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Workplace Culture: Here’s The Missing Link!

By Tim Dive – Senior IR/HR Consultant 


What does “Workplace Culture” mean to you?

Whenever I ask employees that question, I tend to hear quite varied versions of what they think a good culture is.

They’ll say words like:

  • Flexibility;
  • Not watching the clock;
  • Trust without micro-management;
  • A social club at work;
  • Fitness programs and free gym memberships; or
  • Freedom to work from home.

Ask the business owner though, and you’ll probably hear, “if I can just clone myself 10 times over, my Workplace Culture would be great!”.

Well, unfortunately, these are all the wrong answers.

Take any of those items in our list of words employees often proclaim. Let’s imagine we’re running a small Cafe with about 5 or 6 staff. If the items on that list are what constitutes an exemplary Workplace Culture, not many cafes or similar businesses would ever be considered worthwhile to work in. Still, some of the happiest and most passionate people I encounter are Baristas or people working their guts out in small family owned coffee shops. It just doesn’t fit the reality.  

Let’s say we’re in a busy and growing IT services business with 30 personnel. We can probably offer almost everything on that list, but if our workload requires staff to work 60 to 70 hours per week, what good is an offer of flexibility, going out for drinks after finishing work at 7pm, or ducking off to the gym for an hour and half at lunch time? How sustainable can that truly be? How much pressure to keep up would staff put themselves under just to take advantage of a few benefits?   

The problem with Workplace Culture is that it’s illusive. It doesn’t look or feel the same for all workplaces, and because of that complexity, businesses, consultants and HR teams are confusing the offer of employee benefits with developing an effective Workplace Culture.

Employee benefits are not your culture, nor are they required or necessary to establish an effective culture. Employee benefits will certainly help to retain staff. Take a really poor working environment like a Coal Mine for example. Many employees will trade-off their passion and happiness in return for giving you their time when the benefits they gain are valuable enough to warrant that, but is this really what we want from our most valuable asset – our people?

I’ve seen businesses falling into this trap frequently over the last 5 to 8 years, where employee dissatisfaction, poor performance, poor attendance and complaints are met with with offers of benefits, like work-from-home options, more flexibility, or less accountability and job-sharing in an attempt to make employees “happy” again.

This is all done in the name of Workplace Culture. That’s an error.


Where did it all go wrong?

Somewhere along the way, the existence of an effective Workplace Culture somehow separated itself from high performance.

HR people, traditionally not being held accountable for the bottom line commercial performance of an organisation, were and are often assigned the lead role on correcting poor performance mistakenly identified as poor Workplace Culture.

It’s just too easy for technical and commercial managers leading teams to blame poor performance on “culture” and passing it off as an HR problem. For small and medium sized businesses without HR teams, this can be fatal.

Internal HR folks are (typically) not great business consultants, but this is the breeding ground for most HR consultants out there. There are no shortage of ex-internal HR pros throwing their hat in the ring for Workplace Culture consulting projects. These are the people, many business owners explain, that walk into a business with crippling poor performance and come up with a plan to get everyone smiling more, hugging and singing Kumbaya over a lovely cup of chai.

“Culture Development Specialists” should be selected very carefully, and where their approach avoids a review of current skills, workflows, talent selection methods and business strategies, chances are you’ll find yourselves arm-in-arm, roasting marshmallows in a boardroom bonfire while your customers are still screaming for better services. It doesn’t work.

It’s not only HR’s fault, though. These folks are genuinely trying to help – they’re only jumping a few steps ahead of the starting point.

Supervisors and Managers also deserve a mention.

The “people” side of leadership has become outsourced more and more to HR teams in large organisations. All too often, HR people are managing the performance discussions, the exits and terminations, the onboarding and probation period management, and other awkward moments in an employee’s lifecycle.

These should be the accountability of a Supervisor or Manager.

Larger businesses with HR teams are trying to counter this effect by establishing “Business Partnering” models. Basically, that means (if I’m an internal HR Advisor), tell me your woes, I’ll coach you and guide you, but you’ll go away and handle your team member, personally.

Of course, this only accounts for about half of all employees and teams in Australia, and the millions of small to medium sized organisations can’t afford to have their technical leaders constantly engaged in conversations in encouragement of whiney or non-effective staff members.

Often, their only hope may be engaging an external people consultant.


The Missing Link (High Performance)

How the hell did “High Performance” ever become separated from Workplace Culture?

Additional or unlimited leave, free gym memberships (and time to attend them), paid courses and workshops, free private healthcare, free counselling services, paid degrees, and priority on-site day care services, all end without a culture of high-performance making these possible.

End of month parties, paid attendance to industry events, free food and fruit bowls, employee discounts, and in-house massages every month are simply not offered where employees aren’t producing high performance levels of work.

All of these employee benefits a business may offer are wonderful, attractive, useful, beneficial and give the impression of a great Workplace Culture. But, they absolutely are not the source or origin of a solid Workplace Culture.

They are only some of the outcomes that staff observe, in a high performance organisation.

Non-commercially minded “Culture Consultants” will spot these signs of great culture, typically, employee benefits. This is only skin deep. Consultants that enter your business recommending you implement flexibility and benefits to staff in order to correct dissatisfaction and anti-high-performance behaviours, are going to fail far more than they’ll succeed.


When to Trust a Culture (HR) Consultant

If you’re looking for long-lasting and high-impact change to Workplace Culture, HR consultants are generally who you’ll turn to for help.

Buyer beware.

Make sure you discuss in depth, the Consultant’s approach to understanding precisely what culture might be best for your business and workplace. Find out if they intend on exploring the genuine issues within your functions, not just trying to address the symptoms of a poor culture (ie. the employee benefits and Kumbaya approach).

An effective Consultant will never implement corrective measures without first taking stock and reviewing the organisation’s performance, the capability of its systems, leaders and people, and understanding the strategic plan or vision for the organisation they’re working with.

A good Consultant will provide you with a thorough analysis or reports, recommendations to explore, and walk you through the options and their correlating outcomes, prior to jumping the gun with a bunch of assumptions as to what might work.

Consultants that skip these early steps aren’t necessarily bad HR people. They’re just HR people who aren’t that commercial in their thinking.

At the end of it all, any consultant (HR or otherwise) should be adding value and opening opportunities for your business and your people. It’s your business and the buck stops with you, so be critical in selecting your service providers.


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