How To Create a Positive Workplace Culture At Your Startup

Creating a positive workplace culture can be the difference between your startup rocketing to the stars or withering away into the abyss. It's no secret that startups thrive when there's positive and vibrant work culture. It will make your team feel secure, respected, and happy, leading to improved productivity while attracting and retaining talented individuals.

By Christian Nicolai Thiesen

This article will dive into precisely what excellent workplace culture is, why you should build and maintain it, as well as strategies on how to implement it effectively. Don't just take it from us; this is what Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb, has to say about workplace culture:

A company's culture is the foundation for future innovation. An entrepreneur's job is to build the foundation.

Brian Chesky

It's a pretty big statement, but a statement that bears a lot of truth. The culture in a company is alpha-omega to get right. Innovation thrives in environments where people feel good. That is the state that fosters creativity and ingenuity. If people don't feel good, they can't perform, and if they think they are treated poorly, they will only do the bare minimum to get through the day.

By laying a foundation of respect, trust, inclusion, and security (all cornerstones of thriving workplace culture), you'll foster a company where people are content, want to do great work, and push the needle. When people like their workplace, it's easier for them to connect to the company's purpose, and purpose is what transforms a random bunch of people working together into a unified collective.

Why is Workplace Culture Such a Hot Topic?

The world of work is changing. People are slowly moving away from boring 9-5 jobs, where they trade money for time. People are no longer content with just having jobs; they want careers. They want their working life to be exciting and contribute value besides the money it brings in. They want purpose and meaning. They want to promote a direction they believe in and do it in an environment that inspires them. And if these requirements aren't met they will find another place to work.It is evident for companies that the best talent won't stick around if they do not facilitate a great place to work. The dynamic has changed compared to the old office days, and the most innovative companies nowadays compete to be the best in this domain. They want to offer the highest degree of work-life satisfaction to their employees because that is how they lock down the best talent and make them perform at the highest level. And the best way of doing so is to create a great work culture.

There are so many reasons to build a great and healthy team culture from the very beginning. Some benefits are obvious, while others are more nuanced. But it boils down to two main benefits:

  • The physical and mental well-being of the team
  • The growth of the startup

If you can focus on getting these to work in tandem, the chances of success become much higher. Three key studies show that without a strong focus on workplace culture, founders will encounter:

These statistics paint a pretty clear picture of what can happen if a founder decides not to prioritize workplace culture, but what are the benefits? 

What are the Benefits of Excellent Workplace Culture?

  • Culture shapes your startup's identity - by defining your workplace culture as early as possible, you are giving it a unique identity that will separate it from other startups.  
  • Culture puts words into action - your culture is the living and breathing version of your startup's core values. There's no point in having nice words on paper if you don't act on them.
  • Sense of pride - Your team takes more pride in the work they do for a startup and vision that they genuinely believe in. This pride can give them tremendous life satisfaction.
  • A thriving culture means your team is happy!
  • Happy employees are more productive and successful.
  • Happiness encourages risk-taking - happy employees have a can-do attitude, feel supported when taking on complex tasks, and are not afraid to make the odd mistake.
  • Better collaboration - when your team is comfortable in their work environment, they ask for and offer support to each other more easily in group tasks.
  • Your team shares with family and friends how amazing it is to work for your startup - it creates a natural buzz in the office and spreads the message far and wide. 
  • Happiness has a multiplying effect - spreading joy and cheer for all to hear!

Positive Workplace Culture vs Positive Work Environment. What's the Difference?

Positive workplace culture is everything you want to strive towards, while a great work environment is a nice supporting act that adds value to the culture but isn't necessarily as essential. 

You can have a great workplace environment with table tennis, office plants, lots of natural light, a comfy sofa, a Playstation, and an office gym. Still, without a positive culture, they amount to just a few pleasant distractions. 

Don't get us wrong; you should aim to have a pleasant working environment. But know it doesn't always have to have all the bells and whistles you hear about at those big tech offices like Google and Apple. It can be as simple as an uncluttered workspace, good lighting, a good coffee machine, and a few office plants.

What counts the most is what your team will talk about when they go home to their family or friends after a day's work. They'll either sing your praises or say some pretty nasty things. How they react is up to the startup founder. 

No amount of table tennis at work will stop a disgruntled team member from bad-mouthing their workplace if they're frustrated at work. It will just be a pleasant 15 minutes distraction in their arduous workday. 

Real job satisfaction stems from a great workplace culture that the founder is responsible for fostering. 

What Does a Toxic Work Culture Look Like?

We know what an excellent work culture and environment look like, but what about an unhealthy one? Here are the things you want to avoid when trying to build up your workplace culture:

  • Poor communication among your team.
  • Communicating incorrect or unclear information.
  • Prioritizing your startup's outcomes at the expense of your team's job satisfaction, retention, and mental health.
  • Poor work-life balance.

They might seem pretty obvious now, but when you are in the thick of things, it can be a lot harder to take a step back and realize that the culture you've been working so hard to develop could be slipping away. 

As a founder, always try and reflect on what kind of culture you're instilling in the workplace. You might be surprised by what you discover! 

How to Create a World-Class Work Culture

A founder's traits and characteristics can have a significant effect on how workplace culture is effectively instilled. While founders may not possess all of the most favorable characteristics, it's vital to consider how attitude can help and improve culture. 

Even if a founder only possesses some of the favorable traits that encourage good workplace culture, the missing traits are all skills that can be learned and adapted over time. That's what makes a great founder, right? 😉 

The following are ways founders can effectively instill, foster, and support a first-class workplace culture:

  • Being interested in, caring for, and maintaining responsibility for your team. 
  • Trust your team and avoid micromanaging. You hired this team because you believe in them. Let them show that.
  • Forgive mistakes and avoid the blame game - You can even use those mistakes as a teaching point if you like, but do it in a way that doesn't belittle people.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work - By sharing your passion and vision, it will spread through the office like wildfire.
  • Treating each other with gratitude, integrity, trust, and respect - simply put: lead by example. 
  • Offer compassion, empathy, kindness, and support to team members in times of struggle. It can imprint a lasting impression to your team that you genuinely care.
  • Fostering social connections - when people feel included and feel they belong, they are happier people. Spending 40 hours per week with the same team should not be a negative experience. An example could be hosting Friday bars and team social/bonding days. Try and do the team social days away from the workplace. It will feel less like work that way.

Hiring People that Fit Into Your Culture

It's tough hiring future team members that align with your workplace culture. You don't always get all the information you are looking for when going off a LinkedIn profile, job application, or interview. People tend to present a synthetic version of themselves in these stiff situations. 

So how do you extract all the good stuff from potential team members that will add to your startup's culture?

  • Hire attitude, train skills - Attitudes are much harder to change. Skills can be learned. Read more about hiring the right people here. 
  • Don't clone yourself! Hire for diversity and get a whole new perspective on each problem.
  • Be explicit about the importance of your startup's culture in the hiring process. Make sure the candidate has done their homework about your startup's culture (through your website or culture handbook) and quiz them about it. You will soon learn who's serious about it and who isn't.
  • Onboarding is an essential aspect of a new team member's cultural induction process. Have a dedicated culture session and lay down the expectations of new employees in the first week.

It's All About the Culture!

We hope this course has helped you on your journey to fostering the best possible workplace culture. In essence, you want to make the workplace a welcoming and supportive place, to the benefit of the team, and to the benefit of the startup itself. Good luck!