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Workplace Culture

Article originally posted in Hearth & Home Mark Brock.


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Around Phifer’s manufacturing center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it’s not unusual to see the company CEO, Beverly Phifer, walking through the plant, greeting employees by name, and taking time to chat. It’s all part of a family-oriented culture that can be traced to the company’s founding in 1952 by her father, J. Reese Phifer, and being carried forward today by second and third generations of the Phifer family.

“Even though our company has grown to more than 1,000 associates, it still feels like a family business,” said Gregg Terry, director of Marketing for Phifer, which is the world’s largest producer of aluminum and fiberglass insect screening, and recognized in the casual industry for its category-leading Phifertex sling and GeoBella woven fabrics.

“This family feeling continues because members of the Phifer family are still very much involved at all levels of the business and because there’s a genuine caring for the people who work here.”

Phifer is sustaining this family-oriented culture through open-door communications, competitive pay and benefits, and a commitment to workplace safety and employee wellness. The fact that more than one-third of the company’s workforce has more than 20 years of service is testament to the family-oriented culture.

“There was a time when employment opportunities in this area were limited, but that has changed drastically over the years as car manufacturers have located in our area and made us the ‘Detroit of the South,’” Terry said. “We’ve continued to enjoy low turnover among associates, and it’s common for us to employ multiple members of the same family over successive generations. The longevity of our employees certainly contributes to the consistency of our culture, the quality of our fabrics, and the efficiency of our operations.”

Positive Cultures Encourage Employee Engagement and Build Brands

A growing number of companies, both large and small, are paying increasing attention to their workplace cultures. They recognize that a positive culture can make all the difference between a workforce that’s truly committed to the company’s success and one that consists of people who view their work as just a job. The rewards from a positive culture are many, including the all-important building of a positive brand image and repeat business with customers. But creating a winning culture in the workplace is not easy.

Carlos Castelán is co-founder of The Navio Group, a business consulting firm that works with companies in meeting workplace challenges and helping them perform better in today’s competitive business environment. According to Castelán, the greatest challenge for management in creating great workplace cultures is helping their employees feel connected to something bigger than any one person.

“Great workplace cultures engage employees and make them feel like they’re contributing meaningfully to their organizations,” he said. “This happens when employees are allowed to be themselves and encouraged to share their ideas. On a day-to-day basis, a strong culture is sustained when employees are able to see a clear connection between their work and the larger organizational mission and goals.”

Castelán says he has often worked with companies where decisions are made by only two or three people, and where management meetings leave everyone “unclear as to what they’re supposed to do going forward. The result is employees spinning their wheels and getting frustrated.

“Great leaders remind employees of the greater organizational mission and set a clear strategy to help prioritize the work and achieve the company’s goals,” he said. “A good way to do this is to maintain a focus on two or three key goals to ensure that employees can focus on executing those specific objectives and see meaningful progress along the way.”

Phifer Emphasizes Communications, Caring for Employees

Phifer recognizes the importance of keeping employees informed of the company’s goals and progress toward those goals. It also emphasizes the importance of taking care of its employees’ well-being.

Phifer employees attend monthly meetings during which they learn about operating results while also receiving other important information concerning issues such as benefits and new product introductions. Phifer associates also experience the company’s tangible commitments to a positive culture through the “Phifer Cares” safety program and a free wellness center available to employees and their families. Phifer continues to be creative in sustaining a positive workplace culture.

“This past summer, we announced the creation of a mentoring program at Phifer that will allow us to tap into the wisdom and experience of long-term employees while also helping to sustain our culture,” Terry said. “Employees who meet certain eligibility requirements can apply to return to work part-time after retirement to mentor others in positions similar to the ones they held. We see this new program as a creative way to share knowledge and bridge the gap between younger and older associates.”

Sustaining a culture such as the one at Phifer is no small task; it requires commitment and investment by company owners and management.

“All companies, both large and small, have been required to embrace technology and increased speed in every facet of today’s business operations, all the while focusing on the production, quality, and financial goals of the company,” Terry said. “Maintaining a positive internal culture in this fast-paced business world requires leadership that meets the needs of employees with decades of service as well as embracing the talents and desires of the new generation of Phifer associates.”

In Fast-Paced, Technology World, Human Touch Making a Comeback

As workplace strategist Erica Keswin was networking with business executives across the country, she noted the types of challenges that Gregg Terry says Phifer is addressing through open-door communications. According to Keswin’s research, technology is robbing workplace cultures of the human element, which is resulting in people experiencing increased feelings of isolation that are negatively affecting workplace cultures and organizational effectiveness.

“There are so many ways that technology has changed our lives,” she said. “Every day the average person spends six hours on some sort of electronic device which is the same number of hours the average person sleeps, and in the U.S., people check their phones 12 billion times a day. It’s no coincidence that people are craving a return to more human elements in the workplace.”

These two trends – the growing dominance of technology along with a desire by workers for more human interaction and connections – is the basis of Keswin’s new book, “Bring Your Human to Work.” In her new book, Keswin outlines 10 ways in which organizations can bring human elements back into the workplace.

“So let’s agree that culture matters. But what kind of culture is a human culture? Fun cultures are great. By-any-means necessary, money-making cultures certainly have their fans. A meaningful culture – a place where people can feel like they are plugged into something bigger than themselves – that’s a human culture. That’s the kind of place that businesses need to create if they want to succeed in this purpose-driven marketplace and the race for young, very-much-in-demand talent.”

Keswin is quick to note that fostering a human workplace has enormous financial implications. For example, the American Institute of Stress estimates that $300 billion is lost in our economy every year due to stress, which she believes could be reduced by cultivating more of a human workplace. Additionally, cultures that lack a human touch tend to lose employees and customers, and ultimately risk failure, she said.

“The 10 approaches that a company can use to create a more human culture is a menu that organizations can pick and choose from based on their own unique situations,” she said. “The one essential step for everyone is to be real about knowing who you are. When a company takes its value statement out of the framed plaque on the wall and starts living those values, then good things can begin to happen in bringing your human to work.”

Focus on People, Relationships Essential to Culture at Glen Raven’s Anderson Plant

A focus on the human element as a pillar of a positive workplace culture is clearly evident at Glen Raven’s Sunbrella manufacturing center in Anderson, South Carolina. Since its construction in 1994, associates at Anderson Plant have been challenged to make continual improvements in Sunbrella fabrics both in performance and design as the range and complexity of these fabrics have steadily increased.

It’s been a process that’s required associates to learn new technology and adapt to new processes within a workforce where they play important roles in managing change and assuring smooth operations every day in crucial areas such as associate safety, product quality, and productivity.

The secrets to success for Anderson Plant’s human-centered culture include a cohesive management team, careful selection of associates, open communications, and a commitment to fulfilling the Sunbrella brand promise.

“The team at Anderson Plant comes together around our commitment to a common mission; this means that no one is working at cross purposes with anyone else and we can move forward together,” said Jack Woodson, director of Operations. “The right people are in all of the right positions moving in the same direction.”

Recruiting and retaining team members who fit the Sunbrella plant culture is highly intentional, according to Randy Blackston, vice president of Operations for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. The plant’s turnover rate is evidence of the success in recruiting people who fit the culture of the one-million-sq.-ft. manufacturing center with less than 10% of the plant’s associates leaving Glen Raven each year, including retirements.

“When we recruit for the management team at Anderson Plant, it’s not just one interview, it’s several interviews, and it’s not just interviews, it’s really spending time with each individual to make sure they are a good fit for our culture,” Blackston said. “For recruiting hourly employees, we have created detailed assessments that assure that we hire people who will be a good fit for our culture. Over the years, we’ve learned the qualities and the attitudes that will make someone a success for our team at Anderson Plant and those are the types of people we look for.”

Open two-way communications is another of the many reasons that Anderson Plant has a strong workplace culture and low turnover, according to Blackston, who was part of the original team that designed and built Anderson Plant.

“We listen to our team members, and we act on what we hear from our associates,” he said. “It’s important to collaborate to make people feel as if they are part of something bigger than themselves and that they can contribute with their work and with their ideas. Anderson Plant has an entrepreneurial feel where we can make decisions that affect the success of our business, and where we take a long-term focus on our investments.”

Also driving the culture at Anderson Plant is the Sunbrella brand promise that focuses on the legendary durability and design excellence of Sunbrella fabrics, as well as responsive customer service, and a company commitment to stand behind the product.

“The Sunbrella brand and the Sunbrella brand promise are central parts of our culture at Anderson Plant,” Woodson said. “Just as the brand stands for quality and service and improving people’s lives, so does our workplace culture.”

Align Culture, Brand, Customer Perceptions for Exceptional Results

When it comes to exceptional results there are three critical factors that should be in close alignment, beginning with culture:

  • Culture is what it’s like inside your company, behind the curtain so to speak. Are employees engaged in the work or just showing up? Does management have a clear set of values that the company lives by? Are employees truly engaged in the work or only focused on a paycheck?
  • Brand is the face you present to your customers. “We are experts in creating the ideal outdoor living space.” “No one has a broader or deeper selection of category leading brands and design expertise.” It’s what you say on your website and in advertising.
  • Perception is how your customers see you. “I love shopping at the XYZ Patio and Hearth Store,” or “I will never go in there again – no one wanted to help me and I couldn’t find what I wanted.” Perceptions are contagious, both positive and negative.

The challenge of aligning culture, brand and perception is formidable for any company. If your brand says one thing, but your employees don’t reinforce it, then how can you expect perception to drive sales and profits? On the other hand, align these three and the benefits range from exceptional employee retention and engagement, to increased market share, increased sales, and profitability.

Positive Workplace Cultures Begin with the CEO

The Sunbrella brand promise has evolved over more than 60 years, led by members of the Gant family who own the company, and by successive generations of executive management who have made it clear that the Sunbrella brand will always stand for the highest standards of quality, and that respect for people always comes first.

Diane Hamilton, Ph.D., a nationally syndicated radio host and the founder of Tonerra, a company focused on developing workplace culture, says it’s this type of leadership from the top that’s critical when it comes to creating and sustaining a positive workplace culture.

“Everyone models after the chief executive, so without buy-in from the top it’s difficult to set a positive corporate culture,” said Hamilton, who has worked with a broad cross-section of businesses, served as chair of the MBA program at Forbes School of Business, and is on the Board of Advisors for top organizations such as Docusign.

“Many CEOs don’t recognize how their attitudes and behaviors establish the culture for the entire organization,” she said, “and they may not recognize when they have an issue that’s hindering the organization from achieving its goals.”

There are many reasons why chief executives underestimate their impact on corporate culture, according to Hamilton. These factors include a tendency of many chief executives to surround themselves with like-minded colleagues, while holding onto pre-conceived ideas that have become out-of-date due to market and demographic changes. Top executives have typically been away from the frontlines of the company’s operations for many years and may have lost touch with day-to-day challenges.

“A chief executive can get back in touch with cultural issues by bringing in outside counsel or by conducting an engagement survey with employees,” she said. “Times change, markets change, and generations change. Companies need chief executives who are willing and able to rethink assumptions about the business that might have worked in the past, but aren’t working today.”

One of the most important contributions that a positive culture can make for an organization is employee engagement, Hamilton said, noting that companies lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year due to poor engagement that impacts productivity.

“Engagement is all about employee commitment to the job, how passionate they are about the work,” she said. “It goes far beyond job satisfaction; engagement means that people are excited about what they’re doing at work, they feel a part of an organization, and they feel empowered. Unfortunately, only about a third of employees are truly engaged in their jobs, with the rest simply going through the motions.”

To foster engaged employees, a company must create a culture in which people feel they are in a safe environment where they can ask questions and state their opinions, Hamilton said. It’s also essential that employees understand where the organization is headed and their role in achieving that mission. Continual feedback is critically important.

“Culture change is hard because, just like any habit, you get used to doing things a certain way,” she said. “But change is certainly possible when you have a chief executive with an open mind.”

Kannoa Workspace Keeps Owners in Touch

The owners of Kannoa in Miami are not likely to lose touch with their workplace culture as radio host Diane Hamilton warns for some chief executives. In fact, the leadership team of Philip Boulton, CFO, and Luis Blasini, CEO, has taken numerous steps to assure a positive culture, right down to the workspace itself.

“We have an open office space which helps us keep a pulse on the office on a daily basis,” said Blasini, who founded the company with Boulton in 2006. “Sure, it can be distracting at times, but the benefits of keeping the group aware of each other are great. We also take advantage of the insight we get from Officevibe. It’s a program that monitors employee morale and serves as a platform for them to contribute with anonymous feedback.”

Blasini and Boulton are lifelong friends who founded their casual furniture company based on four pillars – design, functionality, durability, and harmony. They were equally intentional in how they created their workplace culture and how they sustain it.

“We have always based our culture on the idea that people come first. This is the premise for every decision the company makes – from the inside to the outside,” according to Blasini. “Simply asking ourselves three questions: Is it good for the employees? Is it good for the client or supplier? Is it good for the company? The positive answers to these three questions usually assures a correct decision, and sets a path that keeps the company positive and on the right track.”

The selection of people to work for Kannoa also has been an essential element in creating and maintaining the type of culture the two founders envisioned from the beginning of their venture.

“We think a company’s culture is dependent on hiring the correct people,” Blasini said. “We have a quirky group of people, and an important concern when we interview candidates is that they fit in with the group. Often, we hire someone for one position and soon discover that their interests and abilities would work better in a different post, so we shift. We are organic that way and, as a result, people are happier at work.”

Blasini and Boulton have taken their people-focused internal culture and translated it into how they work with customers. The result is a business approach rich in empathy.

“Just as we strive to celebrate each employee’s individuality, we strive to see each customer as an individual with a unique way of doing business,” Blasini said. “We then make every effort to interact with them in that way. We understand that our clients have clients, and that everyone in that chain needs to have a positive experience buying our furniture. We treat our customers as a crucial part of our team, and essential to our success.”

What have the owners of Kannoa learned that might benefit other companies eager to create a people-oriented culture?

“We would recommend to first define what you want your company’s culture to be like,” Blasini said. “Once that is clear, the steps needed to get there should fall into place. Listen to your employees, and mix in humor and group activities from time to time. We sell a fun and relaxed lifestyle and our company’s culture reflects that.”

Bad Culture or Bad Decisions – Don’t Confuse the Two

For more than 35 years, Linda D. Henman, Ph.D., known in the industry as “The Decision Catalyst,” has worked with a broad range of companies, from the Fortune 500 to small family-owned businesses. In all those years, corporate culture has not only been a topic of conversation, but also a topic laced with confusion.

“Culture has become the conversational shuttlecock that people bat around arbitrarily,” she said. “When an individual, a merger, or an organization fails, culture often takes the blame. We use the word somewhat arbitrarily, citing it to explain why things don’t change, won’t change, or can’t change. Culture becomes that subtle-yet-powerful driver that leaders strive – often futilely – to influence.”

The challenge, Henman says, is to separate out the impact of organizational cultures and the effects of poor decision-making. Attributing a failure to a poor culture can let everyone off the hook since cultures are embedded, long-term, and seemingly impossible to change. On the other hand, bad decisions can be clearly traced to the decision maker who may not want to admit the mistake. The good news, however, is that when bad decisions are recognized as just that, there’s an opportunity to apply a fix and learn a valuable lesson.

“Blaming failed mergers and acquisitions and other business strategies on incompatible cultures has created a culture trap,” she said. “Leaders can blame ‘culture’ for organizational failure when faulty decision-making and good old-fashioned bad judgment also played a role. When you blame failure on culture it can become a self-defeating trap that creates blinders to the possibilities of learning, change, and success.”

For Henman, a strong workplace culture begins with the organization’s decision makers and is characterized by a strong mission, consistency in delivering excellent products and services, involvement and empowerment of employees, ongoing learning, and adaptability to customer demands.

“Decision makers have to ask themselves, ‘What do we value as an organization, and how can we mold a culture around those values?’” she said. “If you’re a bank, you might want a culture that is methodical, process driven, and relatively slow in the scheme of things, while if you are a technology company you want out-of-the-box thinking, fast change, and quick decision-making.

“Your brand and your culture must go hand and hand, with brand being how you show up in the marketplace, and culture the ways in which your employees experience working with the company,” she continued. “To have a strong brand and foster a great culture, these two areas have to be closely aligned.”

Praise and Recognition Central to Great Workplace Cultures

When was the last time you offered praise and recognition to someone at work, either verbally or in writing? If you are like most of us, it may have been a while, according to Susan Kuczmarski.

Kuczmarski, co-founder of Kuczmarski Innovation, a Chicago-based innovation consulting firm that provides thought leadership on innovation, culture, management, and values.

“Praise, rewards, and recognition are powerful tools to teach, inspire, and motivate, however each is terribly underused in the culture of the workplace,” she said. “We need to have all employees understand the value and importance of tangible thank you notes, emails, cards, and texts.”

Recognition is such a central element in creating a positive workplace culture that Kuczmarski has recently completed a book devoted to the topic, “Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition.” According to Kuczmarski, recognition, thank you, and praise should permeate a positive workplace culture.

“A major shortfall is when employees don’t send a ‘thank you’ to the people they work with or work for,” she said. “For some odd reason, they don’t think that’s part of their role; but think of the positive impact on multiple people providing recognition to others at multiple levels within the organization.”

One of the reasons that recognition is lacking in workplace cultures is the prevalence of misperceptions of the impact of this type of communications, she said.

“We sometimes hear managers lament that they don’t want to make people feel overconfident or think they’re too good because they’ll ask for more money; that kind of thinking is so naïve,” Kuczmarski said. “When it’s genuine and legitimate, recognition doesn’t cause ego-inflation; rather, it strengthens an individual’s inner core. It enables them to feel better about themselves and in turn perform more effectively and efficiently.”

Another misperception is that recognition and praise should only be offered upon the successful completion of a task, she said.

“Recognition can be offered in a variety of ways and under different circumstances,” she said. “It can be given for an employee’s insight into identifying a problem, acknowledging the difficulties the employee encountered while solving the problem, or understanding the benefits of the employee’s solution. Providing positive reinforcement to employees along the way is far more motivating than waiting until the task has been accomplished.”

Finally, there are many who think that recognition and praise should always be top down.

“How often have you complimented your boss for a job well done? Probably not often. And yet, providing recognition to those at the top can be enabling and motivating for them,” Kuczmarski said. “Providing frequent recognition is beneficial because it leaves groups stronger, more confident, and better motivated to perform productively and focus on the tasks at hand.”

Six Steps Toward a Stronger Workplace Culture

When it comes to creating a positive workplace culture, there is a broad array of actions that owners and managers can take. At the risk of over simplification, here are six steps that specialty retailers should consider:

  1. State your values, live your values – It may sound a bit lofty, but starting with a core set of values and living those values is a great first step toward a winning culture. Don’t say customers come first unless you give employees the tools for exceptional service. Don’t say the sales experience is everything, if you don’t invest in good merchandising.
  2. Communicate, listen and act – With the prevalence of email and text messages, we seem to have lost the art of verbal communications, one-on-one, in person. Research shows that people, especially the younger generation, crave personal communication where they can ask questions and offer suggestions that are actually implemented. Talk to your people, in person, every day.
  3. Pick your people carefully – In his book “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins says that it’s important to hire slowly and fire quickly. Collins goes on to note that most companies do just the opposite. Once you have a culture in place that’s working for your organization, one of the best ways to sustain that culture is by hiring people who fit the culture. This focus on culture fit means hiring slowly and firing quickly when you make inevitable hiring mistakes.
  4. Know when it’s cultural and when it’s something else – As business advisor Linda Henman says, it’s crucial to know the difference between the effects of culture and just plain old bad decisions. When you blame culture for a problem, it suddenly becomes much more challenging to fix. When you admit, “Hey, we made a mistake,” it’s easier to learn from the mistake, fix it, and move on.
  5. Own the culture – If you are the owner or the chief executive of the business, then you should take ownership of the culture. As radio host Diane Hamilton notes, most chief executives are surprised to learn how much they affect the culture. If the boss shows up in a bad mood every day, guess what, employees will likely be in a bad mood too. If the boss is encouraging and upbeat, that can be contagious as well.
  6. Praise, recognize, and thank – As business consultant Susan Kuczmarski comments, praise, recognition, and thank you can make invaluable contributions to a great company culture. This sort of communication should flow top down and bottom up and can take many forms, from an email or a text message, to a gift card or a high-five in the break room. The rush from recognition or a heartfelt thank you can make someone’s day.