How to create a strong company culture

- By Collaborative Media & Publishing
Every company has policies and procedures that define how its people work, but it is the unspoken rules they follow that often define the company.

"Culture is essentially the quiet rules of engagement – how we're going to work together and get the best out of each other," BPAY Group General Manager People & Culture, Lucy Lithgow says. A strong culture can create an environment that fosters innovation, problem-solving, and outperformance. Conversely, a negative culture is often the cause of high staff turnover and poor morale, which can sap productivity.

"We hear a lot about cultures that are toxic: there's backstabbing, there's a silo mentality, and a lack of respect in the way people speak to each other," Lithgow says.

The coronavirus pandemic that struck in early-2020 has created another cultural challenge, with remote working now standard for most office employees, although the underlying goals remain the same.

"If you’re going to make a difference, you have to understand what culture you're trying to create. One of the big things for us is we wanted to create an environment where people are empowered, trusted and encouraged to be curious. Essentially, we wanted an environment where they could flourish and be the best they could be. To really do that you have to define certain standards of behaviour that you're going to accept and not accept."

In 2019, BPAY Group was recognised as one of Australia’s best employers by AON for the second year in a row, placing well above the industry standard across employee engagement, agility, engaging leadership and talent focus.

Lithgow says it has been a long journey with important lessons along the way, but every organisation can improve its culture by focusing on some key attributes.
Leaders set the standards for culture
Building a great company culture starts with its leaders, including its board. Their behaviour – and the systems they establish to support it – set the standard for organisational culture.

"It stems from the leadership team, but everybody has to own it and shape it," Lithgow says. "Our board actually holds us accountable for employee engagement. It's 25% of our balanced scorecard, so we have a vested interest to make sure that our culture is positive."

Leaders also set the tone for how an organisation responds to cultural problems.

Swimming Australia board member Nicole Livingstone recently said the national swimming team's culture deteriorated in the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics, when the gold medal-favourite men's 4x100 freestyle relay team were allowed to break team codes of behaviour.

"The desire of potentially winning gold medals probably overruled common sense in trying to actually nip those things in the bud before they took hold," she said at the 2019 Australian Investment Council annual conference during a panel on ethics.

"It's really important for your own organisations not to take for granted your own culture and make sure that as you're hearing some rippling effects that are going on in your organisation to actually get on top of them before they get out of control – so put the spot fires out before they become a blazing inferno."
Listen to people
Great cultures are characterised by effective listening. Skilled listeners don't interrupt by offering quick solutions because they understand it's not about them. Rather, great listening involves absorbing what the other person says, supporting them, and creating a co-operative environment for change.   

BPAY Group has multiple, regular ways to keep communication channels open across the organisation, including employee surveys, focus groups, monthly open CEO roundtables, and informal "couch chats" (where information is shared and people can ask questions and engage in dialogue).

"It's important to be really open to listening to people, learning what's really going wrong," Lithgow says. "But the most important thing is what you do with the information – if you ask the question, you need to be prepared to act on the answer."

Lithgow says leaders need to play a pivotal role to connect regularly with their teams, who may now be struggling with social isolation due to coronavirus, and give them some sense of control and belonging in an environment dominated by uncertainty.

"We've been getting that message out to leaders: to really hone in on their people and make sure that their mental health and wellbeing is looked after."
Fostering culture remotely in the coronavirus era
Lithgow says the quick move to full remote working required BPAY Group to uplift the way it connects and engages with staff, but having an existing strong culture and flexible working enabled by technology made it easier to adapt.

The leadership team, led by John Banfield, hold all staff Zoom meetings once a week where regular business updates are provided, and anyone can ask questions.

"We're really flexible about people coming to us with creative ideas about how they could structure their work day or work week.  I have two part-timers in the team with young children who work 3-4 days a week – they now spread their work over five days to suit their routine with their kids."

However, working remotely has also required a more stringent communication routine and rituals to bond together. Whereas communication once flowed freely in the office kitchen or when walking past someone's desk, it now requires daily scheduled calls to check-in and even informal online events.

"There was a transition, but I think we've reached the point where it feels more normal now. I believe some really good things will come out of it, such as a less rigid approach to flexibility."
Being open and transparent about decisions is another crucial trait found in great cultures.

"It's about the way you make decisions," Lithgow says. "For example, we pay our people market competitive salaries and proactively let them know how their salaries are determined. We share salary benchmark information and market data and openly discuss and address any concerns they may have."
The way people treat each other is a key marker of culture. Are they welcoming and supportive or do they undermine each other in secret?

Australian enterprise software company Atlassian surveyed 1100 of its employees to help build better teams and found that 72% of high-performing teams exhibited mutual respect and trust among teammates compared to just 29% of low-achieving teams. (The company provides a free Health Monitor tool that can help organisations identify the strengths and weaknesses of its teams.)

At BPAY Group, performance assessments are equally weighted between behaviour and deliverables.

"One of the baselines for us is we want people to engage respectfully with each other," Lithgow says. "That's not to say you don't have honest conversations or raise concerns but the way in which you do it should maintain the self-esteem and motivation of the other person."

The distinction, made at successful companies such as animation house Pixar, is to aim for candour while avoiding brutal honesty. Feedback is best delivered in small, targeted ways, and is never judgmental or personal.
Have a one team approach and celebrate success together
"Once you've got your values and behaviours in place, you have to establish policies, practices and rituals to reinforce things," she says.

BPAY Group achieves this through recognition programs, encouraging staff to give others a "shout out" in recognition of behaviours that meet the organisation's values, or even "accolades" which also have a monetary value attached to them.

There is growing evidence that 'thanking systems' boost positive team behaviour such as co-operation. In one study, people were asked to help a fictitious student named Eric write a cover letter for a job application. Those people whom Eric thanked were more than twice as likely to then help another student, Steve, who asked for similar assistance.

There is no magic solution to building a great culture – it takes ongoing work and dedication across multiple areas of an organisation. However, the rewards stretch further than personal fulfillment, given organisations with great cultures also tend to perform well across traditional business measures of success.

"It's certainly a team effort," according to Lithgow.

This article represents the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of BPAY. Published by BPAY Pty Ltd.  BPAY is offered by over 150 Financial Institutions. Contact your Financial Institution to see if it offers BPAY and to get the terms and conditions. This is general advice – before using BPAY please review the terms and conditions and consider whether BPAY is appropriate for your personal circumstances.

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