Among the always-growing lexicon of business-related buzzwords, one consistently seems to rise to the top: workplace culture.

Most businesses have at some time grappled with the concept, weighing factors that contribute to a healthy workplace and why that in turn is important to the overall success of a company.

Although the Eastside has its own unique ecosystem of workplaces — flourishing in the tech and startup sectors — and while the definition of a good culture may differ from place to place, there are certain underlying workplace features that most would agree employees across all sectors desire.

Angela Howard

Angela Howard,
workplace culture and talent strategist for Kaiser Permanente Washington

Angela Howard, workplace culture and talent strategist for Kaiser Permanente Washington, is intimately familiar with the benefits of, and challenges in, building a good workplace culture. Howard, who has spent most of her career in organizational development and talent management, helps companies develop processes and programs that make employees feel valued and happy at work while connecting that attitude to results and bottom lines.

“Culture is kind of this fuzzy topic,” Howard said. “It’s not something you can put in your hands and say, ‘This is what (culture) looks like; here are the metrics for it.’”

Despite the gray area, Howard said that it is important for a company to recognize reasons culture matters, including the fact that happier employees make for happier customers, and talent retention can make or break a company.

To take steps forward at improving culture, Howard points to some universal building blocks. The starting point? An organization must be genuinely committed to creating a purposeful employee experience for anyone who works there, she said.

After establishing a commitment to its employees, an organization must ask itself what kind of culture it is looking to foster. Most companies want to improve communication, trust, respect, and transparency. To shift toward a workplace that emphasizes these values, Howard suggests a critical look at the hiring process.

“Hiring the right people is really important,” she said. “Look for people who are just as passionate as the founders — or whoever is running the company — to reach the goals and make the company successful.”

This kind of scouting requires a consistent process, especially in larger companies. Hiring guides, which encourage all interviewers to ask the same cultural questions, look for responses that indicate traits the company has decided to seek out.

The importance of an intentional hiring process speaks to the fact that culture cannot be imposed onto any organization; rather, it must be created or changed slowly, employee by employee.

Jenn McColly

Jenn McColly,
vice president of employee experience at SAP Concur in Bellevue

Jenn McColly, vice president of employee experience at SAP Concur in Bellevue, reflected on the ethos behind the company’s culture, which has earned it a space on Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” list for three years in a row.

“Every single one of our employees has a direct connection to cultivating an inclusive culture,” McColly said. “Culture isn’t about a team, and it isn’t about a leader. It’s about every single person.”

Over the course of SAP Concur’s 25-year history, it has experienced a great deal of growth through different acquisitions, the biggest being the purchase of Concur by SAP, a multinational software corporation, in 2012. McColly, who has been with the company almost 13 years, has witnessed employee numbers grow from about 450 to 7,500 across the globe.

This kind of expansion cannot happen without some growing pains. McColly, however, said that SAP Concur has navigated its way through these by putting employees first. This translates to programs and initiatives like EX Connect, a two-day event in which employees attend seminars that focus on best self, inclusion, happiness, and more.

An employee-experience department like the one at SAP Concur is one effective approach, especially for a large company. According to Howard, building positive culture is seldom successful without systems ensuring that employees feel valued, heard, and respected. An easy way to do this, Howard said, is to cultivate an environment of open communication — coaching and feedback — that allows people to know when they are successful and why. This eliminates confusion, makes employees feel appreciated, and translates into more consistency across an organization.

Smaller than SAP Concur — but with a similar focus on cultivating an enjoyable culture — is a book publisher in Seattle with employees coming everywhere from the Eastside to Portland and Georgia. Girl Friday Productions, which has just over 20 employees and was started in 2006 by two editors and mothers, prioritizes transparency and flexibility in the workplace — a lack of which tends to negatively affect women most.

Workplace Culture

“I’ve never worked for a company before that was so open,” said Georgie Hockett, senior brand marketing manager for Girl Friday Productions. “In other jobs, I’ve felt like I had to keep my kids in the closet to be professional. Here, people can just put everything out there. It’s an amazing culture.”

Founders Leslie “Lam” Miller and Ingrid Emerick started the company after feeling frustrated with the lack of flexibility in the workplace when they were both new mothers. Even though both worked for a publisher that focused on feminism and women’s issues, they said the realities associated with being a new mother were not respected or addressed.

Rather than put up with an intolerable work schedule or decide to forever be stay-at-home moms (which they both did for a time), the two started Girl Friday Productions with the intention of ameliorating problems, like the lack of understanding and inflexibility, that they experienced as employees.

“Flexibility makes people able to handle the stuff that all of us have — reserving plane tickets, letting the cable guy in, going to the doctor,” said Emerick. “It’s a myth that (these things) go away for people when we go to the office. Our attitude is, do what you need to do: We trust that you’re going to do your work, and that you’re going to do it on time.”

Kaiser’s culture expert Howard agreed that flexibility for employees is a big factor in building a positive culture because it is tied closely to respect and trust.

“I think that any human being would appreciate knowing that their organization supports them in getting work done in any way that they find most productive,” said Howard. “(Flexibility) gives an individual discretion and empowerment to make decisions, set boundaries, and define what success looks like for them as far as productivity.”

Workplace CultureAnother important quality, according to Howard: leaders willing to practice what they preach and set an example of healthy work-life boundaries.

“We can say, ‘You can have a flexible schedule,’ but if we’re stressed and working for 10 hours a day, our employees might not believe that the message is sincere,” said Emerick. “And the whole point was that it’s not good for anybody to do that. So, we work at it.”

Similar values are present at SAP Concur. “Recently, our president, Mike Everhart, spoke to the staff about how he had taken a couple weeks off, unplugged, and went on vacation with his family,” said McColly. “The fact that he highlighted that so publicly speaks volumes to the emphasis he places on the need for everyone to take time to focus on ourselves and our families.”

Ultimately, the long process of investing time, energy, and money into building trust and mutual respect in the workplace — signs of a healthy culture — has an impact that echoes far beyond the overall day-to-day happiness of employees.

“Investing in a positive culture in the workplace is not only just the right thing to do — it’s also about being competitive,” Howard said. “If I had my choice of five organizations, I’m going to pick the one that is the best match with my personality and the way I work. If you want to get the best talent, then you have to have the best culture.”