Building a Good Workplace Culture in 2021

Building a Good Workplace Culture in 2021

2020 was a very tough year. Instead of reciting a lengthy laundry list of all the bad things that happened last year, I’d like to focus on one goal that I hope all law firms and legal organizations will commit to in 2021: building a good work culture in which everyone can succeed.

It may seem odd to think about firm or organizational culture at this time when most of us are still working from home. But culture is not determined by whether employees are working in the same physical space. Even organizations with entirely remote workforces still have a culture.

What Culture Is and Why It Matters

Many people mistake culture as all the perks and benefits that a firm or an organization offers. Those gift cards, free lunches, summer company picnics, and fancy holiday luncheons or dinner parties are all very nice, but they do not make up the culture of an organization. Perks and benefits are only a feature, not a function, of culture. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Culture emerges when we pair values with behaviors.
Culture can be understood through how employees feel about their experience at work. Do they like or even love their job? Do they feel safe psychologically? Do they feel valued? Do they look forward to going to work? Those feelings are influenced, in large part, by the culture of the firm.

Culture sets the tone, the attitudes, and the expectations for everyone in the organization, and it establishes the standard for how employees interact with and treat each other. Every workplace has a culture. The only question is what kind of a culture it has. Let’s compare two different kinds of culture to get some perspective.
Culture A Culture B
  • Policies and rules are more important than the people impacted by them
  • Those with authority make all the decisions
  • Only management’s opinions matter
  • Management uses fears to justify decision-making
  • Employees don’t speak up, openly disagree, or dissent
  • Employees’ concerns are ignored, dismissed, or deflected 
  • Employees only look after their own interests and personal advancement
  • Everyone plays politics to get anything done
  • Employees use grapevine communication to get information
  • Employees only work for a paycheck and benefits
  • People take credit for others’ work
  • No one takes responsibility when things go wrong
  • Policies and rules are made by considering the impact on those affected by them
  • Decision-making is delegated to those with information, not only to those with authority
  • Employees feel safe to voice opinions and disagreements, and their concerns are addressed and followed up on
  • People look out for one another and have each other’s back
  • People work together to get things done
  • Everyone is kept informed and in the loop through open lines of communication 
  • People have a purpose bigger than themselves for going to work
  • People are recognized for their hard work and contribution
  • Individuals admit to mistakes, and management owns up to bad decisions

Many of us would consider Culture A to be toxic and would rather work for a law firm or an organization with a culture similar to Culture B. Employees in Culture A walk on eggshells, keep to themselves or their own clique, and do whatever it takes to save their own skin. It’s a culture where employees don’t trust management or vice versa. On the other hand, employees in Culture B are comfortable in their space, feel valued, and put the interests of their team and the organization before their own. Mutual trust and respect between employees and leadership exists in Culture B.

Culture matters because we know that work is more than a transactional exchange of labor for wages. Because we spend so many of our waking hours at work, it’s reasonable to expect that the workplace offers more than a paycheck and health insurance. Those things can only incentivize us to perform what is minimally expected until we find another job that pays more. By contrast, a good culture can motivate employees to be engaged, loyal, and driven to go the extra mile and perform at their best. A culture in which the firm or organization truly cares about people is deeply felt by those who work there, and that feeling is usually reciprocated. Culture helps firms attract and retain the right people. Employees who share the same values, principles, or beliefs as the firm are much more likely to remain and thrive. 

How to Build a Good Workplace Culture

Creating a good culture is an intentional act. It doesn’t happen automatically or by default. Building a strong culture takes hard work and commitment, and it must be fostered and safeguarded. While many articles (like here, here, and here) have been written on how to build a positive culture, I want to focus only on three things: (1) values; (2) leadership; and (3) human resources.

Values lay the foundation

The values and principles that guide an organization also shape its culture.  A law firm or an organization that truly cares about creating a positive work culture must have values that everyone — from leadership to staff — can believe in and work by. While different firms may have different values depending on their vision and purpose, a few characteristics are fundamental to a good culture.

Relationship: an emphasis on people

How a firm or an organization views its employees helps define its culture. Firms that see workers as mere cogs in the machine or bodies that fulfill a job function likely have a culture in which employees are not valued and no effort is made to retain them. Individuals are left to fend for themselves, and there is no reward for helping another person succeed − effectively harming relations among employees. When firms see workers as people, are interested in helping them excel in their job, and expect them to contribute to one another’s success, they help build a strong relationship among employees. Employees who work in a culture in which leadership and their coworkers have their backs will feel a strong sense of trust and loyalty to the organization and each other.

Communication: through discussions not policies
Effective communication fosters transparency, trust, understanding, and engagement. It helps eliminate speculation, gossip, and rumors that can result in conflicts, tension, and negativity in the workplace. When leadership models effective communication by providing clear expectations and feedback, explaining proposed courses of action, and being willing to listen and respond, they create a culture of openness and honesty in which people feel safe to speak their minds. This is a culture in which decisions are not communicated through policies and rules, but made through discussions and debate.

Appreciation and recognition: proactive and genuine
Organizations that have a culture of engagement, high performance, and loyalty understand the importance of recognizing and appreciating their employees. Recognition occurs when workers receive positive feedback based on the results of their performance (whether a verbal thank-you, a shout-out sent to the team or whole firm, or financial remuneration in the form of a bonus or raise). Many organizations tend to stop there. But to truly create a culture in which people — not just their performance — are valued, firms also need to show appreciation. This means not just praising workers’ achievements, but also acknowledging their worth and inherent value as human beings. It’s an opportunity to build trust and connect with them. Appreciation does not need to wait for an accomplishment, and it shouldn’t be meted out as quid pro quo when management wants something from employees. True appreciation should be given proactively and genuinely. 

Employee development: opportunities to grow and advance  
A work culture that focuses on employees’ professional growth and development is one that truly knows how to appreciate and value them. Employee development is professional training that helps workers strengthen their skills and expand their knowledge. It’s a long-term investment that not only makes them more engaged and adds more value to their work, but also helps retain talent. Hand-in-hand with professional development is the opportunity for growth and advancement. Even if advancement within the organization is limited because of its size, firms can still provide an opportunity for growth by giving employees a chance to lead. Leadership is not dependent on role or status; it is a learned skill. Allow a member of the team to take charge of an important project, and empower them to make decisions. Give them the freedom and autonomy to experiment and try new approaches, and support them in turning disappointing outcomes into a learning experience.

Diverse and inclusive workplace: a level playing field
A good workplace culture must also be diverse and inclusive. It welcomes and embraces the diversity of perspectives and beliefs from people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, religions, ages, etc. Offering the right resources to employees by taking into account their backgrounds and capabilities makes a workplace inclusive. Inclusion helps put everyone on the same level playing field. This type of culture is more dynamic, enriching, and empathetic.

Leadership paves the way

A firm’s culture is only as good as its leadership. Those in leadership have control over the culture through the policies, standards, and expectations they set for the entire organization. One might even argue that the purpose of leadership is to create culture. When an organization’s culture is suffering, the rightful blame lies with the lack of or poor leadership from management. All the qualities that a firm wants to see exhibited in its culture must be embodied by the people leading the organization. Leadership must actively ensure that the firm’s values are put into practice.  

Human Resources must reinforce culture

Finally, HR must reinforce the culture by taking personnel issues and concerns seriously and doing necessary follow-ups. When HR gives (or appears to give) full attention to some concerns but ignores, dismisses, or minimizes others (or appears to do so), it demoralizes workers and weakens culture. HR also needs to take swift action to deal with employees who are toxic to the culture. Another way that HR needs to reinforce culture is to make sure that those who are hired believe in and commit to the organization’s values and the qualities of its culture. This will help ensure a cohesive, satisfied, and effective workforce, joining together to work for a common purpose, vision, and goals.   

. . . 

Building a good work culture takes time, commitment, and resources. But it is a worthwhile investment that will make firms more successful and employees happier. And that is something we all can hope for in 2021 and beyond.


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