Building a Productive Company Culture by Design

Just as every individual has a unique personality, every company has its own distinct culture. And just as our personalities shape our behaviors and outcomes, a company‘s culture directly impacts the productivity and performance of its people.

Consider these findings:
• Companies with strong cultures saw a 4x increase in revenue growth. (Forbes)
• Employees who feel their company has a strong culture are 3x more likely to report being happy at work. (CultureIQ)
• 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. (Deloitte)

So company culture matters – a lot. But while culture may form organically, it can and should be actively designed, shaped through specific values and practices to optimize productivity. Here‘s how.

The Building Blocks of Culture

Culture consists of two core elements – values and practices.

Values are the principles a group holds dear – the concepts that define its identity and purpose. A company may value things like:
• Transparency – Openly and proactively sharing information
• Innovation – Encouraging creativity and risk-taking
• Collaboration – Working together towards common goals
• Wellness – Promoting healthy lifestyles
• Philanthropy – Giving back to the community

Practices are the repeated behaviors and norms that bring those values to life. They are the tangible expressions of a company‘s values in action. Some common practices are:
• Open office layouts to enable frequent communication
• Hackathons to stimulate new ideas
• Cross-functional project teams to demolish silos
• On-site gyms and healthy cafeterias to make wellness easy
• Volunteer days and donation-matching to serve others

The key is to define aspirational values, then design deliberate practices that make them real. Here are some values and practices that fuel productive cultures.

Value #1: Health

Employee wellbeing is the foundation of organizational productivity. Healthy employees have more energy, resilience and brainpower to perform at their peak. In fact, a study of over 19,000 employees found that workers who eat healthy and exercise regularly are 25% more likely to have higher job performance.

So progressive companies make healthy lifestyles achievable through practices like:

Practice: Onsite Fitness Centers

SAS, the analytics software giant consistently ranked a best place to work, has onsite fitness centers at every office location. Employees can hit the gym before work, at lunch or after hours – whenever fits their schedule.

Each facility features state-of-the-art equipment and expert personal trainers. Group classes like yoga, CrossFit and Zumba foster social connections and make exercising more fun. By bringing the gym to the office, SAS eliminates common barriers to working out.

To replicate:
• Provide a gym onsite or membership reimbursements
• Offer a variety of cardio and strength equipment, plus group classes
• Make access convenient with extended hours and central locations

Practice: Walking Meetings

Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, is a huge proponent of walking meetings. Unless he needs a whiteboard, he defaults to walking anytime an employee wants to meet with him one-on-one.

He‘ll listen to the person‘s agenda as they stroll together along a scenic outdoor path. The fresh air stimulates candid conversation and creative thinking without the distractions of technology. Not to mention the physical benefits of moving around.

To replicate:
• Make 1:1 meetings a walk by default, weather permitting
• Plan out convenient walking routes near the office
• Encourage employees to take walking meetings with each other too

Practice: Healthy Food Program

Google is famous for its gourmet cafeterias full of healthy, delicious meals – all free to employees. But the food program‘s real mission isn‘t just to feed people. It‘s to nourish them for optimal brainpower.

The cafes are strategically designed to "make the healthy choice the easy choice". Nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables are positioned prominently while desserts are relegated to the periphery. Plates are sized modestly to encourage reasonable portions. Snacks and drinks are free of artificial sweeteners.

To replicate:
• Stock pantries with nourishing whole foods and snacks
• Ensure catered meals offer balanced, plant-rich options
• Educate employees on ideal foods for cognition and productivity

Value #2: Autonomy

Autonomy, or the power to shape one‘s work, is a potent motivator. A sense of control over when, where and how we do our jobs boosts job satisfaction and productivity. One study found that empowered employees are up to 30% more likely to persist at challenging tasks.

High-trust companies give people flexibility through practices like:

Practice: Flexible Scheduling

Netflix has built flexibility into the core of its culture. The streaming leader has eliminated set office hours entirely in favor of letting employees work whenever they want, as long as they achieve strong results.

Managers work with direct reports to establish goals and deadlines. But it‘s up to individuals to structure their days to best meet those objectives. People are assessed on output rather than hours worked.

This fluid model recognizes that people have varying schedules and styles. Early birds can crank away at dawn while night owls burn the midnight oil. Parents can pick up kids from school without stressing about being back at their desks.

To replicate:
• Discard standard 9 to 5 office hours for knowledge workers
• Let employees design their own daily routines
• Track results rather than monitor face time

Practice: Unlimited Vacation

Giving employees the freedom to take off as much time as they want seems scary to many employers. But unlimited vacation policies are a growing trend among companies that prize autonomy.

Hubspot has seen major success with its "two weeks to infinity" policy. The inbound marketing platform encourages employees to take at least two weeks off, with no set maximum. People simply coordinate with managers to ensure business continuity.

Hubspot trusts employees to make responsible leave decisions that balance personal and company needs. The open policy attracts self-motivated talent while dissuading slackers. It also eliminates administrative burdens of tracking PTO.

To replicate:
• Remove vacation day limits and honor all time-off requests
• Require employees to take at least 2-3 weeks off per year
• Empower managers to ensure smooth team coverage

Practice: Discretionary Budgets

Providing a discretionary budget for employees to spend however they choose is the ultimate in workplace autonomy. It demonstrates trust while letting people customize their experience.

The Australian software firm Atlassian gives employees an annual "Lego box" of $1000 to spend advancing their careers however they see fit. Some use it to attend far-flung conferences or take courses to learn new skills. Others purchase productivity gadgets or build a souped-up standing desk.

Atlassian believes employees know best what tools and experiences they need to do great work and grow. Lego boxes eliminate expense report red tape while helping the company retain its top talent.

To replicate:
• Allocate $500-1000 per employee annually to spend on their growth
• Provide guidelines but otherwise keep spending choices open
• Gather learnings on how funds were used to benefit the company

Value #3: Tact

Tact is all about actively considering others‘ perspectives and needs. It‘s key to productive collaboration, ensuring people feel respected and empowered to do their best work together. That‘s why tactful teams generate 30% greater revenue compared to those mired in drama.

Smart companies operationalize tact through practices like:

Practice: Thoughtful Meetings

We‘ve all been stuck in awful meetings that dragged on without clear purpose, wasting everyone‘s time. Thoughtful companies make meetings efficient and valuable as a show of respect.

First Round Capital, a top venture capital firm, is ruthlessly disciplined with meetings. Every meeting has a owner responsible for:
• Inviting only essential people
• Providing an agenda with time estimates per topic
• Sharing relevant pre-read materials 24 hours in advance
• Running the meeting closely to agenda
• Ending on time and with clear next steps
• Sending a follow-up email documenting decisions and actions

This method keeps meetings productive while being mindful of people‘s crammed calendars. It prevents aimless conversations and ensures everyone is prepped to make the best use of their time together.

To replicate:
• Establish a standard meeting agenda template with timeboxes
• Require agendas and pre-reading for every meeting over 15 minutes
• Start and end meetings promptly as scheduled

Practice: Digital Chat Guidelines

While digital chat tools like Slack can boost rapid communication, they can also breed constant interruptions that hamper focus and fry mental resources. Tactful use means being cognizant of others‘ need for unbroken concentration.

Dropbox addresses this with a "manual for me" that every employee fills out. It‘s a document detailing individual quirks and preferences, including the best ways to communicate with that person.

An engineer may say they prefer to receive messages between coding sprints, not during. A marketer may ask that you schedule a video chat to collaborate on visual assets rather than going back and forth on Slack. By proactively sharing their styles, employees can minimize unwelcome pings.

To replicate:
• Have employees complete "Read Me" docs with communication tips
• Use status signals on Slack (active, in a meeting, focusing)
• Default to async methods first (email, doc comments) vs real-time chat

Practice: Gratitude Sessions

Showing appreciation for colleagues‘ contributions is the ultimate form of workplace tact. Yet 45% of employees say they haven‘t been recognized at work in the past six months.

Apparel brand Life Is Good bakes gratitude into its culture with a clever ritual. At every company meeting, anyone can step up to the mic and give a "Positive Focus" shout-out to a coworker who helped them or achieved something great.

The person receiving praise stands up while the audience showers them with a round of applause. Positive Focuses take up a third of most meeting agendas, ensuring steady flows of kudos.

These public displays of thanks boost morale and motivate employees to keep up the great work. They also strengthen the bonds between colleagues and teams.

To replicate:
• Kick off or close meetings with a round of kudos
• Make peer recognition easy with a gratitude channel on Slack
• Provide recognition training to managers

Culture Starts at the Top

Perhaps the most important influence on company culture is leadership. Employees take their cues from the top. How leaders think and act trickles down to shape what everyone else views as normal and acceptable.

"Famed GE CEO Jack Welch said that "no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it." Welch devoted the majority of his time to communicating GE‘s values and molding its culture.

Renowned Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is similarly obsessed with culture. Hsieh spends up to half his work hours strengthening Zappos‘ corporate culture and investing in employee happiness. It‘s paid off – the company consistently tops lists of best places to work.

To build culture as a leader:
• Articulate your company‘s purpose and values clearly and often
• Make a business case for how culture drives performance
• Celebrate culture champions and share their stories widely
• Personally exemplify your cultural values in word and deed

Measuring Culture

Of course, to properly mold culture, you need to measure it. Tracking employee sentiment and engagement is critical to gauging whether your values are becoming lived behaviors. Top culture-conscious companies assess it by:

• Conducting quarterly pulse surveys on cultural attributes
• Reviewing Glassdoor ratings and write-ups from employees
• Monitoring upticks or attrition in retention numbers
• Assessing employee NPS as a signal of workforce health

Netflix measures cultural health through a unique practice called "The Keeper Test". Managers are asked to envision their team members leaving the company. For each employee, they ask themselves: "If this person told me they were leaving for a similar role at another company, would I fight to keep them?"

A "no" triggers a thoughtful conversation between manager and employee about ways to better align their work to their talents. It‘s a proactive approach to retaining top performers and addressing mediocre ones.

Start Shaping Culture Today

Building an organization where people can thrive and create their best work is the most important job of a leader. By thoughtfully defining values and operationalizing them through everyday practices, you hardwire productivity into the very DNA of your company.

Start by assessing the current state of your culture:
• Do employees feel a strong sense of purpose and camaraderie?
• Are people energized about coming to work each day?
• Do teams collaborate smoothly and effectively?

Then identify areas of opportunity. Codify aspirational values that will move the needle. Engage employees on ways to translate those values into tangible practices. Rigorously uphold a small number of non-negotiable behaviors.

Most of all, lead by example. There‘s no more powerful way to shape culture than through your own actions. Treat people with the same regard, autonomy and transparency you want them to embody. In the process, you‘ll craft a company people love to work for – and thrive doing so.