Community and Culture Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage

3 min read

by Laura Smith, Head of HR and Community at Trade Ledger™

Why you can’t have one as a competitive advantage without the other

According to research from the analytics and advisory company Gallup,

“85% of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job”

At the same time, we know that membership of civic organizations like churches, volunteer groups, and trade unions is falling significantly.

So, if people aren’t engaged with their employers and they’re not engaged with civic society, what are they engaged with?

It’s tempting to think that we’ve all retreated into individual digital cocoons. However, this doesn’t square with the fact that, as human beings, we are fundamentally social animals. The answer, I believe, to solving issues of workplace and community engagement is to look at them together.

Head of HR… and Community?

A lot of people ask me why my job title is Head of HR and Community. The rationale reflects major shifts in the nature of the organization and makeup of competitive advantage. I think it will become increasingly commonplace to look at HR in a community context.

Previously, in the day of “personnel”, our main focus was to manage internal people, practices, and processes. In today’s world, Human Resources is fast evolving into a “People and Culture” function, where our impact is not confined to the in-house working environment. What we do also spills over company channels and has a huge influence on the wider community.

The distinction between what is “internal” vs “external” becomes increasingly blurred when we consider, for example, that employees can often be customers or, when we ignore the spillover effects of unhappy employees. We are simultaneously workers and members of society.

In addition, companies are becoming increasingly networked in structure, interfacing with a fast-growing number of third parties, while executing their mission. So, building a strong culture and a sense of belonging will improve engagement with your employees, but also the broader community. Doing so will become a critical source of competitive advantage.

The importance of culture

Let’s look at how lacking a culture can drastically reduce a startup’s ability to develop a strong community.
The data clearly shows that a positive company culture increases productivity, improves business agility, drives higher employee engagement, and strengthens organisational purpose. Advancements in all these key areas combine to deliver a clear competitive edge, no matter the industry.

Impact of thriving cultures with great employee experiences.

Wrong culture is the second most common reason startups fail

Since startups operate in a dynamic, uncertain environment (today more than ever before!), they’re compelled to be more agile. However, a startup can only be as nimble as the people on the team. This applies to both the early stages and the periods of high growth.

A culture focused on learning and purpose has much better odds to successfully weather internal and external changes.

During the ramping-up period, culture and its reflection — community — can provide the safety and continuity employees need to manage their own fears and anxieties around change and uncertainty.

When workplace culture is an afterthought, productivity suffers and the community picks up on the troubles. The consequence — poor economic performance — has huge implications for everyone.

This can trigger a domino effect that leads to a downward spiral of poor economic performance that can end in recession. It’s a problem that goes further than the businesses it closes.

Negative workplace culture creates lonely, burned out, and depressed people

Nothing says “I’m glad to get out of here” quite like a 5pm mass staff exodus. And this is just one of the many tell-tales that company culture is a serious issue. In the long term, a negative culture can become toxic, literally causing wellbeing and health issues.

In Gallup’s Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes 2018 study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees, it was revealed that:

“23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.”

What’s more:

“Job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year and has been attributed to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death for those under the age of 45.”

Beyond taking a toll on productivity, increased anxiety and depression can make it harder for people to engage in society. Relationships are also more likely to break down.

As the data shows, the health costs go beyond the employer. Mental health issues transform into physical health issues that cost the economy and decrease the quality of life in communities.

The impacts of negative company culture on productivity, employee engagement, and overall business success are plain to see. However, the link between business and a happier, more engaged society may be less obvious.

So we have to ask: is this the kind of society we want to live in?

To change the world around us, to build stronger communities that drive positive change, we have to promote happiness and well-being at work. This is an opportunity for businesses to contribute to social change.

Consumers can see it and are taking the reins, demanding stronger community involvement and ethical behavior with obvious, palpable results.

SMEs sit at the heart of local communities. The social and economic challenges businesses face are many, but recognising the power of company culture to effect change isn’t just good for business — it’s good for the future of our country.

Unsound culture overflows in the community and affects trust in the company

Unethical behaviour at work breeds unethical conduct outside of the workplace.

Unprofessional or unscrupulous behavior can drive away as many as 80% of good employees.

Violations such as stealing office supplies, taking credit for someone else’s work, raising conflicts, or openly aggressive behavior reduce trust in the company’s ability to maintain an ethical workplace.

Their compound effect can be quite harmful and it can transcend the boundaries of the organization. There are various ways this can damage company credibility in the community:

  • when a lack of business ethics becomes public knowledge
  • when employees leave poor reviews on websites like Glassdoor
  • when high-ranking employees misbehave in public spaces and their misconduct is associated with their employer
  • when external specialists the company associates with display inappropriate behavior (e.g. the backlash Drift faced in 2018 over one of their conference speaker’s conduct)

Community as a competitive advantage

As well as this inside-out view of how company culture reverberates beyond the boundaries of the organization itself and affects the community, let’s consider the outside-in opportunity: building a strong community that creates an important competitive advantage for the company.

The best organizations build communities that are so successful, so integral to everyday life that we miss them in plain sight. Take Wikipedia, for example. It has over 6 million pages (in English) containing more than 3.5 billion words (source Wikipedia!), yet it relies entirely on volunteers.

If we think about the for-profit sector, companies like Nike spring to mind as skillful community builders. Nike realized that sport is more fun when practiced with others. But rather than just making it an advertising slogan, they introduced Nike+ Running — allowing people to record, track, and share their runs. They wrapped their insight in an experiential layer — participating in races all over the world — to unlock the power of connected consumers and create an engaged global community.

In the enterprise space, Salesforce is a great example. More than 200,000 people go to Dreamforce in San Francisco each year. It’s not a vendor sales conference, it’s a pilgrimage for the devoted that creates a massive sense of belonging. To stop using Salesforce software would mean leaving this community and this massively reduces attrition.

It’s easy to see how the engagement that comes from a strong community can make it easier (and much cheaper) to hire the best people, find the best collaborators, and win customers — as well as create an allegiance to these relationships.

Great culture leads to higher engagement. A great community leads to higher engagement. The effect of both working together is compounding, creating a pull effect that it is difficult for others to replicate.

Some things to consider when defining culture and building communities

1. A shared set of values

It’s important to have a vision that everyone can align around and feel galvanized by.
Equally important for culture and community is having a shared set of values. And these can’t be just pasted on a wall, they need to be lived. This also means calling out violations — whether at the office or in a meetup group.

2. Sizing the gap between what you preach and what you practice

Both community and culture depend on having open and transparent leadership.
Giving members a say in the organizational structure helps them feel like they have a voice and positively contributes to strengthening their sense of belonging.

3. Connecting the community to the meaningful effects of their work

At the end of the day, everyone does better work when they can see their effort makes a difference.

If you can identify which activities community members find the most rewarding — whether it’s building software, mentoring, or writing an article — then you can better connect them to the outcomes of their labour.

Even when there is no monetary reward, you can find ways to practice this (opening up comments or likes, setting up communication channels such as Slack, etc.) and give people a chance to experience this deeply rewarding acknowledgment.

4. Empowering members to contribute

The best cultures foster empowerment and give people the autonomy to do their best work. Successful communities require the same.

If you want community members to extend the reach of the community, then they need to be empowered to write content, put on events, or contribute in ways that make sense for them. Like strong company culture, empowerment comes with clear governance and shared values to ensure that contributions are channeled to their best effect.

5. Making diversity a core principle and part of every action

I’ve written before about the importance of diversity. It’s absolutely critical because people should bring their whole self to work and be valued for who they are, they should feel comfortable.

If you don’t enable diversity and equality at the much wider community scale, the situation exacerbates, creating toxicity and resulting in lower engagement and lower levels of contribution.

6. Setting a high bar — for them and for you

Whether company or community, set high bars to joining.

One bad egg can have a long-lasting effect on team morale and business performance. Don’t rush to get a bum on a seat. Otherwise, friction in the onboarding process may leave new joiners disenchanted from the first days, when their enthusiasm is at its peak.

You can also consider if your training methods are up to date and flexible enough to accommodate an ever-changing workflow as the startup and its community evolve.

To wrap up, I’d like to leave with a reminder

Communities thrive on the compound effects of small actions done consistently.

Luckily, culture is just that.

I believe it’s up to people like us, who care about it and who actively work to shape a healthy workplace culture to empower others to contribute and, in the process, discover the immense personal and professional advantage that comes from it.

To activate the potential we see, we need to make consistent progress and that means walking the talk every single day and especially in uncertain, troubled times like these.

Building a positive workplace culture is gaining momentum because we all need it right now.

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