What is workplace culture and why is it important?

7 min read  |   28 July, 2021   By Breathe New Zealand


Workplace culture is about so much more than behaviour and getting work done. It’s also about how employees fit into your business and whether or not they feel aligned with your unique company values and vision. Fostering a culture that aligns with your core values can vastly improve the public’s perception of your brand, job satisfaction for your employees and even your bottom line. It is also one of the most effective ways to make your business stand out.

When your employees feel a clear connection to your brand they are more likely to stay, work well with their colleagues and produce outstanding work that reflects your core values. Capturing your brand’s core values and beliefs in your workplace culture (for success and uniqueness) involves designing everything around those values. Find ways to weave elements of each value into things like:

  • Leadership and management styles
  • Workplace practices and procedures
  • Hiring policies
  • Job descriptions and KPIs
  • Company communications and employee retention programs
  • Office layouts and interiors
  • Company events


What is workplace culture?

Workplace culture is the way a company's core values guide the way in which its employees should behave, communicate and approach tasks while in the workplace. It’s a huge influencing factor on the success of your business as well as the success of individual employees. When you clearly define what you want your workplace culture to be and actively work on making it a day-to-day reality, it will thrive. 

On the flip side, when culture is left to develop on its own, things can go wrong. For example, you might develop policies and procedures that don’t suit your business ideals, hire employees who don’t fit, tolerate management styles that don’t engage or retain great employees or create uninspiring, lackluster and even toxic work environments.


What are the 5 different workplace culture types?

Every workplace culture is going to be different (and that’s a good thing) but there are a few defining characteristics that will influence your business to lean towards one of these five main kinds of workplace cultures, including:

  • Conventional or traditional culture
    Businesses with a traditional workplace culture typically have strict and rigid hierarchies.
    There are three common attributes of a traditional culture, including:
    • Focusing on the bottom-line above all else (including customer opinions)
    • Preferring risk-averse decisions
    • Enforcing a dress code

As more millennials grow and secure more senior positions in companies with a traditional culture, investing in new office technologies and ways of communicating that boost growth and innovation is moving up the priority list.

A traditional approach can sometimes hinder creativity or originality, which can lead to uninspired employees who might resent being micromanaged. Communicating about and involving employees in your business’ larger goals while giving them a little more responsibility can help to avoid these negative effects.

  • Team-first culture
    Businesses who centre their structure around teams are usually more inclined to hire new talent who fit into the company culture as a priority. Skills and experience come in second. Employee engagement is also a top priority and it’s evident in these types of social-centric activities like:
    • Regular team and inter-departmental get togethers
    • Plenty of opportunities to provide thoughtful feedback
    • Flexibility to accommodate employees’ family lives

The general philosophy is that when employees are given the autonomy to decide what’s best for them in terms of work life balance, they are more likely to meet the expectation of committing to your company’s success.

The main benefit of a team-first culture is creating happy employees that lead to happier customers. If your business is customer service-focused, this can be a  great culture to work towards.

The trickiest drawback of this type of culture is, as a whole, it can be hard to maintain as a company grows beyond the small-medium size. Employing a team member who is committed to growing this type of culture will help to ensure you preserve excellent employee and customer engagement.

  • Horizontal culture
    Startups often embody a horizontal workplace culture. This is because above all, it encourages a collaborative mindset. Businesses with a horizontal culture are generally more agile and can make changes to their product or service based on feedback. While they might not have a large employee headcount customer service remains a huge focus and priority. Plus, titles aren’t used much. Everyone working together to get the company off the ground and on the path to success is the most important company goal.

    While a collaborative approach has its benefits, it can be tricky to maintain a clear company direction in a horizontal culture. The key is to map out and constantly align to clear goals and individual responsibilities.

  • Progressive culture
    When companies merge or are involved in an acquisition or other kind of transition period a progressive culture usually emerges. The general vibe of a progressive culture is unpredictable and ever changing. And, while this kind of vibe may not be ideal for some employees, a transition is a great opportunity to define some new company values or goals. Plus, involving employees in this process is a sure fire way to keep them keen and on board.

    Spooked employees are the downside of a progressive culture so it’s important to manage expectations, keep communication lines open and find out what your employees value most. This will help avoid harmful rumors floating around and ensure you hang onto your best people by listening to and implementing their feedback regularly.

  • Elitist culture
    The goals of businesses who foster an elitist culture often centre around creating a huge, often global shift in the way people perceive and interact with the world around them using new and untested methods. They are trailblazers.

    An elite workplace culture dictates that only the best of the best in a particular field are hired. This is because these kinds of companies need employees to lead the way for fast growth and serious disruption in the market. Employees who work at businesses with an elitist culture are innovative, bold, competent, competitive, not afraid to question ideas and comfortable with taking risks.

    The main downside to an elitist culture is when the expectation to be always on and achieving starts to affect employees’ health, stress levels and competitive relationships with their colleagues. Giving back to employees with sponsored team gatherings, reward and recognition programs and encouraging health-related incentives can help to prevent issues like these from materialising.

Does your business align more with one or more of these workplace cultures? Whatever workplace culture you create, if you come across something that doesn’t compliment your company’s goals, move on. And while your industry might influence the kind of culture your workplace embodies, there are always ways to make your unique company identity shine.


What is the difference between a positive and a toxic workplace culture?

The main difference between a positive and toxic culture is how company leaders work and communicate with their employees. 

Positive workplace cultures are generally:

  • Purpose-driven
  • Collaborative
  • Led by honest and encouraging leaders
  • Focused on employee recognition
  • Promoters of open communication

On the flip side, toxic cultures can have:

  • Poorly implemented policies
  • Ignored or no company values 
  • Narcissistic leaders
  • Sick, stressed or unhappy employees
  • Communication issues


What impacts culture in a workplace?

There are five main factors that impact culture in your workplace including, your leaders, company policies and values, HR functions, your people and your physical workplace environment. This is how to make sure these five factors impact your business in a positive way: 

  • Your leaders
    When your leaders behave in line with your company messaging and values your employees will follow. Your leaders are walking and talking guides of how employees should act, communicate and even dress. Before you drive home a set of rules and regulations with your employees, first make sure your leadership embodies those rules so they can set the best example.
  • Company policies and values
    Spend time designing your core company values and mission statement so that they reflect the business you are striving to be and incorporate those values into every possible avenue of your workplace. Think, corporate branding and merchandise, your physical workspace, company communications, policies and events. If your business prides itself on offering employees a fantastic work-life balance, brainstorm strategies that can help you attract and keep people who will fit into your workplace culture really well and who are willing to work to get the job done with increased control over their schedule. This type of value-centric policy would improve your hiring and an improved workplace culture will follow.
  • HR functions
    HR functions like recruitment, onboarding and employee performance management form the basis of the way your employees interact with your business and so are at the heart of your workplace culture. Educate your employees about your values, what you expect of them and how their performance is going to be measured and rewarded from their first meeting with you. Continue this throughout their career to maintain a positive and inclusive workplace culture.
  • Your people
    When considering who are the best people to hire, evaluate how their backgrounds, experience, skills, values and disposition will fit with the other people in your business. The way your employees interact with each other will make the difference between a productive and innovative team versus an aggressive and hostile team.
  • Your physical workplace environment
    Choosing an open plan office to encourage collaboration and open communication, offer flexible work-from-home options to enhance family and work life balance or provide parking, gym access and breakfast for convenience will all contribute to how your employees feel and approach their work which in turn will affect your overall company culture.

Fostering a fundamentally positive culture and avoiding elements that can lead to a toxic culture in the workplace is the most important goal. From there, experiment with which policies, workplace designs and employee programs will help you develop a unique business identity.



Author: Breathe New Zealand

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