Cultivating an office atmosphere that encourages productive, satisfactory work can be challenging for any entrepreneur. Everyone has different working preferences and different strengths and weaknesses, so it's hard to find a suitable one-size-fits-all approach that works for everybody.
Nevertheless, there are structures and policies you can put in place that help your entire team perform their best, on a regular basis, and not all of these structures need to be formally written rules. In fact, there are many informal policies and procedures you can gently guide into existence that will develop the best possible environment for your workers:
1. Every Opinion Counts. You shouldn't have a formally written rule that mandates every worker to share his/her opinion on everything. That would just cause people to make things up in order to fulfill a requirement. Instead, let people know that their opinions are important, and encourage them to vocalize them regularly. This will create an office environment where people are comfortable speaking their minds, and most employees will appreciate that quality. The added morale boost will make it so employees are more willing to work hard for the company, and the opinions you collect will do wonders for finding and solving infrastructural problems.
Ask people honest questions in public, about their workloads, responsibilities, and the office environment in general. Show people that you care what they and their coworkers have to say, and don't discount anybody's personal opinion.
2. The Internet Is a Forgivable Temptation. A decade ago, using the Internet for anything other than work was a serious infraction, and a waste of company time. Today, social media and the Internet as a whole are so ingrained in our lives that they're completely unavoidable. Creating a rule that says "it's fine to play around on the Internet" is a bad idea for obvious reasons. But there's nothing wrong with informally letting people know it's okay to spend a few minutes here and there, checking in on Facebook. People are going to fiddle on the Internet regardless of what you do--so if you catch someone using the Internet for personal reasons for a few minutes, don't crack the whip.
Instead, let your coworkers know that personal Internet usage is permissible, but shouldn't be abused. There's a big difference between catching up on a news feed and doing hours of home shopping.
3. Hours Are Flexible. This one takes finesse to implement without creating chaos. Most companies have strict expectations on hours; workers are expected to be at their desks and working no later than 9, and are free to go any time after 5. That doesn't mean you should write someone up for coming in at 9:15. Set an expectation with your workers that the exact times aren't as important as the hours. In some cases, the hours aren't as important as the quality and quantity of work (ie, the employee's productivity). Don't let your employees abuse this system, but by itself, the flexibility can work out great. Everyone has different levels of functionality at different times of the day, and creating this type of environment allows everyone to thrive.
4. Break Time Is Break Time. Too many offices have a culture that discourages lunch breaks and other types of breaks. If a worker goes out for 30 minutes, they're seen as less productive than someone who works through lunch or eats at their desk. But breaks are an important part of the workday, and can actually boost productivity when taken as real breaks--not just continued work with the addition of food.
Take breaks yourself to set an example for your workers, and follow up with employees who don't appear to take breaks often. Ask them why they prefer not taking breaks, and let them know it's acceptable and encouraged to take advantage of the outlined acceptable breaks in your organization. Doing so will raise company morale, and even though you'll lose a few collective hours of work, the work you retain will be far more productive.
5. Camaraderie Is Important. You can't force teamwork; it has to come naturally. But you can create an environment that naturally encourages teamwork, and foster the development of camaraderie between your workers. Use teambuilding exercises, games, and company events to help your employees get to know one another, and if you see people talking personally among themselves, encourage those conversations to continue. Help your workers develop strong bonds with one another, and they'll be more likely to work together for common goals.
You can also encourage these kinds of developments by breaking down office walls and creating a physical layout that allows for more personal interactions. When your workers feel isolated, their productivity will suffer, but when they feel like they're truly a part of a team, they'll be able to perform their best.
6. Adjustments for Comfort Are Acceptable. Let your employees know that it's okay to move things around and make adjustments to their workspace in order to maximize their personal comfort levels. Moving furniture, posting pictures and personal items in their office space, and making upgrades to their equipment is all perfectly acceptable--people work better in environments they've created, because most people understand what works for them.
Additionally, you can allow people to play their own music, or relax the dress code to a point where everyone can wear whatever they feel comfortable in. The key here is giving up a little bit of control in exchange for the comfort of your employees. Giving them that freedom will allow them to maximize their productivity.
7. The Bottom Line Is What Matters. Take the time to remind your employees that what counts is the bottom line--the amount of work that gets done in a given day. You can work 9 to 5 in a suit and tie in a stuffy cubicle, skip your lunch break and stay heads-down, and still get less done than someone who comes in at 9:30, takes several breaks, dresses casually, and communicates with his/her coworkers often. Productivity isn't about following the rules strictly, it's about creating an environment where you can do your best. It's good to have on-paper rules, because they provide structure and go-to legal documentation, but most of your office rules should be informal and flexible. Give more power to your employees, and let them know that what they do is more important than how they do it.
These unwritten rules may not work or be appropriate for every business, but in my experience, they've done wonders for both productivity and morale. Your office should not be a militaristic place full of rules and boundaries, nor should it be a free-for-all with no structure. Instead, leverage the power of "unwritten rules" to give your workers a flexible yet solid structure and get the most out of your team.
If you're interested in more ways to construct and nurture a better workplace, check out my articles 7 Signs You've Found an Employee Worth Keeping and 10 Essentials of the Most Successful Companies' Break Rooms.