It’s time business leaders focus on culture, not perks

Here, some of the world’s biggest companies give tips on how best to build a successful business with a lasting culture.

Employers often mistake perks for culture. Employees are lured to join a company with ping-pong tables, free gym memberships and a fully stocked beer fridge, only to find that many people in the company are disengaged and frustrated. Is it time business leaders readjusted to focus on corporate culture, not perks?

A 2013 survey conducted globally by PWC’s Strategy found that 84 per cent of corporate managers believe culture is critical to business success. But what makes a culture? There are a myriad of factors, but business experts identify at least six common components.

Here are tips from some of the world’s biggest companies on how best to build a successful business with a lasting corporate culture:

Have a vision

The foundation of good corporate culture is a vision or mission statement—simple turns of phrase that encapsulate and guide a company’s values and provide it with purpose. That purpose, in turn, influences every decision your employees make.

Nonprofits often excel at compelling vision statements, such as Oxfam’s ‘A just world without poverty’ or The National Trust’s ‘For ever, for everyone’. It’s more than a marketing strategy—a vision statement is a simple but purposeful element of corporate culture.

And a company should have a strong narrative and sense, not only of where they’re going, but where they’ve come from. John Lewis hit the target, reviving their ‘Never knowingly undersold’ slogan from 1925. On their website, they explain the significance: ‘Never Knowingly Undersold is our price promise to you. It’s at the heart of everything we do and part of the service you’ve come to expect from us’. It’s important your company vision isn’t simply an endgame, it’s a purpose that makes people feel proud.

Focus on productivity

i2 Office, which provides serviced offices in London, warns against the dangers of a corporate culture that prioritises work over productivity. ‘We equate busyness with productivity, but the two are not the same,’ the company says. ‘There comes a point of diminishing returns, regardless of the tools available to help.’ When research tells us that 70 per cent of workplace mistakes are a result of poor communication, developing a culture of engagement can be realised only through a patient devotion to what you are trying to achieve.

The Washington Post revealed this year Amazon’s new programme for a 30-hour workweek. By testing a new programme made up of three small teams with a few dozen part-time employees who will work Monday through Thursday, the company hopes to ‘create a work environment that is tailored to a reduced schedule and still fosters success’. At US tax services firm Ryan, which installed a similar programme in 2008, the company saw its employee turnover rate drop from 30 per cent to 11 per cent, revenues and profits nearly doubled and client satisfaction increased. The firm has since won multiple ‘Best Place to Work’ awards.

Foster personal and professional development

No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values. That’s what telecommunications giant AT&T is renowned for. In partnership with Georgia Tech and Udacity, AT&T created its flagship AT&T University programme, offering the first-ever online MSc in Computer Science.

It also created several self-paced, fast-track technical credentials called Nanodegrees across web and mobile development, data analytics and tech entrepreneurship. Corporate communications manager Marty Richter explains, ‘We’re focused on aligning company leaders to strategic business innovation and results, skilling and reskilling our 280,000 employees and inspiring a culture of continuous learning.’

In fact, according to a PWC study, the opportunity for personal development is the number one reason millennials chose their current position, and training and development is regarded as the most valued benefit among employees.

Encourage self-expression and diversity of thought

Animation company Pixar is the benchmark of success when it comes to fostering creativity through corporate culture that encourages self-expression and diversity of thought. In an interview with Fox Business, President of Pixar Inc, Ed Catmull described the importance of a community with a rich marketplace of ideas.

Catmull discussed Pixar’s constructive feedback mechanism ‘Braintrust’. Following a screening of the film and comments from the director, writing peers and heads of story provide feedback about what they liked and what needed to be improved. The sessions, he says, are characterised by ‘frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love’.

When employees feel their voices are heard, its a simple but powerful motivator. Respecting the diverse opinions of everyone serves to engage employees who become much more likely to go the extra mile to help the company succeed.

Promote transparency and approachability

Transparent leadership is key to fostering a culture of trust between leaders and their employees. Employees who are privy to important company decisions and understand their role in the overarching purpose of the company are, understandably, more likely to put their trust in their employer.

SquareSpace is regularly voted as one of the best places to work in New York City. Its company culture is one that is said to be ‘flat, open and creative’. A flat organisation is one where there is no (or very few) levels of management between staff and executives. This approach can be tricky to maintain as a company grows larger, yet, the principles of a flat organisation can be replicated by simple and transparent company structures.

All this contributes to better workplace relationships, better engagement and more effective communication. Employees feel their voices can be heard when they aren’t muffled under layers of management—it’s a freedom and empowerment that creates confident employees and improves morale.

Instead of focusing on simply offering the latest perks, business leaders and entrepreneurs should prioritise cultural elements to create a framework for employee engagement. Businesses should strive for a culture that exhibits qualities like communication, collaboration, mission and value alignment, innovation and accountability. That’s not to say perks are bad. In fact, perks can enhance culture, but they shouldn’t serve as a substitute.

See also: Building a positive workplace culture – How to create a great working environment for every single employee in your business.

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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Company culture