What defines a great workplace culture? If you asked most people, you'd probably get a wide range of different answers. Some might think a great workplace culture is a place that is fun to work, or that provides great benefits. Others might think a great workplace culture is a place where people think, act or even look the same.

None of these are signs of a great workplace culture - in fact, they might even be toxic when taken too far. So what does define a great workplace culture? I recently spoke with dozens of top executives at leading corporations, about this topic. Here's what five of them believe defines a great workplace culture in today's world.

Purpose Before Production

When it comes to culture, many companies have put the cart before the proverbial horse. They're focused on outputs like profitability and productivity, rather than inputs like happiness and engagement that drive the outputs they seek. Research shows the folly of this approach, Gallup found that engaged workplaces are 22% more profitable, and 21% more productive, than disengaged workplaces.

Bob Johnston, CEO of Front Burner, the restaurant management company for the global fondue restaurant franchise chain, The Melting Pot, says this needs to change. "For many people, work is no longer fulfilling on an emotional level. One reason is how people 'design' work," says Johnston. "In a lot of companies, work is more about process and production versus purpose and gratification. So people are seeking engagement and not finding it at work."

The solution, says Johnston, is to understand what drives people when it comes to work. "To balance company needs with those of the individual, we have to understand how each person is wired. We need to know what matters to them," says Johnston. "We use an assessment tool that allows our team members to articulate those things. Meeting those needs means they are more motivated to create an exceptional experience for our guests."

Happiness, and Why It Matters

According to Alexander Kjerulf - Chief Happiness Officer at Denmark-based keynote presenters Woohoo Inc., the expectations that workers bring to their jobs today make culture a critical component of company success.

Says Kjerulf, "Over the last 20 or 30 years, as technology has advanced, we've seen a shift from manual labor to knowledge work. With that has come a change in expectations. Companies need more from our people than to show up for eight hours and then go home: we need their engagement and best thinking. Workers, in turn, need more from their work than just a paycheck - they need to feel a sense of fulfillment, of purpose. This gives them happiness in their work."

According to Kjerulf, this shift makes culture a strategic priority for companies today. "Happiness at work is what we do, how we treat each other and how we work. Happy cultures outcompete less-happy cultures," says Kjerulf. "You have to make happiness a strategic priority and top leadership needs to be on board with it. Happiness should be a performance indicator."

Share Culture, Not Just Spaces

A recent survey by Deloitte found that more than 80% of large enterprises are moving away from traditional pyramid hierarchies, toward flatter, team-oriented management structures. Companies with great cultures are increasingly not places where bosses tell employees what to do, but shared spaces where problems are solved and goals are met together.

"Decisions that we make together have more impact," says Amol Sarva, Founder of Knotel, a company that provides headquarters as a service. "We have a culture committee to tackle the challenges we're facing. We want to gather as much input as we can, so it's a big committee. We even have stakeholders from outside the company, including customers, that are a part of it. Big decisions that impact our culture have to be shared by everyone that is going to be affected."

Inclusion Creates Community

Culture isn't just about hiring a bunch of like-minded people. Lack of diversity means a company has fewer viewpoints from which to draw ideas, and that means less room for innovation.

Robert Alvarez, Chief of Operations and Finance for Austin-based cloud ecommerce platform, BigCommerce, says, "We encourage our people to help define our company culture through inclusive employee resource groups. Because they have control over the direction, focus, and activities of each group, they are more engaged in the group's success. They're also more committed to the company's success."

Knotel's Sarva agrees. "Great culture is not just about sharing a space. When people come into our culture, they're coming into a community," says Sarva. "Inclusion is how modern businesses run, but to some extent Knotel members self-select. We attract people who want to be part of a community that works together to make a positive impact in the world."

Personal Growth Drives Company Success

A result of the changing relationship between employers and employees is the fact that company growth is now so closely tied to the growth of the individuals within it. Cyan Ta'eed, Founder of Envato, a company that manages a number of online marketplaces that provide digital assets and services to creative people around the world, everything from WordPress themes to graphic templates, stock photography, video and audio, says "Companies grow when their people do. In order to grow as a company, we have to support career and personal development that allows our people to be more successful at what they do, whether it's in work or life."

Career and personal development doesn't only happen at work. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that 29% of employees are engaged in some type of side business, leaving companies wrestling with the question of what to do about employee side gigs. According to BigCommerce's Alvarez, the answer is to support those outside interests.

"We actually empower employees to create a side hustle and give them the tools to do it," says Alvarez. "We find helping them explore their entrepreneurial side develops a passion for ecommerce and an understanding of our customers in a way that positively impacts work performance. The result is a team that puts their heart and soul into the business and our customers."

Says Envato's Ta'eed, "You have to be the champion of your team members personal and team development. When managers get good at that and take it as a responsibility to facilitate the work and life of these people, it creates a mutually satisfying culture where the business and individual can achieve a shared purpose."

Published on: Sep 15, 2017