Brendan Lowry By Brendan Lowry • September 15, 2017

Office Culture – The Fifth Element

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Do today’s employers need free lunch buffets and nap pods to foster a great workplace culture?

Salary? Term? Travel distance? Benefits? These are all significant pieces of the prospecting puzzle when choosing a potential employer, but what happens if you find that, after going over all the standard perks, nothing really stands out?

It might be time to politely ask for another tour of their offices. While money still talks, it seems that many people entering the workforce these days just aren’t hearing it. Workplace culture in the era of the Millennial ranks just as highly as the traditional accoutrements — like signing bonuses and health benefits — that once sealed the deal for “on-the-fence” candidates.

We’ve all heard of Google’s legendary offices, filled with ball pits, slides, sleep pods and hyperbaric chambers (probably…maybe). Here in Ottawa, Shopify’s emulated the California tech giant by including an “all dogs allowed policy,” bars stocked with local craft beers and even secret rooms. It sounds like a bunch of adult playrooms rather than a place where actual work is done. Which begs the question: How does one do anything productive when employees can easily walk across a room to crack a cold one or challenge a co-worker to a game of Super Smash Bros?

Things, however, might not be what they seem at places like Google and Shopify. Unbeknownst to office minions everywhere, there are a number of over-arching strategies at work (or play?) when it comes to office culture. So, what do they know that we don’t?

Fact #1) Prospective Employees choose Ball Pits over Money

Shopify and Google know that office culture is ultimately the determining factor when a prospective employee is making their decision to join their company. Investing in a company Tilt-A-Whirl or Rooftop Strawberry U-Pick (bad examples, I know) helps employers appeal to the best candidates available. But that’s just the beginning.

Fact #2) A cool workplace + cool people = more time spent at work (and apparently, more time actually working).

A positive office culture has a myriad of benefits, including higher productivity, lower absenteeism, fewer errors, and of course, lower turnover. The cynic would argue that integrating couches, sleep pods and dimmers into the workplace is just a sneaky way to get your employees to log more hours. While there may be some truth to that, it’s also important to remember that the workforce is getting younger, faster. Baby Boomers are finally giving way to their younger counterparts. Soon the majority of employees will be made up of primarily the Gen X and Gen Y demographic cohorts. If you aren’t familiar with Gen Y, you’ve perhaps heard of them by their other moniker, the notorious MILLENIALS…

Fact #3) Millennials demanded employers design “nurturing work environments” and a plague of creativity ensued.

Millennials get a bad rap. Older generations criticize them of being lazy, self-entitled brats. But beyond negative, sweeping generalizations, they are also somewhat responsible for this era of positive office culture. Just what does a nurturing work environment look like?

The Harvard Business Review sums it up nicely, describing it “as a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not supressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.”

Managers and executives understand that when it comes to overseeing our loveable younger generation, “deliver or you’re fired” is more than likely to result in statements like “I quit” rather than “Yes, Sir.” These days, an attractive office layout and laidback vibe is just a fraction of what it takes to squeeze the most out of your employees.

Fact #4) Yes, even the way an office smells contributes positively to workplace culture.

In my “Millennial-Friendly” workplace, careful attention has gone into the way our office looks, feels, and yes…even smells. Beyond our white-washed reclaimed barn wood feature walls, cozy collab room (where this was written, coincidentally) and brand-friendly colour scheme, our noses are blessed with a refreshing scent that (arguably) increases employee productivity.

In an interesting study reported by Scientific American, “When people were exposed to an odor they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor condition.” Furthermore, liking a particular smell can also contribute to a better mood which, according to the authors in the report, “is linked to an increase in productivity, performance and the tendency to help others…”

While we might argue that our readily available supply of coffee has something to do with it, science says that happy noses contribute to a happy workplace.

Fact #5) FYI: If there’s low morale among your employees, if doesn’t matter how many lobster tails you have at the free lunch buffet, you don’t have great office culture.

Beyond the look and feel of the place, of paramount importance is morale. If you’re a manager, that’s primarily your responsibility (Gulp). Morale affects everything from productivity, overall mood, and rate of turnover within your organization. At its core, the most important factor in maintaining great office culture is treating people with respect and showing employees you care. Without that, it doesn’t matter how great a workplace smells, or how the corporate softball team is performing — respect goes a long way.

As more and more offices jump on the “workplace culture” bandwagon, the further back the era of cubicles and TPS report memos appear in the rear-view mirror. Today, spending most of your time in an office doesn’t have to be boring, and who ever said work couldn’t actually be enjoyable?