Improving Workplace Culture: How to Build a Happy and Inclusive Workplace

Published by:
Joe Caccavale
September 1, 2020
min read

According to Glassdoor, only 54% of employees recommend their company as a place to work.

That’s a pretty damning statistic right there, wouldn’t you agree?

Whilst it looks like only half of companies out there are getting workplace culture right, the good news is this: building a company culture employees will be proud of and talent will want to join isn’t that hard.

People want to feel as if they’re included in decision making, have a voice within the company, and are actually heading somewhere with their career.

Using the simple process outlined below, you’ll be able to show your employees that you genuinely care about their progress and wellbeing, and build a culture that’ll keep your team longer whilst also attracting fresh talent.

Toxic workplace culture: signs to look out for

Before we get stuck into improving workplace culture, it’s worth taking a minute to diagnose any problems that might currently exist. 

Here are a few indicators that you have a toxic work culture:

  • Low morale
  • Lack of communication
  • Fear of failure
  • High turnover
  • Cliques

Workplace culture essentially dictates how people behave, interact, and make decisions.

Whilst on the surface it may not seem as critical as your revenue or any other key business metric, the health of your company culture is affecting how your company and the people within it operate.

A Harvard Business School study found that nearly 50% of employees who experienced incivility reduced their effort and spent less time at work. 

And 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work. 

Workplace culture amounts to more than the number of pool tables or bean bags…

It affects how effectively your employees work.

1 in 5 people who have left their job in the last 5 years cited culture as the reason.

So, if you want your best team members to stick around, it’s time to fix up.

Improving workplace culture 

Start by defining company values

Every company’s culture is obviously different.

And so there’s no one-size-fits-all template for a company culture that can be copy and pasted.

Your workplace culture should be built around your company values.

If these haven’t been carved in stone yet, then there’s no time like the present to solidify your values.

Your company values should be things that your team agrees on and not just superficial behaviours.

What do you stand for as a company?

How do you work as a team?

Remember: people will look at these when deciding whether or not to work for you.

Do you want to be seen as an organization that cares about and helps its employees, or one that only caters to the most ruthless high-flyers (there is a right answer here)?

Depending on the size of your company, you could either have a meeting or an asynchronous place for collecting thoughts and feedback on the proposed values. So long as everyone is having their opinion heard, you’re on the right track.

You'll want to make sure that the values you decide on are inclusive.

Values should describe a way or working that anyone could embody without being from a specific background.

Here are the examples we live by at Applied:

⚖️ Create a fairer world

We want to empower the world to achieve higher levels of inclusivity and accessibility so that it underpins decisions from how products are designed to how employees are treated.

🌱 Trust is our foundation

Trust is built with feedback, processes, and inclusivity. Trusting others at Applied means amplifying others’ voices and backing their calls. We can’t achieve great social impact without it.

🔑 Own and drive change

Our ambition is audacious, so we take on big tasks, move fast, aim high, and continuously grow while we do it. Everyone owns the mission and can make a difference.

🔬 Be curious and true to evidence

Investigate beyond the data to find the story and what works. We want to be true to the evidence at hand to make decisions but we aren’t paralysed to take action in the absence of it.

🏅 Champion the user

We're changing the world and our users are central to that mission. We have to see the world from their perspective, find blindspots and innovate for them. After all, they're our heroes.

Use language wisely

We often talk about being inclusive and having an inclusive culture, but when you drill right down into it, what does this actually mean?

Well, at its core, an inclusive workplace is one that provides equal opportunities for progression and access to rewards and perks.

People’s individual differences should be valued so that they feel accepted and included.

Although all of this sounds simple enough in theory, it tends to fall apart in practice.

Research from the BBC found that even when the gender pay gap is addressed, equity-based rewards, like stock option grants, are offered more often to men - something to be aware of.

There’s also something to be said for how you use language.

Language can create confusion and miscommunication. 

Albeit unbeknownst to you, the words you use convey a subconscious meaning that can signal to someone that they might not belong.

In job descriptions, for example, masculine-coded terms like ‘superior’, ‘competitive’, ‘decisive’ and ‘determined’ can deter women, since they’re basically signalling to women that they wouldn’t fit in.

Just take a look at our own research:

Gender bias in job ads chart

By simply writing gender-neutral job descriptions, you can start to build a more inclusive sourcing process.

And it's not just women that'll be put off by language that paints a picture of a boiler-room culture...

Any candidates who feel they wouldn't be at home in your organization will rule themselves out.

We have a Job Description Analysis Tool for this, which can be used to check the accessibility and gender-coding of anything you write.

Hire based on mission-alignment, not culture fit

Want to hire a truly diverse team?

Then hire people for what they can add to your company culture, not whether or not they’re similar to the current team.

Company culture isn’t necessarily fixed. 

It’s something that can be built on and added to.

New hires with new ways of thinking can enhance culture and bring new perspectives.

It’s not something that needs to be protected and preserved by ensuring you only hire people who ‘fit in’.

If you want a workplace culture in which everyone fits in, then you don’t  necessarily want to define the culture by how like-minded everyone is.

The similarity everyone needs to share is a genuine passion for your company’s mission and values… and not their love of football or post-work pub visits, for example.

So what can you do to make sure of this in your hiring process? 

Start by replacing any culture fit or informal (*cough* biased *cough*) get-to-know-you questions with mission and value alignment ones.

This can be as simple as asking: “why did you apply? And why now?”

It also helps to start things of mission/values alignment as skills in their own right.

Rather than dedicate an entire assessment round to a (not so objective) meet-the-team test, you can simply look for this alignment in candidates answers.

As for the rest of your process, we’d strongly recommend using assessment methods like the ones we use here at Applied.

We’ve removed less predictive stages like CVs, cover letters, and traditional interviews in favour of behavioural science-based, bias-free methods of assessment.

By completely removing bias, you’ll be able to hire the best possible people, often from unexpected backgrounds, bringing a new perspective and adding to your company culture.

Replace CVs with work samples

The research speaks for itself: traditional hiring is prone to unconscious bias.

CV bias studies around the world chart

Unhelpful noise like someone's name, address or age can trigger biases that could our decision making - no matter how well intentioned we may be.

As a result, candidates from minority backgrounds tend to be disproportionately overlooked.

An inclusive culture starts with hiring. This is why we advocate for anonymous applications. When you remove this 'noise' and focus only on what matters (skills), diversity will improve as a result.

Whilst anonymizing your screening process is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, what's left on a CV (education and experience) is also fairly unhelpful.

Where someone went to university and their previous work are experience might tell us something about their ability...

But there are more predictive and ethnical means of testing for skills and values without guessing at them via proxies.

Looking for specific backgrounds means looking for specific types of people - which isn't the foundation of an inclusive culture.

At Applied, we replaced CVs with work samples.

Work samples take real-life scenarios/tasks and turn them into hypothetical questions.

The idea is to simulate the role itself instead of making assumptions based on CVs.

We found that 60% of people hired anonymously through our work sample process would've been missed via a traditional CV screening.

Here's an example for a Product Manager role:

Question: One of the team has had an awesome idea for a big new feature but you're concerned that it might impact users negatively.

Outline briefly how you might go about deciding whether to build it or not.

Skills tested: Collaboration, Prioritization

Instead of testing for experience, work samples test for skills learned through experience.

All candidates get a fair and even shot to showcase their skills, no matter how they acquired them.

Ask for feedback - the key to improving workplace culture 

75% of employees say they’ll stay longer at a company that listens to their feedback and actually acts on it. 

Rather than guess what people want from your company culture, why not ask them directly?

Employees want to feel that they’re being heard and that their opinion matters, so it’s essential to have some sort of feedback loop whereby their opinion is gathered and considered.

They may also want to receive feedback of their own. Try setting up regular meetings between employees and their managers so that every team member is being checked up on by someone - these meetings should be a chance for feedback to be exchanged and any wellbeing concerns to be flagged.

Although more abstract than other facets of the business, workplace culture is something that can be tracked and measured.

For obtaining high-level feedback around wellbeing and culture, we’d recommend using Officevibe - they send out anonymous surveys so that you can effectively report on employee satisfaction and other people-based metrics.

By tracking progress and setting realistic goals, you’re showing the rest of your organisation that you’re actually committed to change and improvement.

Even when things aren’t going to plan, be transparent, and share these reports with the wider organisation so that employees know their company is actively working on improving workplace culture. 

Have a framework for goals and progression

People will stay longer if they believe they can grow and progress within your company.

If you’re not having monthly catchups with each employee around progression, we’d recommend changing that ASAP.

Having a progression framework is a great start (you’d be surprised how many companies don’t have one properly outlined), but you should ensure employees are fully aware of its existence.

The purpose of a progression framework is to show team members where they’re at, and the practical steps they’d need to take to move forward - as well as what ‘forward’ actually means.

Each step should outline:

  • Specific expertise
  • Ownership
  • Behaviours

These behaviours above could be derived from your values since senior team members should ideally be embodying these.

The best progression frameworks offer employees a choice.

If the only path employees can take to increasing their salary is going into management, people will leave your company and work somewhere else.

Employees should be able to go into people management OR take an individual contributor path.

An individual contributor acts as a subject matter expert of sorts, as opposed to overseeing others.

Take a look at this example for a Content Marketer courtesy fo Charlie HR below…

Charlie Hr progression framework

Make sure employees are being recognised

A little recognition can go a long way.

And this recognition doesn’t always have to come from management, employees at all levels should be encouraged to share and appreciate each other’s successes.

At Applied, we have a #appreciations channel in Slack.

This channel is used to shout out anyone who has done something noteworthy - which doesn’t just mean commercial wins, this could include a favour they did for someone else or something as simple as bringing food into to the office.

Having a dedicated (and active) space for appreciations makes it easy to thank or congratulate someone.
Appreciations channel

Build relations between teams and team members

People who directly work together each day will inevitably have a closer relationship than they would to members of other teams.

However, there are steps you can take to build bridges between functions.

Regular socials are pretty standard practice, but does it always have to be the pub on a Friday?

Some employees may not drink, have commitments on that day/ at that time or just not be pub-people.

So, make sure you have socials that are inclusive (even if in addition to ye olde pub trip).

Example: we have a monthly board games evening (now remote of course).

We’re also fans of our coffee-buddies system.

Two random members of the team are paired up to grab a coffee (or beverage/ snack of choice). This means that people who may not tend to work together or cross paths much get to know each other informally, away from the office.

Plus, this also works with small groups if you’re at a bigger organization.

Trust your employees and encourage autonomy

If you’re hiring is doing its job, your employees should be the best person for their respective jobs and passionate about what your company is doing.

So let them do what they do best.

Sometimes the easiest way to improve workplace culture is to simply leave people to do their jobs.

If everyone has a clear idea of what they’re meant to be doing and what goals/ metrics they’re working on as well as regular catch-ups with their manger, then let at it!

People work best when they’re not being loomed over or micromanaged.

They know how they work best…

Some work best at certain times of the day.

Some work best at home.

Some work best in short, intense bursts.

An inclusive workplace culture should respect this diversity in the way people work.

Allow your team members to have autonomy both in their decision-making and in terms of how they like to work. 

Maybe let go of the idea of the 40 hour week and allow people to be flexible.

If your hiring is predictive, trust shouldn’t be an issue.

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