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The importance of a positive work environment

Full-time jobs occupy most of our waking hours. Many of us spend as much time in our office chairs as our beds. And, by sheer volume of interaction, immediate colleagues basically become a second family. We invest so much of our lives into work. We can't afford to ignore the benefits of a positive work environment, or the costs of a negative one.

This is the first in a three-part series on positive workplace cultures. Today, we'll be looking at their benefits. But we'll also be setting the groundwork for how you can start building a positive work environment of your own.

Okay, so it's one thing to talk about the benefits of a positive work culture. But what do we actually mean?

A positive work culture should achieve many things. It needs good communication for effective teamwork. Employees should be engaged and able to take pride in their work, with plenty of wellbeing support.

A positive work environment helps people feel valued

Most importantly, a positive work environment should make its employees feel valued. It should recognise a person's accomplishments and reward them for their contributions. The work we should have value and meaning.

Value and meaning are the elements of work culture emphasised by Dan Ariely. In his Ted Talk, What makes us feel good about our work? he shared examples of how disregarding an employee's efforts can ruin motivation. Ariely spoke with developers at a software company who had just had their two-year project cancelled. All that work down the drain.

'And then I asked them, I said, "What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?" And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could have asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and what they decided to do.'

'He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organisation. He could have asked them to build some next-generation prototypes, and see how they would work. But the thing is that any one of those would require some effort and motivation. And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning.'

It's obvious that the employees wanted opportunities for both managerial and peer recognition. They wanted the time and effort they'd put in to have value for the business.

It seems like business leaders have taken these sorts of findings onboard. According to Deloitte, More than 80% of organisations have some form of workplace recognition policy. But remember, no aspect of positive workplace culture should be a tick-box exercise. Just because you technically have a system for employee recognition doesn't mean it's fit for purpose.

The organisational benefits of a positive work culture

It's important to recognise the benefits of a positive work environment. Not just for the CEO, or the people on the ground, but everyone. Building a communicative, supportive workplace culture makes life better for across the board.

First off, let's put the obvious concerns to bed. Building a supportive work culture isn't going to ruin your infrastructure or drive you into bankruptcy. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite.

Remember those Deloitte findings about workplace recognition? Well, Deloitte also found that businesses with formal recognition policies had 14% higher engagement, performance and productivity. They also decrease the risk of employee turnover by increasing organisational loyalty.

When your people feel valued, they're able to take pride in their work. When they feel supported by their employer, they want to return the favour. This level of employee engagement leads to what's called "discretionary effort."

If you're one of our regular readers, you're probably familiar with this term by now. But, in brief, it's basically going the extra mile. Going beyond your job description and doing things without being asked. You can't force this mentality, only cultivate it through fair treatment.

How a positive work environment benefits your people

Obviously, job stress is an unavoidable part of working life. Otherwise it wouldn't be called job stress. But that's no excuse not to tackle workplace stressors and productivity obstacles where we find them. The benefits of workplace positivity don't just extend to your bottom line. There's a host of wellbeing, motivation and happiness benefits for your people too.

Development Academy surveyed 500 employees across various organisations. They found that lack of appreciation by managers was the most commonly reported reason for employee unhappiness (69%). On the flipside, feeling appreciated was the second-most reported reason for employees being happy (57%).

Good colleagues

If you're wondering what the most popular happiness motivator was, it was good colleagues. This actually leads into our next point, which is the social impact of a good work environment.

A decent work culture where people communicate is the bare minimum for fostering collaboration. This sets the foundation for long-term social bonds at work. And the friends we make at work are essential to our wellbeing.

One study followed 820 full-time workers for two decades. Over those twenty years, people who reported low social connection were found to be 2.4 times more likely to die. Our work friends play a key role in helping to mitigate job stress.

They're people we can work well with to shift a huge workload. And, even when they can't help directly, they're someone we can vent to. They help us rehearse difficult professional conversations, and remind us to practice self-care.

And, beyond the social benefits, a good work culture is better for the careers of your employees. Transparency and fairness ensure everyone has the chance to progress. Good communication helps you stay aware of everyone's professional priorities. And, finally, solid recognition make sure everyone gets credit for their hard work.

The managerial benefits of a positive work environment

So, you're aware of the business benefits of a positive work culture. You know how it benefits the people you're in charge of. But what about you?

Well, don't worry. There are plenty of ways a positive work environment benefits managers too. Namely, it'll make your life easier by helping the whole machine to run more smoothly.

Let's start with recognition. Managerial recognition will never not be important. But it's often outdone by peer-to-peer recognition. You shouldn't ever stop personally recognising employee achievements. But in a culture of recognition, your people will do most of it for you.

In a positive culture, your people won't be afraid to come to you with concerns. This eliminates the job of trying to start these conversations in the first place. The level of trust involved should also cut down any compulsion you have to micromanage.

Effective work environments also help to generate engagement. In turn, that generates discretionary effort, which makes you look even better as a manager.

6 ways to build a positive work environment for your people

As we said earlier, this is no tick-box exercise. If you want to experience the benefits of a positive work environment, you've got to be willing to put the work in. Assuming you don't have one already, it's not going to take shape overnight.

1. Manager and peer recognition

There are loads of important points to an effective work culture, and we're not here to rank them. But the main one we're focusing on is employee recognition. Luckily, you've got plenty of options for recognising employee achievements and enabling them to do the same.

When it comes to the recognition you give as a manager, the personal touch is key. If you all you do is send out a generic, pre-drafted email, it's not going to mean anything. Congratulate them in-person if you can. But even a personalised message can make all the difference.

Peer recognition is a bit different, in that it's on you to give employees a voice. This is where a regular employee check-in can do a lot of the heavy lifting.

2. Trust between managers and employees

You can't have a positive work environment without trust. That would be like trying to run a marathon without breathing. But cultivating a relationship of trust can be easier said than done.

Employees can be distrustful of their managers, especially when they don't know them well. Toxic work cultures make people afraid to speak up, or admit to personal problems for fear of punishment.

Frequency is a huge part of building trust. Checking in with people regularly, giving them plenty of opportunities to raise issues, builds a dialogue. Over time, they'll trust you with more and more honesty.

But the best way to earn the trust of your people is to trust them in return. Especially in the remote work age, a lot of people crave personal autonomy. You might fret about giving it to them, worried they'll slack off. But, if you can trust your people to work autonomously, they'll reward you with high performance, innovation and discretionary effort.

3. A culture of open communication

Good communication is essential for an effective workplace. Don't be one of those businesses that keeps its employees in the dark. That means being transparent, and involving your people in important conversations.

But it also means regular performance management so that people aren't working blindly. There's nothing more demoralising than thinking you're doing a great job, only to be given a laundry list of failures at review season.

And, most importantly, it means having a unified standard of communication and documentation across your whole business. Don't assume something's known because of a throwaway comment in a meeting. Take a remote-first approach. Keep meeting transcripts and recordings, use file-sharing, get everything in the cloud. If your remote staff can access this stuff without issue, then anyone can.

4. Rapport with colleagues and management

It's one thing if your people are meeting their goals on-time and all that. But how well do you actually get on with them?

We've touched on the social aspect of work cultures, and with good reason. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to create a more socially pleasant workplace. The most obvious solution is to arrange out-of-work social events. Just don't make them mandatory. Nothing's worse than mandatory "fun."

But that's only the beginning. In a huge business, there are often whole teams of people who don't get to interact. Finding opportunities for them to collaborate can drive new innovation. It's also a good chance for your people to network.

And you as a manager? Engage your people on a personal level. Ask them how their holiday was, show an interest in their family's wellbeing. Make time in your meetings for a bit of small-talk.

5. Company-wide goal alignment

Having goal alignment across your whole business does a lot for group cohesion. When everybody's working towards the same goal, it creates a much broader sense of camaraderie than a bunch of isolated projects.

OKRs are ideal for this. They allow you to connect everyone's efforts to your major, overarching objectives. But don't make the mistake of thinking this restricts you to using only OKRs. It can still be better for individuals or teams with long-term projects to chunk them with SMART Goals instead. You can still use them as key results for your OKRs.

What you're trying to avoid is having counter-intuitive objectives. Projects that run counter to your major goals. Lucky for you, there are great goal-setting tools out there, like our SMART Goal and OKR systems, and Microsoft's Viva Goals.

6. Staff need flexibility and support

Last but not least, a positive work culture respects our lives outside of work. Sure, it would be great if we were all tireless workers with no personal commitments. But that's not realistic in the slightest.

The remote work boom showed how much people value flexibility. And it showed those people that job flexibility is possible. With the emergence of hybrid work cultures, you've never had less of a reason to give all your people flexible work arrangements.

Remote work, core hours, job-sharing, 4-day weeks. All these things give people more time to rest, recuperate, and wrangle their very annoying kids.

But, remember, job flexibility isn't the only support your people need. Give your people paid time off and the flexibility to use it. Work around their medical and mental health emergencies. Don't just listen to their grievances, but take actual steps to resolve them.

At the end of the day, it's about treating your people like... well, people.