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What Does a Good Work Culture Look Like?

Is your company a place people want to work? Here, we discuss what makes a successful work culture.

Businesses that thrive in today’s marketplace aren’t just focused on productivity and profitability anymore. Companies that stand out also emphasize creating a work culture that attracts and retains top talent. 

At MacklinConnection, we help companies develop a work environment that benefits everyone and is focused on the well-being of all employees. We’ve seen firsthand how a positive work culture, built on trust, can improve all aspects of a business.  

We believe it is possible for companies to be a place employees want to go to work and are proud to be a part of. Here we’ll discuss what a successful work culture actually looks like. 

What Does a Good Work Culture Look Like?

Kara Large: What does a good work culture look like to you? What kind of environment makes people actually want to show up?

Deb Dendy: What does it look like when I want to go to work? I want to go to work because the people around me make me better than I am by myself. People are engaged. You walk in the hallway to get a cup of coffee, and people are talking about different things because they're really engaged with each other. People believe in others and trust others. Even when they disagree, they can trust each other. And disagreements look like, "Wow! That's a really good idea. But I see it differently. Here's how I see it." There’s an open sharing of ideas. 

And I certainly have worked in a place like this. People are being themselves, and they can laugh at things together. There's offers of help everywhere. 

All of the feelings related to a good work culture, to me, are, "We're in this together. We want to help."

How Does a Good Company Culture Start?

Kara Large: Where does that feeling of engagement and inclusivity come from in a business? Is it just a natural byproduct of the people that are there, or does it start somewhere within the company?

Deb Dendy: I do believe it starts with the people. And learning to trust each other, as well as each person learning to trust themselves to share their ideas fully. We all know how it feels if you go to a place where you don't get to share your ideas because you're either too scared that someone's going to think it's bad, and they're going to shoot it down. But when you trust yourself first and then others, you can be open. You can share what you're thinking to others without worrying about other consequences. 

So I see a good work culture starts with trust. People trust themselves and then trust others. When you work at a place like this you know others believe in you and you believe in them. There are no bad questions. There are no bad answers. It's just us all learning and experimenting and working together.

Kara Large: So it seems like a good culture really comes from the people that you're working with. Most of the people in the company have this similar mindset of trust and openness within themselves that then spreads out to other people that they work with. 

Does Leadership Establish a Company’s Culture?

Kara Large: Is there also a place for leadership to set this tone so that everyone in the company can then fit this model? Does it come from leadership? Or if everyone else is creating a culture built on trust is that enough to create the positive work environment we're talking about?

Deb Dendy: Well, I think in general the leadership sets the tone. You can't have leadership that doesn't care about people or doesn't trust others. You can't have that because they're an example for others to follow. Others will say, "oh, that person is a leader that I want to or don't want to follow." If the leader is someone you want to follow, you become a mirror for what they do, what they say, how they act. In a hierarchical model, you look around and see that the leader of the company is at the top. And that's where others want to get as well. So what leadership does, others will want to do as well. 

And so I think the management or the leadership in general really sets the tone.

But I'm thinking there are also examples where the leadership sets the tone of being open, of believing in others and other people in the organization don't know how to be that way. Maybe you've got this group of people coming together, and everyone has their own background stories of how they grew up or maybe their experiences in another company. They bring all of these stories into this company.

Maybe you worked at a company before where no one trusted each other. And in that case you walk into this environment where everyone's trusting. You look around and don't get it. You would be skeptical.

And so again, to establish a positive work culture, it's about considering how you bring people on board, even in orientation. On the first day of your job, you talk about the purposes of your work and things. But in orientation it's so critical to understand and establish how everyone shows up in the business.

Examples of a Positive Work Culture

Kara Large: You're getting me to think about companies I worked for that emulate this kind of culture. Early in my career I was working at a creative agency. Creative agencies are traditionally difficult places to work. You think that because the nature of the work is creative, it's going to be fun. But they were generally high stress environments, except for one agency I worked for.

This ended up being the loveliest place with the best people. The owner of the company was on the floor with everybody else all day, just walking around and starting conversations. His name was on the building, right? So to me it was a huge deal that he came by my first week. And we just talked about who I was as a person, and where I was coming from, and the school I went to.

But everyone at the company was like that. You couldn't go in the break room without knowing about someone's kids or what they were experiencing in life. It really enhanced the projects that we were working on. We had so many projects going on, but because we all liked each other and felt comfortable, you could shout over at someone across the room and say, "What do you think about this?" It was exciting, and everyone was so enthusiastic about all of the work that we were doing. No one ever complained, and it wasn't because they were scared. It was just because you didn't need to. You could ask for help. You were never embarrassed or humiliated. I've been in companies where that is the culture.

And then there were external perks as well. We'd have waffle Wednesdays and margarita Mondays. There's a ping pong table in the break room and games. There was someone leading Tai Chi every morning and evening. It was interesting to see how little things like that contributed to morale. I think that's pretty common in creative spaces. 

But when I've been in a more toxic work environment nobody cares if there's waffle Wednesday. If someone's going to be yelling at you later, waffle Wednesday doesn't make it better. Sometimes it seems leadership thinks really great external benefits can compensate for the environment. But I think the external benefits only matter if you already have that culture of trust and openness. 

I did not care if we were getting waffles one day, if I'm going to get yelled at. It just doesn't matter. I'd rather go to the place where I'm not going to get yelled at, and there's no waffles.

A Work Culture That Positively Impacted Retention Rate

Kara Large: Can you talk about a company you've worked for that you wish every company would emulate as far as work culture.

Deb Dendy: The first startup I worked for comes to mind. It had amazing people, to begin with. It was just such a cohesive team. The work we could do was amazing, because we trusted each other. I could ask for help. There wasn't really this ego of, "I have to do this by myself, or I have to prove myself." There was just this team, where we felt like we're all in this together. We wanted to go out and get ice cream together like once a week because we enjoyed being together. 

You could really be yourself here. You could really bring all of you to work. It made you feel really good about what you could accomplish, because you weren't having to pretend like you were somebody else.

That company actually got purchased, and is a very large division now. But the culture that was present when I started propagated throughout. When you start with those kind of roots and establish the way you want the company to be, it's contagious. And it's fun to go to work when it's a place like that.

There were also opportunities to learn. I loved that. Someone I worked with made it a point that you wouldn't do the same thing over and over and over again, because he knew that would kind of lead to burn out, and we'd be bored. Instead, he would mix up the assignments where you would be doing something you'd never done before. It was great for the company because now the company has these people with all these different skills that can be injected on any different project. But it was also great for the people, because they were learning so much. And that is also exciting, right? It's exciting to learn. It's exciting to be able to apply new principles and new skills to what you're doing.

Our retention was so high. Less than 1% of the people left the company because that's where they wanted to be - and this was a high tech company.

Successful Companies Emphasize a Culture of Caring About People

Kara Large: It seems like one of the key qualities of a positive work culture is that the real focus is on the people - and treating people well. You're not being seen as a means to an end. You're not a cog in the machine. You're being treated like a person that matters and that's the core of a positive work environment. You care about people.

If you really care about the people you work with, and they care about you, that's the most important thing. You spend so much time with these people, even if it's a virtual company. For example, we spend a lot of time on calls together. And I care about you as a person, and I get excited to hear about what's going on in your life. I noticed within our company if someone needs time off we're all excited for them. We're cheering them on because it feels like we genuinely care about each other as people. So we're more willing to ask, "How can I help you?" And we feel comfortable asking for help.

So is that the major component of a positive workplace? I know there's so many lists out there of all of these qualities a good work culture can have. But if your intention as a leader or as an employee is to just treat the people you work with care will a positive work culture naturally begin to take shape from that?

Deb Dendy: The word you triggered me most with was care. To really care about the others that you work with. To really care about all of their concerns. Right? Not just what they do at work. But to care about them as a person. I feel like things start going sideways if you only care about them because they're going to complete a project that will increase your shareholder value. Then you're not really caring about them. And if you're not really caring about them, what do their families matter to you? What does it matter to you when they're sick or when they need help? Then people become cogs in the machine, right?

And that makes it sound too like those cogs are replaceable. I could just take out this one cog and put in another one. It doesn't matter who it is. 

But in cultures that work, it matters who's there.

Kara Large: We're seeing that play out on such a massive scale. If you think someone's just replaceable with the snap of your fingers, you're wrong. It's difficult to find people so quickly.

Deb Dendy: And how do people feel about themselves when the narrative is that they're replaceable? If you're replaceable, the company just wants people conforming to how they want people to be. They don't care what it means for you to live a good life. So when you go to work you have to pretend to be someone else. It doesn't feel good. You have to mask yourself every day. It's hard work to pretend to be somebody else every day - let alone do the work that you're supposed to do.

Does Your Company Care about Employees?

Kara Large: If your employer and your co-workers genuinely care about you as a person, you don't have to mask. They care about you, not the robot version of you that they wish you were to get the most done. So then by default that allows you to just breathe and be yourself because you're being accepted for who you are.

This also goes back to what you're saying about care. Care is the keyword in all of this. If others care about you, you don't have to mask who you are at work. It takes so much effort to keep that up. When you're in the car driving home from work, there's this huge sigh of relief but also exhaustion from having to be that other person all day. But when you work for a place where people actually care, you can be yourself. You can make mistakes. You don't have to keep up that false self. You want to go back the next day.

Deb Dendy: I think of all these metrics we care about in business - productivity, efficiency - and they all sound like a machine. And how long can a machine work? Keep the machines running and have them work as long as they possibly can. But the machines can break down. And for people, it's not fun to feel like you're part of a machine.

There's been a lot of studies done about companies that really care for each other. The productivity is through the roof. They have excellent efficiency because they're aligned with each other. They can get help. And these businesses are profitable. We've seen that in some of the businesses we've worked for. They've turned themselves around because of creating a better work culture.

Instead of focusing on those metrics, if a company focuses on the people and caring about those people, the metrics will get met naturally. They become a byproduct of the culture.

Is Your Company a Place People Want to Work?

Are people at your company comfortable asking for help? Does everyone care about each other? Is there open communication? Or is confusion the norm? 

Even with team building exercises and conferences, does anything change? Or are people mostly siloed and isolated? 

Do people want to work at your company? Or is it a struggle trying to retain and hire employees?

We’ve seen businesses with the worst employee retention rates and toxic work environments start to thrive by shifting their focus from productivity to people. 

Whether you are already in a leadership role, or looking to influence a more positive environment in your workplace, we are here to help you create a work environment everyone wants to be a part of. You can schedule a consultation with one of our executive business coaches to learn more about how we can work with your company.