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Creating a dynamic work culture that promotes both employee and business growth is key to ensuring an organisation’s success. Brand strategist and author of new book Great Mondays, Josh Levine introduces a proven formula for building and managing the ideal workplace culture. Jenny Southan speaks to him
Amazon may be one of the world’s top-three most valuable companies (along with Apple and Alphabet) but who really wants to work there? It has become infamous for its toxic work culture, which has been described by The New York Times as “bruising”. The report spoke of an expectation among employees to verbally tear each other’s ideas apart in meetings and reply to emails after midnight. It is, apparently, common to see people crying at their desks and, in the warehouses, conditions have even been described as “prison-like”.
Uber has received equally bad press, citing sexual harassment and the pitting of employees against each other in an aggressively competitive environment while Volkswagen made headlines in 2015 when it was revealed that its engineers had faked emissions testing results, something, it was suggested, that was down to “hyper critical management.” The consequences of this latter example have been incredibly damaging, with a US$30bn bill to pay by VW in the US alone. According to PwC, “a company’s poor culture can snowball from bad to scandalous”, and its 2018 Annual Corporate Directors Survey reveals the biggest contributor to the problem is the tone set by executive management – not just at the top but by middle management, too.
In a new book called Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love (published December 2018) author and culture design strategist Josh Levine outlines tried-and-tested methods for improving workplace culture, which he argues is the only “sustainable business advantage”. But who is responsible? He writes: “Values are guideposts. It is a leader’s responsibility to uncover where they stand and point out the route most likely to lead to the summit. The values of companies like Percolate, The Flatiron School, and WHISK provide a path that guides their employees. But it’s important that the path is left wide enough so that each person has the latitude to find his or her own way.”
Companies with a positive working environment tend to be more profitable in the long-run. This is partly because absenteeism and employee turnover are lower, people are more empowered so require less managing, and staff are motivated to be more productive.
In 2018, Netflix became the most valuable media company in the US and, unlike Amazon, which lists principles such as frugality, disagreement and relentlessly high standards, Netflix applauds integrity, excellence, respect, inclusivity and collaboration. It maintains that its core philosophy is “people over process” and its dream team has no “brilliant jerks”. It says: “Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions and we insist upon that.” Billionaire entrepreneur and founder of outdoor apparel brand Patagonia Yvon Chouinard has been equally successful at growing his company by giving power to the people. Employees get to go surfing whenever they like, take part in free yoga classes and must be out of the building by 8pm.
These kinds of initiatives may sound overly cushy to the old guard but it has been widely recognised that Millennials are drawn to companies that allow them to thrive as individuals. Modern workplaces are coming up with increasingly more imaginative ways to attract talent, not just in terms of trendy office design and catered lunches but aimed at their lifestyle as a whole, with a suite of desirable perks.
Last year, Inc’s 2018 Best Workplaces highlighted 285 companies and why they garnered particularly high engagement among employees in the USA. Cultural benefits included unlimited holiday (offered by 49 per cent of firms), on-site childcare, team-building getaways, concierge services, expenses for commutes, paid paternity leave, free lunches, days where you can take your pet to the office, paid sabbaticals, beer fridges and massages. “Radical transparency”, in the form of sharing all company metrics with employees (including salaries and hiring plans), was also a feature.
The Future Organization’s Employee Experience Index, which ranks and scores 252 organisations around the world, listed Facebook as the best company to work for last year, followed by Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Ultimate Software and Airbnb, Levine himself chooses Airbnb as an example of a company with a “cultural advantage”. “Last time I went and visited, I saw they were setting up for an interview and they had this handwritten welcome sign with the person’s name on and a mug waiting for them for a hot beverage,” he says. “The room was designed like one of their houses and I thought, ‘These people really care.’”
Levine says that culture is the “cause and effect of all the choices we make throughout the day”. “When you walk in a door of a place, you get a feeling that is a symptom of the culture,” he says. “When I think about what doesn’t work, it’s that there are these physical and metaphorical boundaries and barriers that arise within an organisation as it grows. These can be walls or cubes, office floors, management levels, or different groups that prevent people from having the kinds of relationships that they need to optimise the way that they work.”
In Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for 2018, Salesforce trumped the rest because it offers “rich rewards – both monetary and psychic”. It has paid out $5.5m in bounties to employees who refer new hires and all recruits are paid 56 hours a year to volunteer in their community.
“The power of culture is that it is not only a sustainable competitive advantage for business in that it lifts the bottom line, but it is an advantage for the people that work there,” says Levine. The key question is how to go about changing the workplace environment for the better. “Change what you can within your department,” he adds. “Whether you are the manager or an associate within that group, that is a sphere of influence you have. However, I don’t care how flat or democratic your organisation is – if the CEO doesn’t believe in it, you aren’t getting anywhere.
Jenny Southan is a freelance journalist, and editor and founder of travel trend-forecasting publication Globetrender.
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