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how to create a supportive company culture that isn’t just for looks

by | published on september 14, 2021 | 6 min read
<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >how to create a supportive company culture that isn’t just for looks</span>

we have a super supportive company culture. we recognize that you have a life outside of work. we’re like a family here. 

hear one (or even all) of those before? it’s not hard to find boilerplate adages and slogans about company culture. they’re littered across “careers” and “values” pages on company websites. printed on postcards. painted on conference room walls. 

but, while the platitudes about support in the workplace are common, here’s the truth: many of them are empty promises. they’re nothing more than lip service. 

consider that 92% of employees admit that empathy is undervalued by their company. or that only 46% of employees say they have a “great deal of trust” in their employers. even our own research at atlassian found that 56% of managers say that their team members have mutual respect for one another. yet, only 41% of employees agreed with that statement.

5 strategies to establish a supportive company culture

1. prioritize trust and psychological safety

a supportive culture is one that empowers employees to do their best work. leaders give their direct reports what they need to do their jobs—like information, tools, access, and guidance—but then get out of their way. 

it sounds simple in theory but is more challenging to implement in reality. that’s why micromanagement is still frighteningly common, with 59% of employees saying they’ve worked for a micromanager at some point in their career. 

one of the best ways to show employees that you trust them is to offer flexibility and let them choose when they get their work done. it’s a concept you’ll likely hear referred to as a results-based culture—where the emphasis is on what’s achieved and not on the hours worked. 

“the biggest unlock for me was being given the freedom to work when i was most productive,” says hiba amin, senior marketing manager at hypercontext

beyond the trust autonomy for employees to set their own schedules, there also needs to be a broader focus on psychological safety. what’s that? nicole kahansky, content marketing manager at hypercontext, describes psychological safety as “when your manager creates a space where you feel comfortable contributing ideas, asking questions, sharing and receiving feedback, and being yourself.” basically, employees know it’s safe (and ideally, not mortifying) for them to fail at work. 

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“the best [leaders] have created space for mistakes and truly back up their team when they made them, allowing them to not just recover but grow from them,” echoes kelly mayes, head of communications at digits

so...how do you do that? here are a few quick tips to help you establish psychological safety on your own team:

  • publicly celebrate failures and learning experiences, rather than only wins and accomplishments
  • resist the urge to pick apart ideas in brainstorming sessions and reserve that as creative time for off-the-wall ideas
  • stick up for your team if another leader, department, or colleague points the finger at a perceived flop

2. encourage and respect time off

“the majority of employees don’t take leave because they fear what their inbox will look like on return,” says rachel service, ceo of happiness concierge, a firm focused on workplace cultures.

there’s plenty of data to back that up, with hundreds of millions (768 million in 2018, to be exact) of vacation days wasted in the united states every single year. 

“talk to your team about leave options and how you can support them to take leave,” service explains. “our workplace offers us unlimited pto and our supervisors remind us regularly to take time off to recharge,” adds janel forsythe, coordinator at upshift strategies

you might even consider instituting a new type of leave depending on the unique needs of your team. happiness concierge, as just one example, started “health and wellness leave,” where employees get two days per quarter to spend time on what brings them joy. 

there’s one more thing to keep in mind: when employees actually do take their well-deserved pto, they shouldn’t be bombarded with emails and pings while they’re out. in fact, make your best effort to avoid contacting them at all. “to me, this indicates a respect for boundaries,” says alyssa towns, a business operations specialist at adswerve and a freelance writer.

3. have the hard conversations

“empathy, especially during the pandemic, has been huge,” says ray hernandez, a spokesperson for otis. “being able to vocalize when you’re not okay or having colleagues [and] leaders step in to help or adjust priorities are also great qualities of a strong culture.”

this level of transparency and vulnerability is so important that a whopping 90% of employees say they perform better “when their company supports their emotional wellness.” but, that doesn’t make it easy—especially when two-thirds of managers admit that they’re a little uncomfortable communicating with their employees.

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fortunately, service says that using numbers over emotions can make these types of conversations a lot more approachable for both leaders and employees (and help keep those jitters and sweaty palms at bay). 

“for example, instead of asking, 'how are you feeling today?', you might ask, 'on a scale from 0 (not great) to 10 (amazing), where would you sit?’” service says. “what could i do to improve that score for you? what would be something i could support you to do or help you out with?”

4. offer tangible resources

there’s a lot that goes into a supportive culture that’s somewhat intangible and tough to quantify. but, there’s plenty more that leaders can do to prove to employees that they’re actually investing in support. 

one example is the creation of employee resource groups (ergs) dedicated to all sorts of different characteristics or experiences. “at otis, we have more than 20 ergs worldwide, with more than 2k employees engaged in them,” says hernandez. 

however, hernandez emphasizes that employers need to do more than create ergs—they need to actively support them. that includes things like providing an adequate budget, getting leadership buy-in, encouraging employee participation, and actually listening to the requests and feedback of those groups.

another great option is to provide access to mental health resources. while a company-paid subscription to a meditation app is a nice perk, there are far more substantial things that employers can do to support the mental wellbeing of employees, including:

5. put strategies into action

one of the most effective ways to create a supportive culture is to talk directly to your team. what do they need? what do they think is missing? what would make them feel the most supported at work? 

collecting that information is an important step. but, without any action, it’s...well, pretty useless. you need to follow through on the feedback that employees offer. 

“to me, it’s all about action,” says lisa lark, founder of lisa lark communications. “yes, you listened to me vent, heard my ideas, and maybe even shared my feelings. but if you never speak of it again, you’re not supportive. that might just be saying, ‘hey, i shared that with x and i’ll keep you posted. but there needs to be a follow-up.”

walk the walk with a (truly) supportive culture

most companies want to brag and boast that they have a supportive culture, but few actually live up to the reputation they love to promote. 

the good news is that you can go beyond lofty promises and empty words and use these strategies to prove to your employees that you have their back—you know, even if you don’t actually print it on the back of a company t-shirt.

good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. find us on twitter (@trello)!

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