Quill: How to build an inspirational workplace culture

In the famous words of Peter Drucker: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The benefits of a positive, strong and aligned company culture have been proven time and again, from improved employee retention to boosted productivity and performance. With the right strategy but a poor team culture, outcomes are often negative — but a team with a strong culture is better equipped to overcome the challenges that spring from a faulty strategy, and ultimately prevail.

At Quill, our culture is consistently voted by our team as one of the key benefits of working here — largely because we have invested in building a culture from the ‘bottom up’, ensuring that our core values are reflected at every level of the business, and in the day-to-day ways that we work together.

But how can something as intangible as ‘culture’ be quantified, and how can businesses set about building a culture that promotes success? Here’s our take.

The ‘culture’ conundrum

Organisational expert Edgar Schein described corporate culture as being composed of three distinct ‘layers’:

  1. Artefacts. The visible and tangible demonstrations of a company’s working culture. Examples could include a formal dress code or open-plan office layout.
  2. Values. Conscious tenets or mottos expressed by both company management and employees.
  3. Assumptions. The everyday, unconscious, ingrained parameters within which employees operate. This includes unspoken, taken-for-granted behaviours such as flexing hours without fear of reprisal, or regularly working late.

For many businesses, problems with ‘artefacts’ are simple to address. Similarly, defining company values — although requiring thought and time investment to ensure they properly reflect the ethos of the business — is not an excessively difficult exercise. But real problems arise when these first two layers cause friction with the third, ‘assumptions’ — that is, when the company’s inherent, unspoken working culture doesn’t reflect the values and image they seek to project.

This discord can spawn a culture problem — or, worse, a negative working environment. So one of the key steps in developing a successful company culture lies in the successful alignment of these tiers — ensuring that the reality of the way the business operates and its day-to-day assumptions fully match up with its artefacts and values. An important aspect of getting this right lies in the type of people you recruit — by seeking out people who you know will exemplify your company values and exhibit the positive behaviours you want to promote.

Re-evaluating values

Every company is unique, and as such has unique cultural needs. However, studies show that certain behaviours within a company framework are universally positive, while others are universally damaging.

Take the stress epidemic currently reported in Britain. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress — which correlates strongly with job dissatisfaction — accounts for 45% of all sick days. Compounding this issue is the fact that almost half of employees would never approach their employers about stress-related concerns, whether because they fear (justifiably or not) that it may negatively impact their careers, or due to an unsupportive, say-nothing culture.

Aside from this loss of productivity, a lack of emotional or practical support at work can result in engagement issues, not least a lack of trust between management and more junior staff. A recent report from Breathe HR — which found that poor company culture costs the UK £23.6bn a year — reveals that over half of workers distrust their seniors. The principal reasons cited were a lack of transparency (50% of respondents) and support within the workplace (59%).

So there are some behaviours — such as transparency and candid communication — that all businesses would do well to cultivate. It’s incredibly important for people to feel that they can have an open dialogue with colleagues and managers when issues arise. But this can only happen in an environment where there is trust, and in which everyone feels comfortable being themselves — and this includes acknowledging challenges and limitations. If a working culture supports this type of honest communication, problems can be solved. If it doesn’t, issues are bottled up — inevitably leading to a crisis point.

Still, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for a perfect company culture. This is why it’s critical to really interrogate and fireproof company values before attempting to instate them across a team. Early on in Quill’s development, we realised that a strong value system would be key to shaping the future of the company. We hired a consultant to conduct staff interviews and explore company-wide opinions on how the business worked, where our employees wanted it to go, and what behaviours would be necessary to drive that engine.

These conversations unearthed five common themes within the business, which in turn became our core values:

  1. Thinking big; we seek scalable ways of working and solving problems.
  2. Striving for excellence; we hold our work, others, and ourselves to the highest quality standards.
  3. Acting with integrity; we communicate openly and honestly, valuing dialogue and feedback.
  4. Moving fast; we believe in excellence at pace, and are quick to course-correct when things aren’t working.
  5. People matter; we invest in one other and contribute as much as we can to move the business forward.

While these tenets are in many ways typical of an ambitious, technology-focused SME, they also — we hope — serve to encourage universally beneficial behaviours.

For example, to support our ‘People Matter’ value, we run a number of talent development initiatives. These include our monthly ‘Inspire Lunches’, where we invite external (and internal) speakers to run sessions on their areas of expertise, both personal and professional, promoting knowledge-sharing across the company.

We also institute personal development plans for every employee, arranging quarterly meetings with managers to identify key achievements as well as areas for future improvement. This structure encourages not only individual growth but improved management and development — a feature which, according to research from the Chartered Management Institute, can yield a 32% increase in productivity company-wide.

Building from the ground up

A strong company culture is an environment where the projected ethos of the company — its artefacts and values — aligns with the assumptions upon which its employees’ day-to-day operations are based. And while senior management can and should take the lead on culture, they must be met by a company majority willing to engage and support those values. Organisational culture doesn’t just filter top-down; but rather is something that needs to be embodied at all levels of the business.

At Quill, we promote cultural alignment by embedding our values at the very first stage of engagement with an employee: the recruitment process. Every candidate goes through three interview stages. The first two, where candidates meet with hiring managers and department directors, test for skills and aptitudes. The final stage, purely culture-focused, is always conducted by our CEO, Ed Bussey. The goal of this is to ensure that we’re not only hiring A-players in terms of their skill and proficiency, but also personalities that will be inspired and motivated by our values.

We’ve found that our approach is working. Our most recent culture survey, conducted by Operations Director Kit Gilbert, revealed that 94% of our employees agree that Quill successfully encourages ‘thinking big’ and ‘striving for excellence’, while 92% think that our company succeeds in ‘moving fast’.

Still, the survey has been very useful in terms of identifying areas for improvement, with our ‘acting with integrity’ and ‘people matter’ values ranked at 82% and 78% respectively. “Within two months of the results coming in, we are already developing ways to address discrepancies,” says Kit. “In this way, we ensure that Quill’s day-to-day operations are consistently interrogated against company values.”

Building culture is a continuous process, and employees right across the organisation should be encouraged to drive and decide its cultural progression. The key is to empower them to do so. At Quill, we believe that the route to cultural success is clear — and it begins with an honest and open conversation.