Skip to main content Skip to page navigation

In association with

Shaping your work culture

How employees dress, act, relate to each other and perform their jobs are all influenced by your culture. Make sure your culture supports your market position, your strategy and long-term business goals.

Business culture: an overview

What is culture?

It’s like your business’s personality, based on a set of:

  • assumptions
  • values
  • beliefs.

Some of these may be explicit. Others may be norms people just sense or know.

Why is it important?

Getting your culture right helps to:

  • build and increase competitive advantage
  • attract and keep the people your business needs
  • create a sense of belonging
  • make people feel good about working with you
  • show people what’s expected
  • motivate people to perform better at their jobs.

Work culture is dynamic. Many small business cultures develop organically. It’s often set in the early days by whoever starts the business — most of the time without even realising.

But your culture will need to change as you take on different goals, and it’s up to you to set it.

Your culture underpins your strategy and market position. It may need to change over time.

Your culture underpins your strategy and market position. It may need to change over time.

What affects culture?

Your culture is influenced by:

  • You — how you manage and the leadership styles you use. 
  • Your behaviours and your values.
  • Your roots — how your company came about (and your founder’s values and leadership style, if it wasn’t you).
  • Your industry, regulations and competitors.
  • Your business environment, eg how technology is advancing, how much competition you have and how you react to your business environment.
  • Your short-term business goals.
  • Where your business is heading long-term.
  • How your workspace is organised.
  • Who you hire.
Tell people about your culture in interviews, inductions and performance reviews.

Tell people about your culture in interviews, inductions and performance reviews.

It will help you recruit and keep the right people and remind people what you expect. 

EMP18505 Case studies contracting cultures

Case study

Different businesses need different cultures

Health and safety is never far from boat builder Tom’s mind. His company meticulously crafts boats which are beautiful and above all safe. Tom is a careful, considered man. Attention to detail is a big deal for him.

Tom expects precision from his staff. His boat building workshop is a calm, industrious place. Projects can take anywhere up to a year. Employees require patience and a willingness to follow process and rules.

There’s no room for showmanship. And there’s certainly no place for anyone who cuts corners or is cavalier — they work with thousands of dollars-worth of kit and mistakes are costly and dangerous.

Next door to Tom’s workshop, Shanay’s events company is a bustling hive. Turnarounds are fast and furious. Employees outdo each other on wow factor and are encouraged to upsell clients bigger and better versions of their events. There’s healthy camaraderie and a strong sense of competition.

Hard deadlines and last minute changes mean people must be innovative and think on their feet — which sometimes means breaking the rules. Shanay is quick thinking, smart and ambitious. She’s taking the events world by storm and regularly hires colourful and driven staff to come along for the ride.

The qualities Tom looks for in his people are mirror opposites of what Shanay values in her staff. When it comes to culture no one size fits all.

Four common cultures

Most businesses lean towards one of four cultures. These may be people or process led — or have an equal mix of both.

In people-focused cultures, employees care deeply about their workmates and clients or customers. They’ll go the extra mile for each other and are likely to build friendships which extend outside work hours.

In process-driven cultures, people focus less on making friends, and more on getting the job done. In these cultures, people are happy to work towards a common goal, if there’s something in it for them.

Being people-focused or process-driven is neither good nor bad. You may need to dial one or the other up or down, based on what’s happening in the market, who’s on your team and what your business is trying to achieve.

Identify your culture

Think about which of these four most closely describes your workplace culture:

1. Networked – high people, low process

In networked cultures people frequently stop and chat. They share lunch, in jokes and often act like family, socialising outside work.

Works well when:

  • Employees rely on one other, eg when your business depends on sharing knowledge.
  • During difficult times, eg when you’re trying to get a new site off the ground and are hitting constant roadblocks, as it helps boost morale. 

Pros

  • Constant discussion is good for teamwork and generating ideas.
  • People are prepared to put up with frustrations, and will go the extra mile because their colleagues are friends.
  • People are more likely to tackle and solve major problems without being asked.
  • Ideas flow as people are less likely to feel worried about saying the wrong thing.
  • Because people feel a sense of belonging, they’re less likely to want to leave.

Cons

  • Networked cultures can become political and cliquey, making it difficult for new people to feel they belong.
  • People can end up on projects through friendship, not merit.
  • Because people are wary of hurting each other’s feelings they may avoid giving constructive feedback and poor performance can go unnoticed.
  • People may not follow process, relying on friendship instead.
  • If someone does leave, others often follow.

2. Go-getting — low people, high process

In go-getting cultures people aren’t there to make friends. People compete directly and openly with one another, and draw clear lines between their work and social lives. They may enjoy banter, but conversations are business related or motivated by trying to get ahead.

Works well when: You’re in a competitive industry, eg you might want this type of culture in a sales team, especially if the industry is fast paced and revenue hard to come by.

Pros

  • People will get behind your company goals if they stand to benefit, eg a share of the profit if your company meets its KPIs.
  • People know if they perform well they’ll get what they deserve. This builds trust and can be very motivating.
  • People who underperform will expect to be taken to task.
  • People can still work well together despite personal differences.

Cons

  • People may avoid doing tasks that don’t have a personal reward.
  • Because people are highly competitive, they may be reluctant to share information and be territorial about their jobs. This makes it harder to be creative.
  • In extreme cases, the dog-eat-dog mentality isn’t much fun.
  • Established workers are unlikely to help new workers come on board unless it benefits them personally.

3. Communal — high people, high process

People in communal cultures live and breathe the business. Many start-ups have this type of culture, eg close friends who have equity in the business, common interests and spend a lot of time with each other inside and outside work. 

Communal cultures are driven by strong values. Employees trust their leaders and think they’re fair. Risks and rewards are often shared between employers and employees.

Competition is usually front of mind. It drives people to achieve as much as the business’s own mission. People are friends, but can still be frank with each other.

Works well when:

  • You need people to rally around a singular, shared goal, eg getting a specific product to market.
  • When it’s important to share information, and have cross-functional teams.

Pros

  • People live and breathe the company mission. 
  • People support each other.
  • Team work thrives.
  • Turnover is usually very low.

Cons

  • This culture needs a strong leader. If a leader leaves it can fall apart.
  • It’s hard to focus on people and process equally, so it can be hard to sustain. 
  • When people are too similar and tight-knit, they can hesitate to take initiative and think for themselves.
  • If one employee leaves others may follow.
  • It can be difficult to integrate new employees and implement change.

4. Fragmented — low people, low process

Nobody sets out to have a fragmented culture but, like dysfunctional families, they can be a fact of life.

In fragmented cultures, people don’t trust each other. They have their own agendas and keep information close to their chests. Businesses that have restructured may end up becoming fragmented.

Fragmented cultures can work when:

  • People can work on their own and want to keep their home lives separate, eg freelance writers, estate agents, or people making crafts from home.
  • People are motivated and skilled and need little supervision.
  • There isn’t a lot to be learned from each other.
Think about whether your culture is working for you. If not, take steps to change it.

Think about whether your culture is working for you. If not, take steps to change it.

Bear in mind, it won’t happen overnight.

Your culture may need to change over time, eg when there’s a shift in the market, after a growth period, if performance is becoming an issue, or as new goals become important.

Cultures can take time to turn around. But there are ways to focus more on people or process.

More people-focused

  • Recruit people who are likely to develop friendships.
  • Arrange get-togethers inside and outside work, eg shared lunches, outings to fun and interesting places. 
  • Arrange your workspace so it’s easier to mingle.
  • Relax your dress code so people feel more sociable and relaxed.
  • Don’t have too many managers.
  • Share the same workspace as your staff. 
  • Model being kind and generous.

More process-driven

  • Create a sense of urgency, eg make meetings about action, make mission statements action oriented.
  • Have regular briefings on what’s happening with the competition.
  • Stimulate the will to win, eg recruit motivated people, celebrate success publicly, reward good performance.
  • Promote shared goals — create a sense of one company, one vision.

Cultural champions

Ask cultural champions to positively influence the team. For example, if an employee is good at putting customers at ease, team them with someone who is more awkward. If someone is safety conscious, pair them with people more likely to take risks.

Case study - Relaxed and ready to take on competition

Case study

Relaxed and ready to take on the competition

A new business is turning insurance on its head. Broker Dave is concerned.

The new company’s brand is friendly and dynamic, their brokers edgy and young. They pride themselves on avoiding jargon and complicated technical terms.

Dave’s team members are experienced, focused and reliable. They know their subject inside out, but are set in their ways. He’s already lost a few clients to the more energetic and forward thinking competition.

He needs to keep his point of difference, but get better in some of the areas his competitor does well. He looks into how he can steer his business and set new goals.

When one of his team leaves to go overseas, he recruits Jane — a smart and personable 35-year-old whose enthusiasm and good ideas are infectious. He asks Jane to lead workshops on how to put his new business goals into practice.

On Jane’s advice, he agrees to relax the company dress code to smart casual, instead of the dark suits and corporate image they’re used to.

Dave also organises a game of paintball for the team after the next team meeting. Getting out of the office and having a bit of fun together helps everyone loosen up.

Over the next couple of months, employees feel more willing to try new things. They also start putting forward ideas on how to stop the business from losing clients to the competition.

Case study - Upping performance

Case study

Upping performance without losing friends

Darren is fielding a lot of customer complaints. His plumbers are turning up to houses late, leaving properties in a mess and only getting through two thirds of their appointments. 

Darren runs a relaxed, friendly business. His old boss was a taskmaster and jobsworth, and he knows how much he hated it. He finds when his workers are happy it rubs off on customers. But his team are a bit too relaxed.

He chats through his concerns at Friday drinks. Things improve for a while, but after a couple of weeks standards start to slip. If staff don’t raise their game he’s going to start losing business. Things must change, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to lose the culture he’s taken so long to build.

Treading carefully, Darren introduces performance targets. He asks workers to complete an average 15 jobs a week. He looks at their averages weekly, only steps in when necessary, and once people are on track he only checks on his worker’s progress once a month.

He also asks clients to rate employees’ service and timekeeping when he emails their invoice. Employees who get 75 per cent five star ratings, three weeks in a row, get a case of beer at Friday drinks.

Staff get behind the healthy competition. In fact they enjoy being kept on their toes. Darren retains a sociable and friendly culture, but the new performance goals help make his expectations clear.

Build a culture that works for you

Start building a culture that supports your business goals with these five steps:

  1. List your business goals for the next 2–5 years.
  2. Think about what you need to change about your business to achieve them.
  3. Consider your existing culture and what you value, eg your excellent health and safety record, your creativity.
  4. Decide which culture best supports your goals.
  5. List the steps you could take to move towards this kind of culture, eg relaxing your dress code, introducing friendly competition.

How helpful did you find this information?