How do you define a great company culture? Practically speaking, how is it built and maintained? And more to the point, are you ready to embrace it?

The ‘culture of culture’

Once upon a time, company culture was synonymous with barely subsidised gym memberships and crazy tie Fridays. Then it became more evident that strong cultures and engaged, happy workers tie directly into company growth; so began the ‘culture of culture’. Companies everywhere now chase a utopia – Deloitte recently reported that achieving a culture of engaged employees has risen to become the number one challenge companies face these days.

The actively disengaged

But do they know how to rise to the challenge? Research by Gallup suggests that only 13% of workers worldwide are engaged with their jobs, actively demonstrating that they are working for the benefit of their employer, while a concerning 24% are ‘actively disengaged’, such that they are likely to spread negative feelings round the office. That was from Gallup’s 140-country State of the Global Workplace study, which reported in 2013. However, more recent research by Gallup suggests that employee engagement in the US has plateaued over the last year or so, so in lieu of another global study I’ll assume those numbers haven’t shifted too much.

Bosses are worried that naysayers would damage workplace morale

A new set of behaviours

With all that in mind, Entrepreneur recently published its list of Top Company Cultures in the US. You can check the list out for yourself here; I was more interested in the methodology behind it.

As an aside it was gratifying to see a digital marketing agency top the large company category. If nothing else, it’s good to know that Southerly’s internal culture is entirely scalable. And with familiar faces like MailChimp and HubSpot in there it suggests the digital lot has this culture thing nailed; probably unsurprising given that company culture is rooted in an open approach to how you communicate internally, something our field tends to do well.

Anyway, Entrepreneur and its management software partner CultureIQ define company culture as a set of behaviours that must be adopted by an entire organisation. As such their methods took into account not only management’s input, but importantly all staff, too.

Company culture therefore is defined by: collaboration, innovation, agility and an ability to adapt to market fluctuations, communication that goes two ways, staff having responsibility and accountability for their work, unambiguous indicators of high performance with a clear recognition and acknowledgement system, and crucially a complete alignment of the company mission.

Are we ready?

That all seems a pretty fair assessment of engagement. All the signs tell us that workers want more voice and influence. The problem, fundamentally, and one which could be contributing to a generally low level of employee engagement, is that many companies aren’t ready for that kind of transparency.

Employee engagement has plateaued

Last month, the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas essentially concluded that the future is bright for workers. An age of integrated HR information awaits, one where the workforce is informed fully on everything from potential new hires and the interview process to general daily management. The crux of future internal communications is massively two-way and embedded in clever HR technology that empowers employees, for instance by allowing Glassdoor-style anonymous reviews of company procedures or behaviours.

Somewhat ironically, however, conference delegates agreed that bosses on the whole aren’t yet ready for that level of transparency, worried that naysayers would damage workplace morale. This Wall Street Journal blog goes into a bit more detail.

So essentially we’re in a bit of a feedback loop when it comes to workplace engagement, and as previously mentioned, engagement levels aren’t budging much. If we estimate that a quarter of employees are likely to spread negativity amongst colleagues, it’s understandable that a CEO would ask, why give them the chance to do so? On the other hand, one could argue that threat of abuse shouldn’t be the reason not to implement such an employee engagement strategy.

Positively peer-to-peer

The good news is there may be a way around it; a way to build a company culture based on high performance, company-wide collaboration, aligned company goals and individual accountability and reward.

How? Empower employees to do all of that for themselves.

Build a company culture based on positive feedback

This week, an employee engagement software developer, Chicago-based HighGround, touted its successes. HighGround boasts a culture of high performance, innovation and collaboration and as such has enjoyed a 450% increase in revenues and a doubling of its staff in the last year, with grand plans for even more hires in 2016. Its employee engagement platform is based on employees being able to discuss and provide advice that drives growth. It does this through real-time recognition systems and continuous feedback that crucially includes peer-to-peer acknowledgement. Employees reward each other and steer each other’s career paths. It’s a perfect containment of everything needed to build a company culture based on positive feedback, and HighGround says it has enabled over a quarter of a million employee recognition interactions in the past year.

Building a company culture is the biggest challenge on a business’s to-do list because of the fear of what could go wrong in doing so. That some business owners aren’t quite ready to embrace a future of complete and total transparency means we’re in somewhat of an employee engagement catch-22. But by designing an internal communications strategy based on empowering employees to help, direct and reward each other, rather than focus on a spiral of negative feedback, we create at least the foundations of a utopia.