When you work in a small office or as part of a small team, it can start to feel like you are part of a family — both from the time you spend with your colleagues and the bonds you form. While feeling close to your colleagues can make work more enjoyable, without proper boundaries, it can blur the lines between the personal and the professional. That can create a host of unnecessary problems—like people staying in a position too long and inadequate focus on the business itself.
As Alison Green, of the popular Ask a Manager blog, said of workplaces that view themselves as a family, "the phrase tends to pop up at dysfunctional workplaces—and tends to breed more dysfunction too."
Removing the perception of a business as a ‘family’ doesn't diminish the power of relationships. Instead, creating boundaries can open up the company to growth and support stronger, healthier relationships between colleagues. Changing corporate culture is hard work, but it can be done—and the returns and the rewards are worth it.
Conduct an Employee Audit
Before you can change your corporate culture, you need to establish a baseline. Conducting an audit of your company policies and practices provides a comprehensive understanding of your company’s strengths and weaknesses. It can also help you understand where your employees feel empowered, and where they feel stuck.
Establishing ground rules with your staff is important. Make sure to be transparent about the tactics and the goals of the audit. In some cases, it is worth hiring an outside professional to assess the situation and allow for a safe space for your staff to provide honest feedback on their perception of the corporate culture.
As you conduct the audit, the goals should include understanding employee perceptions of morale and empowerment, how closely job functions relate to titles, and if employees feel invested in the company (not just the people). The audit should also include a thorough review of your internal policies, including job descriptions. As a result of the process, you should have a better window into the way your business functions and identify opportunities for improvement.
Once you've gathered your information, it's time to create an action plan and be intentional about it.
Build a Purpose-Driven Culture
Even in a family, not all values and purposes are shared, but for a business to succeed there must be buy-in at all levels. Not only that, but organizations that are purpose-driven, or mission-driven, tend to have stronger retention and higher morale.
"Companies that understand the increasing emphasis of purpose in today's professional landscape improve their ability to attract such employees and also their ability to retain them for longer periods of time," said Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Executive Chairman and co-founder in the 2015 U.S. Purpose Index study, which found that purpose-oriented employees have 64% higher levels of fulfillment in their work.
So, the benefits of becoming purpose-drive are obvious, but how do you do it? It starts with your mission statement and value proposition. The message and mission of why you do what you do should become embedded in every element of your business, from internal interactions to external perceptions.
As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz famously said, "When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible."
As you work to ensure that your employees are introduced to the idea of working for a purpose, you also need to consider if that purpose is reflected in your brand treatments. If it is not, you should include an action plan to not only improve your corporate culture, but your assets as well. Update your brand voice and guidelines to infuse your mission, voice, and purpose into all your materials.
Define Roles and Establish Goals
One key element to establishing a new corporate culture is to clearly define roles across your organization. In a small company, people often wear multiple hats, which can create confusion about who is accountable or responsible for what. During your audit, identify not only what job descriptions exist, and what work your employees are doing, but also if they truly have the skills and interest in that work. You may find that you need to realign employees to emphasize their strengths and interests.
Transitioning these learnings into actionable results begins with crafting clear job descriptions. Develop goals and expectations for each role that tie directly back to the strategic goals of the company at large. This structure and goals-setting practice provides your employees with a clear path to follow. If you follow the practice of setting SMART goals, you will also succeed in empowering your employees to identify their direct contributions to the overall purpose.
Encourage Personal Time and an End to the Workday
A major downside to work that feels like family is that professional obligations can start to feel personal. As a result, work can overwhelm necessary life-balance, leading to burnout. To help alleviate this burden, you should make clear, non-negotiable personal time and rest a priority.
Modeling this behavior is important from a leadership level. Demonstrate a commitment to work-life balance by not only taking time away from work, but unplugging when you do so. Late night emails and messages while on vacation take away from your personal time and may make employees feel like they, too, should always be connected to work.
Keep Open Lines of Communication
As you do the work of changing your company culture, communication is king. Clearly define the changes and set expectations about the implications and impact on the work so your employees know what to expect. Simple and consistent communication, check-ins, and updates not only keep your employees engaged, but provide them with opportunities to give essential feedback on how the process is going.
That feedback may include pushback, so be sure you have a plan to address this. Change is uncomfortable for many people, and even if the change is an improvement, there is a natural fight-or-flight reaction that needs to be tempered.
As you iterate toward a more positive work culture, and as your employees connect to a greater purpose, you might be surprised to find new strengths, ideas, and opportunities you didn’t have before.