It’s estimated that the average adult living in the United States will spend 90,000 hours — or one-third of their lives — at work.
That’s a lot of time, so it’s important for people to choose jobs that they enjoy. But during the job search process, it’s easy to focus only on the duties of the role. What is often overlooked is the workplace culture, which is more important when it comes to long-term job satisfaction.
A poor workplace culture can negatively impact a person’s wellbeing. It can also significantly impact the company’s bottom line, leading to low productivity and high turnover.
In contrast, people working in companies that have a positive corporate culture are healthier, happier, more productive, and less likely to leave. Research also shows that companies with positive workplace cultures have higher average annual returns.
“The job may be in your field, the commute may be great, or the pay package may be exactly what you are asking for — or more — but that isn’t good enough,” says Michael McCarthy, instructor at Harvard DCE Professional & Executive Development and host of the “Happy at Work” podcast. “It’s critical that the organization is a good fit with your values and offers a healthy workplace environment with effective leadership that will support and nurture you on your career journey.”
What is Positive Workplace Culture?
Positive workplace culture is an offshoot of positive psychology, an evidence-based branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that lead to living a life of meaning and purpose.
People’s behaviors at work are shaped by the organization’s collective beliefs and values. Applying the research supporting positive psychology to the workplace showcases the characteristics and behaviors that lead to individual workers flourishing. When people across the business flourish, the company does better as a whole and employees are happy.
“Workplace culture is not just about sticking a list of values on a wall in the break room and then going about your day,” says McCarthy. “It’s a commitment that every person in the organization, including senior leadership, will model their behavior to support those values. The idea of letting harmful or hurtful behavior slide is not acceptable in organizations that truly embody a healthy workplace.”
How to Recognize a Positive Workplace Culture
While every business is different, there are some universal traits that serve as the framework for a company that has — or wants to build — a positive work environment.
Trust and psychological safety
Psychological safety happens when people aren’t afraid to speak up. They trust that they can share their opinions without retribution, even if those opinions are different from their supervisors. This includes feeling safe to contribute alternative ideas or suggestions and raising any concerns or being transparent if mistakes are discovered.
A sense of belonging
People want to feel like they belong and that they matter. When employees feel like they are part of a team and that they are contributing, they are more engaged. Team building activities that help people get to know each other on a more personal level are great ways to foster a sense of belonging among employees.
According to McCarthy, companies should strive to build an environment where people are genuinely glad to be there and where they feel seen as an individual.
Professional development opportunities
Technology today is advancing rapidly and processes change quickly, so it’s critical to invest in employees’ development. Professional development goes well beyond training people for the specific job they are doing. It also involves giving them opportunities to learn new skills so they can advance their careers.
Generation Z is currently entering the workforce and these employees stay at a company for an average of 11 months.
“They are eager to learn, and they want to advance. By providing those opportunities, they are more likely to stay,” says McCarthy. “This can be done through training workshops and mentoring programs.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic taught businesses a lot about how to maintain services and grow when workers weren’t able to be in the office, it also taught employees that they don’t have to subscribe to the traditional idea of a 9-to-5 workday in an office. Those outdated ideas are no longer acceptable to many workers, especially the younger generation who are just starting their careers.
McCarthy recommends a hybrid work environment of two to three in-person days per week. Additionally, companies that offer flexibility in terms of work schedule and are willing to support employees when personal situations arise are places that people want to work.
How to Identify a Company with a Positive Workplace Culture
It can be hard for people to identify companies with positive workplace cultures, especially since the interview process can be relatively short and human resources teams and hiring managers are likely to paint a rosy picture of the company.
Here are a few tips to help identify companies that truly offer healthy work environments versus those that may say they do, but actually don’t in practice.
Do your research
When researching information about a company before the interview, pay attention to factors that could point to a negative culture. Look for information on employee turnover or employee retention. Companies with a high turnover rate often have a poor working environment, causing people to leave. If people tend to stay, they are more likely to be happy and fulfilled, which indicates a positive culture.
LinkedIn is a great research tool to learn more about a company’s culture. Search for current and past employees. If they are in your network or you have a connection, ask to contact them to have a candid discussion about what the culture is really like.
Look at company reviews on sites like Glassdoor, but keep in mind that people are inspired to leave complaints more than they are willing to leave positive reviews.
Follow the company’s social media channels. This will give you an idea about what they feel is important to share. If they showcase their employees along with the organization’s accomplishments, this is likely a sign that they value their team members and have a positive corporate culture.
Ask probing questions
Hiring managers expect questions about the culture in the interview, but instead of just asking what the culture is like, really dive into probing questions. These could include:
- How often will I interact with my supervisor or company leadership?
- What professional development or mentorship opportunities are available?
- How are employee conflicts handled?
- What types of team building activities do you offer?
- Tell me about your work/life balance philosophy. What does flexibility mean to this organization?
- What is one thing you like about working here? What is one thing you could change about working here?
Pay attention to behavior
Interviewers will likely be on their best behavior, but red flags may emerge. Look for nonverbal cues that show they aren’t that interested in being there, or they are just looking for a body to fill a seat. Is the hiring manager really interested in your answers, or are they just running down a list of standard questions and not asking any follow-up questions? Are you allowed to finish your thoughts, or are you being cut off? If there is more than one person in the interview, how are they interacting with each other?
“Another key thing to watch out for is cynical humor and gossip,” says McCarthy. “If they are talking negatively about the person that just left the role or the current leadership, that is definitely a red flag that the workplace culture isn’t psychologically safe.”
Remember, it’s okay to turn down a job offer if the cultural fit doesn’t feel right. Other opportunities will come along where you can thrive.
How Managers and Leaders Can Build Positive Workplace Culture
The pandemic fundamentally changed how people view work and their mental and physical health, so it’s critical for organizations to build and nurture a positive corporate culture to attract top candidates. Fostering a healthy work environment will also help companies retain employees, which ultimately saves money.
“Corporate culture starts at the top,” says McCarthy. “The c-suite needs to see the value in having a positive workplace culture and embody the behaviors that support the culture. When people throughout the organization see senior leadership living the values, they will follow suit.”
Managers and other workplace leaders can have the most impact on employees and can make or break the employee experience. Supporting employees involves three key factors: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.
Most people genuinely want to do well at their job. They want to feel confident about the work they are doing. Managers can help by offering feedback and advice and providing professional development opportunities. People who feel good about their work are likely to stay engaged and to be more productive.
Providing an autonomous environment where employees are empowered to do their job in a way that they feel best builds trust between employees and their managers and improves employee satisfaction.
“Think about autonomy this way,” says McCarthy. “You have a task that needs to be completed in 48 hours — let’s say climbing to the top of a mountain for illustrative purposes. You tell the employee where they need to be and why. You then let them go to figure out the best way to get to the top of the mountain on their own, being sure to let them know they can come to you for help at any time.”
In a micromanaged, less autonomous environment, the employee would be told to get to the top of the mountain, the path they must take, and the tools they can and can’t use. They also generally aren’t allowed to ask questions or seek help.
By empowering employees to work through solutions on their own, their minds are stimulated, they feel trusted, they are engaged, and they feel safe to ask for advice. The task becomes a good experience instead of a stressful one.
Humans are instinctively driven by purpose. When purpose is tied to a task, employees will be more motivated to accomplish the task because they can see how it fits into a bigger picture. They understand that their work has meaning.
Effective leadership includes telling employees why they are being asked to do something. In contrast, telling someone to do something “just because I said so” removes all motivation.
Corporate Culture Resources for Executive Teams
Executive teams that want to build a positive corporate culture should consider implementing mentorship programs. Junior team members can be paired with executives and junior staff members are included in decision-making meetings.
Other employees listen if they offer suggestions, explore the feasibility of those suggestions, then provide feedback. Mentorship is a pathway that companies can use to help build the leaders of tomorrow.
Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education also offers several professional development programs to help senior leaders and managers build a positive corporate culture in their organization. Many of these courses are offered both on campus and online.
Learn more about these topics and how to register: