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How to Build Exceptional Office Culture

How to Build Exceptional Office Culture

Written by Ashlie Johnson Coggins


My first year in advertising was exhilarating. I worked in an office where we got free catered lunches once a week and funky murals lined the hall to a game room decked out with hip furniture. I quickly learned the game room sat empty 99 percent of the time, because work loads were too heavy. (And the prevailing theory around the office was that catered meals were just another incentive to keep us working diligently at our desks through lunch.)

Not long into my tenure, layoffs hit. Shortly after that, the company hosted an expensive holiday party, complete with ice sculptures, casino tables, ballerinas and sushi bars. Sure, we danced and drank to our hearts’ content, but we asked ourselves in whispered bathroom conversations why the leadership decided to throw a party, when surely the money could have funded a few of the positions that were cut instead. Those were our friends who lost jobs, not just our coworkers. To add insult to injury, we now had to do their work on top of our own, for no additional money.

That experience helped shape a conversation for me. I started looking around and asking: What actually helps create truly great office culture? I asked my larger network for their input and a few common threads emerged in the dozens upon dozens of answers I received. Let’s dive in.

It starts from day one

Positive office culture is largely employee-driven, from every level. If negative attitudes, short tempers and click-ish behavior infiltrate an organization, the culture will become toxic and you’ll lose great employees. With sites like Glassdoor, employee grievances are up for public display, which can make attracting new hires even more difficult.

Screening new employees for not only job skills and experience, but emotional intelligence and team chemistry is essential in today’s hiring process. When I polled my network about office culture, one respondent said her company now does a second working interview to see if a new hire integrates smoothly with the team before they ever make it on the payroll. It’s much easier to start with a strong team than it is to weed out mismatches and rebuild. Invest in great hiring processes upfront and you’ll save the company money in the long run.

Office culture trickles down

Have you ever worked somewhere exciting, with great coworkers at your level, only to find the leadership team is out of touch with day-to-day realities, unavailable, lacks transparency, displays little stress tolerance or has zero interpersonal finesse?

There are many reasons dysfunctional executives are enabled instead of excused from their positions. A 2014 article on toxic leadership (the report also touches on cultural evolution), revealed the problem was so pervasive in the U.S. Army, it was actually a contributing factor to soldier suicides. Ever wonder how these leaders get to be so high up when they make their employees so miserable? It’s partially because of top-down performance reporting practices, which allow bad apples to control their own narratives, as well as the narratives of their employees. The Army has now officially defined and outlined toxic leadership and has employed bottom-up performance reviews to help surface and eradicate harmful leadership.

It needs to be values-driven

If you can’t define your company values, it’s going to be hard to promote them for positive effect. Like an orchestra, even the best players need sheet music and a conductor in order to make a symphony instead of a cacophony. Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer, says if only one thing can be done to improve company culture, it should be formalizing values: “Every company has a culture, whether it is defined or not. So, I'd say a good first step might be to define your company's culture explicitly, and define where you want to go and who you want to be, by collaboratively building your own company values. For Buffer, this has given us the common ground and vocabulary for continuously working toward the kind of culture we want to see.”

Ping-pong tables are not required

When I surveyed my network about what they think most improves office culture, investing in employees was the most resounding theme. Fair pay, ample flex time, consistent employee recognition and feedback as well as continued education opportunities all ranked at the top of the list for creating strong culture. This is because office culture starts from within and happy employees who feel valued in the ways that matter most to them will pay greater dividends than a ping-pong table and lavish company parties. If you treat your employees like a commodity, they’ll treat their jobs like one too. That negativity inevitably spills beyond the confines of their cubicles, creating a domino effect that takes down anyone in its path.

Focus on diversity, inclusion and accessibility

Hiring for diversity is not just about affirmative action. It’s an active way to create a dynamic company culture that reflects the world we live in and fosters growth and innovation. Seiter shared: “Founders often grow their companies in the early days by hiring people in their network, and those early hires tend to be similar to them in background, language and geography. But hiring only similar folks can create diversity debt that is quite hard to recover from. We know that great companies and great ideas require a diverse team, especially for a global product like Buffer that's used by so many different types of people.” Seiter goes on to suggest partnering with likeminded organizations to grow your network in underrepresented groups, and creating an internal team vocabulary for discussing issues like bias and privilege.

Cultivating a diverse workplace doesn’t mean solely focusing on race, ethnicity, age and gender, either. It also encompasses creating an environment that doesn’t assume homogeneity in the workforce. Are spaces and processes also designed for those with disabilities? Are various departments able to collaborate easily? Even something as simple as allowing people to decorate their desks or swapping out fluorescent lighting for someone who is prone to migraines can be a meaningful accommodation that improves morale and culture.

Production over people is a dangerous byproduct of a culture that constantly strives for unending growth and profits without the proper investment in its employees at every level. Even though work takes up most of our waking lives, employees want to be seen as full, complex human beings with needs and responsibilities outside of the workplace.

Microsoft recently announced it’s requiring all of its partners and suppliers to offer a minimum of 12 weeks paid parental leave for birth or adoption. All organizations would be wise to take notes from Microsoft. Your culture starts with your people. Invest in them.


Ashlie is a digital marketer and creator living in Jacksonville, Florida. She’s particularly fond of cats, karaoke, sharing good meals with friends, building community through the arts, and looking up at the sky. Follow her on Instagram at 
@ashlie_elsewhere or visit her repository for all things creative at heyashlie.com. Find her other contributing story here.

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