Demystifying Culture: What Does A Great Culture Actually Mean?

Unlimited PTO, free swag, free lunches, nap pods...

These are all benefits that some might find to be perfect examples of a great workplace culture, but are they? For our February webinar, we sat down with Hebba Youssef, Chief People Officer at Workweek, Founder of "I Hate It Here", and the queen of memes 👑 to dig into what a great culture actually means (and hint: it’s not unlimited PTO, free swag, free lunches, or nap pods).

This topic was inspired by a blog series Hebba wrote last year where she dove into the 5 factors that impact company culture, and we wanted to bring her series to life! Check out the full 1-hour webinar below or read on for a brief synopsis of the 5 factors discussed.

1.) Values

Hebba has a love/hate relationship with values. Love because they at least tell you something about an organization. Hate because a lot of values tend to be aspirational. What happens is when a company sets these values and the reality is quite different, your company culture is going to suffer. For example, fostering a collaborative environment might be one of our values, but in reality, managers are throwing each other under the bus to get approval for something. This is Hebba’s biggest issue with values – a lot of times companies miss the connection between how their values actually translate to the day-to-day.

The biggest mistake companies make when it comes to values is setting them and then never talking about them again or never revisiting them as your company grows. Setting too many values is also a no-go. 3-5 is the sweet spot - if you have more, no one is ever going to remember all of them, and you won’t get buy-in from your employees.

As mentioned above, keeping values as part of the day-to-day is imperative. As an idea of how to do this, Hebba mentioned that at Workweek, they’ve created custom emojis for their values in Slack so employees can shout-out people who are doing great work and react with the values emojis. This ensures their values are always part of the conversation.

2.) Leadership

Hebba gave it to us straight on this one — if your leaders are bad, your company culture is going to suffer. If you have a problem at the leadership level, you have to resolve that before you can actually build a great culture. If you have leaders that don’t listen, don’t appreciate their employees, or don't want to create inclusive environments, you’re never going to have a good culture. So, what can you do about bad leaders other than just firing them?

Hebba mentions that HR has to gain the trust of leadership. Leaders need to understand how their actions impact everyone else. A lot of times people don’t know that what they’re doing is toxic and just need to be told. She also described the best type of leader – they’re self aware and aren’t afraid to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong”.

3.) Communication

When it comes to company culture, communication is everything! The more you communicate, the fewer questions your employees will have. And honestly, how you communicate is part of your culture. Are you going to be transparent about everything or not?

Another communication-related theme discussed was AI and how it can help with internal communications. Hebba mentions that AI is great for a first draft. AI is never going to sound like you, but it’s a great place to start, and then you can edit it to make sure it aligns with your culture.

4.) Diversity & Inclusion

The distinction between organizations that care about DEI and organizations that do not can be hard to define. The biggest advice Hebba has here is that if your organization truly doesn’t care about DEI, you’re doing more harm by pretending to care then if you just told your employees DEI isn’t a priority.

As HR, it’s up to you to ask your executive team if they truly want to be partners in DEI work. HR teams can do a lot of the work, but if there’s no partnership from leadership, it’s really hard to do the actual work. However, there are lots of little things HR can do to improve DEI without having to involve leaders - like building a really great structured interview process. That in itself already removes a ton of bias (shameless plug: Pillar can help here). 

Hebba concluded this topic by mentioning that when your employees feel a sense of belonging, that can have such an impact on your culture. When they feel like they belong and are appreciated, they’re really going to show up and do even better work.

5.) Recognition 

Firstly, recognition and appreciation are two different things. Recognition is when you recognize somebody for the work they have contributed. Appreciation is about recognizing someone for their values and who they are as a person. Hebba thinks a lot of companies over index on recognition and forget that on the other side of it, is a person who wants to be seen for what they bring to the table.

As a whole, we focus too much on productivity and not enough on the humans in front of us. For example, instead of saying “Great job on that presentation”, you could say “I love how you showed up and advocated for others”. There’s a difference between recognition and appreciation, and part of your culture should have a strategy for both of them. Giving people recognition when they deserve it and appreciating them for who they are and how they show up.

Our final question to Hebba was about how you can measure culture. She mentioned that it’s not just performance reviews and engagement surveys, but it’s also observation skills. Metrics and data are great, but your observations as an HR person will tell you what the culture is. One of her biggest tips here is to watch how people talk to each other in Slack. If people talk nasty to each other, that’s your first sign that you have a bad culture.  

And with that, we wrapped things up! Huge thanks to Hebba for joining us! Don't forget to check out the entire webinar linked above to uncover even more of her thoughts concerning these 5 factors that impact culture.

And see you on March 20th for our next webinar! We’ll be joined by Tracy Keogh, Chief People Officer at Great Hill Partners & former CHRO at HP and Erin Peterson, Head of Talent at Great Hill Partners. We’ll be talking about quality of hire trends in 2024. You can register for this live conversation here

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