Building an Engaged Work Culture: Culture Starts with a Purpose

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By Jonathan Hanwit

Over the course of history, factors like politics, geography and economics have shaped the personalities of regions throughout the world – leaving each one with its own distinct and unmistakable flavor. Germans, for example, are systematic, organized and efficient – whereas the neighboring Italians, just two countries over, are famous for passion, love of life and general la dolce vida-ness.

Companies are remarkably similar in this way: They have distinct cultures that make them unique. Many of the roots of company culture come in the places you’d probably expect – things like industry and geography. A software engineer in Palo Alto, California, for example, craves and creates a different company atmosphere than a mill worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. Such considerations are more or less the foundation of a company – and they aren’t easily changed or moved.

However, there are other factors that go into creating a company’s culture – and these things are possible to adjust in order to meet the changing needs of the world and workforce. A recent PwC study found that a whopping 88 percent of young professionals and grad students say that they examine prospective employers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) position and track-record when making a career choice. As sustainability and corporate responsibility become ever more important parts of doing business, it behooves strategically-minded organizations to take notice of this shift and evolve their culture to meet the needs of today’s workforce.

What follows are seven ideas relating to healthy workforce culture, starting from big-picture thinking down to the nuts and bolts of developing a rich, engaged workforce. Whether your organization was started yesterday or has a long, storied history of corporate responsibility, any of them could apply and help elevate your culture.

1. Defining why culture is important

Plainly put, a company with a rich culture is a place where people want to work. Evidence abounds on this subject, so I won’t belabor it. But, in broad strokes, a good company culture has been linked to employee retention, boosted productivity, lower absenteeism, fewer safety incidents and the like, as mentioned in this Harvard Business Review article. Pretty compelling stuff.

Outside of the cold, hard metrics behind an engaged work culture, there’s also some anecdotal evidence that is pretty hard to argue with. Passion spurs teams to reach for greatness – and you can usually “feel” that in a way that’s larger than facts or data. If you take a moment to think of a truly innovative, game-changing product from the past decade, I’d bet that you also have a pretty good idea about the culture of the company that created that product. Company culture is infectious like that. It draws you in, makes you want to be a part of it and (ultimately) motivates purchasing decisions – a pretty big reason to invest in an engaged culture.

Speaking from experience, our passion for travel and new experiences led thinkPARALLAX to create our own employee engagement travel program, called Parallaxploration, where we send employees around the world to find inspiration. Our goal from the start was simple – we wanted to invest in our culture by doing something unique for the people that we rely on to create amazing work. The results of Parallaxploration have been incredibly positive. Employees return from their trips engaged, refreshed, and ready and willing to create amazing work.

But along the way, a few less expected things happened: First, it led to a ton of unexpected press – which is like stumbling into a goldmine for a small agency like ours. Additionally, we’ve seen a spike in the number of people who want to work here. Since the launch of Parallaxploration, we get three to four times as many applicants for every new position we post. Oftentimes, those applicants could work at other agencies, doing similar types of work for similar pay – but they are drawn to thinkPARALLAX by our culture.

2. Integrating purpose into business

Making boatloads of money is no longer a cause that attracts top talent. Imagine, for a second, the movie “Braveheart” with Mel Gibson in blue face-paint shouting, “But they’ll never take our MONEY!” The image is laughable. When compared with a larger cause – like “freedom” or any one of the deeper motivators that resonate with modern (millennial) workforces – the health of an organization’s P and L is insignificant. Sure, financial objectives can be motivating, but they usually are not the best motivator. Companies should get on board with what most people already intrinsically understand – and stop broadcasting to employees that their sole purpose is to make more money.

As the business climate changes and organizations realize that intrinsic value holds more weight that monetary gain alone, organizations need to develop an integrated corporate responsibility strategy that aligns business goals with a deeper, larger purpose. Not only will this help steer the direction of the organization, but it also impassions employees in their work. Working toward a bigger, more impactful goal is deeply rewarding, and passion impacts employees across the board – transforming individuals, teams and entire organizations.

3. Shareholders don’t come first

As stated by Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce: “The business of business isn’t just about creating profits for shareholders — it’s also about improving the state of the world and driving stakeholder value.” This sentiment is nothing new. Management gurus through the decades – from Peter Drucker to Simon Sinek – have repeatedly stressed that employees, communities and the world at large should be at least as important to a company as the bottom line.

However, in our experience, the reality of business practice often flies in the face of such a sunny, feel-good leadership quote. Company culture often isn’t a high-priority budget item for the majority of companies. Granted, this idea represents a shift in attitude that ultimately has to come from the top (we’re looking at you C-level execs), but we’d argue that when this many thought leaders agree on something, it’s probably sound advice. Put your employees and the community at the center of your business, and it will transform your business in a surprising, unforeseen ways.

4. Creating a wellness program

On the surface, wellness programs are a no-brainer. CFOs love them, as they keep health care premiums at a minimum and reduce overall healthcare cost. But their contribution to the culture of an organization is an often overlooked benefit.

The key to creating a successful wellness program lies in making it more than just a program – and turning it into something that is all encompassing. Everyone has heard the stories of Google’s gourmet snacks, flexible work hours, free rides and massage credits. The list continues with other organizations and, as research shows, it can even lead to increased productivity.

While the benefits on paper can be a selling point, it’s the interactions created by many of these programs that truly give such programs value. Wellness programs cause engagement between employees – which benefits culture. An intramural volleyball league, fun run or ride-sharing program all add to the cultural connectivity that is part of developing a complete wellness program (which leads to an engaged workforce).

5. Volunteering and giving back

Here’s a new term you can add to your business lexicon: prosocial behavior. (Drop that one at your next work happy-hour and rest assured that you’ll appear well-versed in the jargon d’jour.)

It’s a new phrase, but it encapsulates an old idea: doing something for the benefit of someone else – such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating and volunteering. Prosocial behavior positively affects the people participating in it and, in turn, the whole workplace. While it’s not normally touted as a pillar of employee engagement, a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer Impact Survey revealed that millennials who participate in workplace volunteer activities are nearly twice as likely to be very satisfied with their employer and career path.

It’s a clear piece of the engagement puzzle and the benefits of such a program (discussed at length in this Huffington Post article) are:

  • Increased productivity when employees work toward a common goals.
  • Pride and engagement when being part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Gratitude toward your employer for allowing you to be part of a company culture that provides an answer to their prosocial wanting.
  • Ethics. Doing the right thing often results in a behavior change of being more ethical and making the right choices within the workplace.

When developing volunteering and giving programs, make sure to keep your purpose and mission (discussed above) at the forefront of your efforts. Programs and events should have an obvious tie-in with your sustainability strategy and other parts of the company. Company goals, employee interests and commitment to the community should all relate back to a strategic, purpose-driven framework.

6. Giving employees some responsibility

For the most part, employees understand their job, tasks, roles and functions better than anyone else in an organization. However, it’s relatively rare that an employee is allowed to make decisions without being second-guessed or forced to jump through hoops. Empowering employees (as discussed at length in this article in the Harvard Business Review) means giving them the tools and information needed to make quality decisions and then (barring a potential catastrophe) getting out of the way.

This can be hard for management to put into practice, but it’s an essential part of building a culture of engaged employees. So, set your micro-managing tendencies aside and empower your people.

7. Having any fun?

While it’s not written in the Harvard Business Review or a McKinsey report (at least not anywhere I’ve found), I believe that “fun” is a pretty good indicator of the health of a company’s culture. When we are having fun at work, our work tends to sparkle. When work feels like a grind, everything feels like it’s off. I realize that this observation could easily spiral into a chicken-or-egg debate: Does a healthy business create a fun atmosphere, or does fun lead to a healthy business? But such a debate isn’t really the point; the two are intrinsically related and should be closely monitored.

A “fun” atmosphere can be defined in a multitude of ways, but ultimately a company’s culture will define what fun should look like. For thinkPARALLAX, it means doing yoga as a group once a week at lunch and surfing when the waves are good. For the fitness clothing company down the street, it means going on a daily run during lunch. In any case, the seriousness of the work is offset by camaraderie and banter. And this allows for more interaction and a vibrant, engaged culture.

And in the end

In a contemporary business context, organizations can no longer afford to regard corporate responsibility as an afterthought. The days of “checking your values at the company door” (to quote Kevin Wilhelm’s “Making Sustainability Stick”) are behind us. In order to recruit and retain top employees, CSR must be built into your company’s culture. Whether you are a business of seven or 70,000, the benefits of an engaged, purpose-driven workforce speak for themselves. Create a culture that fits with who you are and what you value most – and watch the benefits start to blossom.

Image credit: Pixabay

Jonathan Hanwit is a partner and CEO at thinkPARALLAX, a creative communications agency working at the intersection of business strategy, corporate responsibility, and communication

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