaborative, the interview should ask behavioral questions like “tell me about a time when you chipped in to help a colleague on a project that was outside of your scope.” These traits should be as non-negotiable as the key technical skills needed to succeed on the job.”
Tim Sackett, Chief Storyteller at Fistful of Talent HR Blog
“Improve operational results! Everyone likes to believe there’s this magic formula to improve workplace culture. Turns out people love working for companies that are doing really well! Rarely do you hear highly profitable companies struggling with culture. We all like playing on winning teams!”
Katie Burke, VP of Culture & Experience at HubSpot
“The #1 thing HR leaders can do to improve workplace culture is to remove the notion that the best ideas to improve your organization come from the C Suite. Listening to, valuing, and acting upon employee feedback is the single most important thing HR leaders can do to make a meaningful impact on their company and its culture.”
Dr. Sydney Finkelstein, Professor of Leadership & Strategy, Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, & Author
“Corporate culture in the modern economy must focus on creativity, innovation, and agility. Change and disruption are now givens; the only question is whether your business will be able to keep up (or even better, set the pace). HR leaders have primary responsibility, along with the CEO, in building and reinforcing a culture that can win in this new world. The #1 thing HR leaders can do is to recognize that all that work on competencies and other bureaucratic elements of traditional HR practice only add value if they promote creativity, innovation, and agility. If they don’t, stop spending time on it.”
Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia
“The most important thing you can do for your company culture is to listen to those who are a part of it. It’s crucial to open your door and really connect with people. Walk the floors, ask people how they’re doing, set up 1:1’s, have mini town hall sessions with a small number of employees to hear what’s going on in their individual worlds. All of this combined helps foster the type of environment where your co-workers feel safe and comfortable enough to reach out, no matter their position within the company.”
Jacob Morgan, Best-Selling Author, Speaker, & Futurist
“After a thorough analysis of over 250 global organizations I’ve found that employee experience is a combination of three environments. Culture, technology, and the physical space. My advice to HR leaders would be to focus on all three environments and not just on culture. Still, if culture is the priority then I would make sure that the goal of every manager at an organization is to help make other employees more successful than they are.”
Gina Lau, Team Operations & Culture at HelloSign
“The most crucial key to improving workplace culture is creating a strong, reliable and trusted feedback loop between the team and people/senior leaders in the company. It sounds simple, yet often overlooked. People need an outlet to share what’s working and what’s not working. The whole team benefits when we can have honest conversations to callout areas of improvements. Teams need to trust that the feedback they share will be heard by company leaders and leaders will champion & invest in improvements as needed.
“There are all different ways to customize a feedback loop for what works best for your team…at HelloSign, we have a mix of surveys, town hall forums, culture committee meetings, 1 on 1’s with managers and open office hours with our CEO, CTO and COO.
“We believe that workplace culture is best nurtured when the whole team is involved in building it, navigating hiccups and solving obstacles together.”
J.T. O’Donnell, Founder & CEO at Work It Daily
“The #1 thing HR can do is get all of leadership to be very clear in articulating their Goals, Strategies & Tactics. Goals are the ultimate things you want to achieve in the business. i.e. Be the #1 service provider in your industry within 3 years. Strategies are how you plan to achieve the goal. i.e. by outperforming our competitors in terms of customer service and return on the investment by the customer. Tactics are the activities that get you there i.e. return all customer requests within one hour and never close a ticket until the customer feels it is 100% resolved.
“When everyone in the company understands ALL 3, you make it easier for employees to do their job and make good business decisions on your behalf. They feel successful because they know they are doing what they were asked to do.
“When Goals, Strategies and Tactics are done right, HR will find it easier to attract, train, and retain top talent.”
David Hassell, CEO at 15Five
“If you don’t already, do everything you can to create a culture of feedback. Once a culture of open, honest and transparent feedback is in place, it’s much easier for company leadership to make the shifts needed to improve the culture. Without that, it’s like flying blind.”
Shannon Fitzgerald, Director of HR at The Muse
“I would probably say that the number one thing HR leaders can do to improve workplace culture is to help train and support managers. The relationship between managers and employees is crucial in predicting workplace happiness and employee engagement, and HR has the opportunity to help managers build and strengthen these relationships.”
Daniel Weinand, Chief Culture Officer at Shopify
“Don’t try and pretend to be something that you’re not. The most important thing about nurturing a healthy culture* is that it is genuine. So take a look at the leadership team and influencers in your company and determine what it is that they truly value that sets them apart so you can start defining it. What people truly believe and behaviours that you see where there is a lack of rules and processes will be the real indicator of your culture. Once that’s done, any change you want to occur will have to come from the leadership team, and from the people you hire.
“*there is no culture in the world that is compatible with everyone. However, workplace culture can become a deterrent if your team hears one thing, and then sees and believes another thing.”
Building a great workplace is very hard. But it’s easier if you approach it in a thoughtful, intentional way, as recommended by the smart people in this article.
The mission of Hazel Blog (which we have just launched today!) is to help you do just that. So if improving workplace culture and insipiring teams to work better together is something you’re interested in, we’d love to have you as part of our community. Go here to subscribe.
Over to You!
What do you think is the #1 thing HR leaders can do to improve workplace culture?
We’d love to hear your point of view in the comments section below.