“With employees increasing demand for a higher quality of life while at work and a tighter job market making retention vital for success, more companies are focused on a positive work culture to stay competitive in today’s changing marketplace. But how do companies actually build a positive work culture? Some of OKC’s top CEOs, chief culture officers and human resource executives explain what they do to grow their culture and increase employee engagement. And they explain how other companies can do it, too.
Long gone are the days of a company defining a positive work culture by throwing some free pizza lunches.
COVID gave America’s workforce time to think, and they decided to make some waves when it was time to re-enter the workforce. The Great Resignation, a period of time when America’s workforce re-evaluated what it meant to work and what workers wanted out of employers, pushed the nation to a 20-year high in the number of people quitting their jobs. And a Pew Research Center study cites 57% of those quitting felt disrespected at work.
Culture matters. In a post-pandemic world, workers demand a respectful, positive work culture, and they are willing to leave to find it somewhere else.
In fact, 73% of more than 36,000 employees analyzed in the 2023 Global Culture Report — conducted annually by O.C. Tanner, an international culture consulting firm — cited an employee’s sense of purpose as a top priority for employment. That’s an 18% jump from the year before. A vast majority, 63%, want to feel a sense of appreciation, and 57% want a sense of well-being.
Money isn’t enough in today’s post-COVID, post-Great Resignation work environment. Employees demand more.
And, similarly, companies are responding wanting to provide a better culture because it also makes financial sense: Engaged employees are 58% less likely to seek employment elsewhere and have 38% lower levels of burnout at work. Less turnover, higher retention and higher levels of productivity directly impact the bottom line.
This lightbulb on both sides of the culture conversation has given rise to new job specialties in recent years, like chief culture officers, or to human resource executives carving out portions of their job solely dedicated to growing the right culture.
Jenny Love Meyer, Love’s Travel Stops Chief Culture Officer, works at the corporation her dad founded almost 60 years ago, which now employs more than 40,000 people. She’s been with Love’s since 1991, but she became the company’s first chief culture officer in 2019 to focus specifically on improving company culture.
“A few years ago, we really set out to build a multiyear plan for culture,” she said. “I realized the ways that we were sustaining culture a few years ago weren’t going to scale as we continue to grow. The culture shouldn’t change, but the way you sustain it will. For example, I’m the steward of the culture at our stores, and as we grow, I can’t get to every location. Our district managers, who interface with the people in the office and at the stores, have to be cultural ambassadors who make sure we’re living what we preach.”
Part of the plan is to increase initiatives that promote employee well-being, she said.
“Employee well-being is something that, especially post-COVID, is a big topic,” Meyer said. “We have an employee assistance program that’s been in existence for a few years, and it’s something that we’re adding to in wanting to provide the best benefits and the best programs to our team members. Mental health is embedded in that so that our team members can get free, confidential therapy … We want there to be work-life balance, and so we offer benefits like discounted gym memberships. We’ve given team members additional vacation days because we know that part of well-being is being able to take some time off. Our health insurance plan is maybe a step removed from day-to-day well-being, but when you need it, you need it, and it’s something we really pride ourselves on.”
Culture building can be tough as many workforces have shifted to partial or completely remote work after learning through the pandemic the same result can be achieved with less square footage. In fact, the State Chamber’s 2023 Oklahoma Business Leaders Poll shows 51% of Oklahoma businesses now employ remote workers, with 42% reporting the business must offer remote options as they can not meet the workforce demands without offering this option to employees.
Phase 2, which Inc. Magazine named to its list of Best Workplaces for the third year in a row, conducts work almost completely remotely with its 67 employees located across 10 states. Heath Clinton, Phase 2 CEO, said the company’s culture is just as strong with a remote workforce, it just takes more conscious effort. Twice a year, Phase 2 flies in all remote workers for a multi-day summit, and culture is one of the top agenda items. The company plans group outings and guest speakers, and the biggest takeaway is the staff enjoys being together, after always being apart, he said.
“What that told us is that they love working remotely,” he said. “But when they are all together, they really like that, too. And that’s a really great time for us to work on and reinforce our culture.”
To build a good culture, whether with a remote workforce or not, Clinton said transparency and truthfulness — and wanting to hear the truth about how the company culture is viewed outside of leadership — is key.
“Make it a safe environment and truly seek the truth and ask the hard questions to find out where you’re at,” he said. “It needs to be a safe environment, so that people will actually speak the truth. Sometimes culture or values or all the buzzwords are shoved down people’s throats, and people see through that.”
And Phase 2 conducts anonymous surveys among all employees to see if the culture they think they are creating is what actually exists.
“All kinds of good stuff comes out of that,” he said. “Those kinds of tools are really valuable. And then you’ve got your baseline and you can know, ‘Who are you, really?’”
CULTURE FIRST, COMPANY SECOND
Simple Modern, founded in 2015 and seeing meteoric growth since, puts culture first. No, it was actually the first thing the founders focused on when starting out: Co-founder Mike Beckham and his team — including Chief Culture Officer Jonathan Kuhlman, who has been with the company since the beginning — decided what culture they wanted at the company before they knew they wanted to make water bottles.
“If we’re going to show up to a place and spend almost as much, if not more, time there than we do in our homes, we might as well do it in a way that pours into one another, builds each other up and has a purpose,” Kuhlman said. “That’s how we think of it, and that’s how I think the most genuine companies are thinking about it.”
From an annual summit focusing on philanthropic partners — in 2022, Simple Modern gave more than $1 million to 45 different nonprofits — to bringing in lunch every day for its near 100 employees (a number that’s about quadrupled in the last several years), the company puts an intentional focus on employees having a voice in the decisions and direction of the company’s culture.
“We don’t do the lunches as a perk,” he said. “I mean, it is a perk to employees, but the main reason we do that is not to pay for your lunch and so can add that to the list of great reasons why you should come to work at Simple Modern. No, the real reason we do that is because I feel that one of the ways you can really get to know people is through a shared meal.”
JENNY LOVE MEYER, LOVE’S TRAVEL STOPS CHIEF CULTURE OFFICER, SHARES HER INSIGHT
“When I talk about culture, it’s really a two-legged stool. You’ve got to have the policies and the processes in place, but that’s just one leg. If you have a structure in place, and it’s not being lived at the unit level, it’s a problem. That’s where leadership comes in as that second leg. You have to have leaders who understand and embrace the culture, who live it and reinforce it on a daily basis. If your team members don’t see it being lived, it’s almost worse than not communicating the culture to them at all, because they’ll see it as inauthentic.”
“To continue to be a really excellent employer, we have to be able to show our team members that we appreciate them, we care about them and we value their feedback.”
This intentionality seen at Simple Modern is at the core of building a positive culture, said INTEGRIS Health CEO Timothy Pehrson. Having clearly stated company values also sets the expectations for the company’s culture as well, he said.
“A company culture, good or bad, will just happen unless leaders are intentional,” he said. “Strong cultures have leaders who have an intentional focus on creating a good culture.”
He said INTEGRIS focuses on six elements to have an intentional culture: Create a clear mission for why the organization exists; lay out a clear vision and values; understand organizational competencies and the operating model for organizing success, and create a continuous improvement system or methodology to drive a culture of improvement. He said INTEGRIS leverages employees to drive change both culturally and operationally.
“We believe that the people doing the work know how to best improve the work,” he said. “Our job as leaders is to unleash their creative genius and give them permission to lean in and make a difference by having an idea board in every work area. We expect caregivers to improve their work and collaborate to create the best patient and family experience possible.
“We have strong evidence that our caregivers love shaping their work to improve patient care. Last year alone, our caregivers implemented over 20,000 ideas — that’s implemented, not submitted. This is amazing! As leaders, it is fun to sit back and watch how amazing and smart our people are and how much they want to make a difference.”
JENNIFER KRASZEWSKI, PAYCOM HUMAN RESOURCES VICE PRESIDENT, SHARES HER INSIGHT
“Culture is something that we talk about almost daily. What are we doing to be on the cutting edge from a culture and engagement perspective, whether that’s the programs that we’re offering or whether that’s the technology that we’re developing and our employees are using? You can’t be afraid to try something new, because at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do for your employees. You can’t just sit back and go, ‘Oh, we’ve done all these great things. We’ve got all these benefits. And it’s a great culture.'”
“Culture is moving constantly. It’s a living, breathing thing that you have to always be aware of. It’s no longer a world where you come to work, you do your job, you get a paycheck and you get home. Now, employees go to work and expect employers to provide an environment where they can be their best selves. They want to learn and grow and go home and also be a better person at home, whatever that looks like to them.”
PEOPLE, THEN EMPLOYEES
Paycom, which received the 2023 Gallup Exceptional Workplace Award, employs thousands of Oklahomans, and its human resources vice president Jennifer Kraszewski said she spends a lot of her time thinking about the employee experience. For her, building Paycom’s culture goes hand in hand with helping employees advance and grow in their lives — professionally and personally.
“As an employer, you need to not only provide opportunities for people to enhance and grow their career, whatever that looks like, whether that’s in the leadership or in a technical track, but you also need to give them opportunities to grow and be better people,” she said. “And when I say better people, that means we’re helping them be a better mom, a better dad, a better husband — those types of things. We need to give our employees the opportunity to grow financially, to understand how important it is to save for their retirement because that creates a wellness factor.
We have to provide our employees the opportunity to participate in well-being programs to make sure that they are well mentally and they are well physically by providing opportunities for exercise and time to collaborate with people. And we have to provide them opportunities to be with their families and also be with people that they work within a nonwork setting to create those lifelong friendships.”
In addition, intentionally weaving diversity and inclusion into a company’s culture builds belonging among coworkers.
“Diversity and inclusion are important when you think about creating your culture because how can you create a culture where people feel like they belong?” she said. “Because when they truly feel like they belong, they are going to want to stay and they are going to want to grow and they are going to want to give it their best every day. You have to weave these pieces into the culture.”
For companies looking to increase diversity or inclusion into its culture, Kraszewski said it starts with open conversations with leadership and employees.
“I think it’s all about being brave and having the conversations in your organization,” she said. “Really make sure you can meet people where they’re at, and appreciate people for who they are and what they bring to the workplace and their authentic selves. Don’t be afraid to embrace that because all that will do is make you better as an organization.”
Bob Funk, co-founder and president of Express Employment Professionals, started his company in 1985. Curating the right culture has always been an important cornerstone of his company, which has grown to have record sales of more than $3 billion and more than 7,000 employees, he said. To do so, he said employers must put the individual before the company, even before profits. This can’t be lip-service; it has to be authentic and tangible.
“When you’re interested more in (your employees) than interested in yourself, you build a great culture because they know that you care about them,” Funk said. “And most companies only care about the bottom-line dollar. This is one of the challenges public companies have because it’s always about how they’re doing financially in this quarter or the next quarter. And that’s really not the most important part of your company. You certainly have to keep making profits, but more importantly, you have to take good care of your people. And I’ve always probably overpaid my people, but it has always paid great dividends with loyalty and dedication to our cause, whatever our cause was at the time.”
Being responsible for employees’ well-being might sound like something that’s well outside the scope of an employer’s role to those of an older generation, but it’s becoming expected of those in the workforce now. For companies that desire stronger culture but don’t know where to start, Love’s Meyer suggests starting wherever you are:
“First, look at the culture that you have,” she said. “You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my experience, there are always some good things in an organization’s culture. Find the nuggets. Talk with your people. Find out what works for them and why they stay at your organization. And then you build from there.”