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3 Aspects Of Workplace Culture That CEOs Should Make Their Business

28/04/2016 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A CEO has a lot on his or her plate. They not only have to steer the strategic agenda of the company but also have to work towards making sure expectations of all stakeholders--shareholders, employees, board members, regulators, the community-- are met. They are expected to be on top of key performance metrics of the business, including around financials, employees, customers. In short, a CEO is like an ace juggler who can keep multiple balls in the air at once. It's not an easy job.

But while a CEO must focus on the hard stuff, there are a few "soft" things which they should never take off their radar. These are things that not only strengthen the organizational DNA but also help in employee engagement--this is particularly relevant at a time when millennial employees think nothing of leaving a job for one that takes better care of them.

I wonder how many CEOs are even aware that the design of the workplace is a variable that impacts employee productivity and well-being.

None of these key areas are going to take much of a CEO's time but they should be on the priority list.

Workplace design

The quality of a physical workplace has a big impact on how employees feel and perform and a CEO should be mindful of this. I wonder how many CEOs are even aware that the design of the workplace is a variable that impacts employee productivity and well-being.

Recent research on workplaces and their impact on employee well-being by Bill Browning of US Green Building Council, and Prof Sir Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University revealed some interesting findings of which all CEOs should take note. Workplaces which have a connection with nature (or feature elements of nature) have reduced stress levels, improved productivity, higher perception of well-being and more creative output. Even if it's not possible to situate your office in a space that overlooks greenery, water or other natural surroundings, you can incorporate colours and patterns that give a feeling of nature, adding things such as plants, water features, sunlight etc. The research found observing nature from the workplace or having the colours blue, green and yellow were associated with higher levels of productivity. Bright colours like yellow, blue and green were beneficial in promoting creativity. The study also supports what we always knew: windowless, grey offices impede creativity.

The study supports what we always knew: windowless, grey offices impede creativity.

Clearly, a CEO serious about employee wellbeing and focused on productivity, and creativity cannot treat these factors as trivial.

Workplace language

A CEO and the top management of an organization must stay finely tuned to the type of language that is being used in the organization. Language may appear to be just a method of communication but actually it's much more. It reflects an organization's culture. When we talk about language, two things must be kept in mind: the type of words that are being used and how things are being said.

In a workplace wherein you hear more "I" than "we" could reflect that the company values individualism; more "we" could show value for teams. When one hears a lot of "they" it could mean there could be a "silo mindset" where employees struggle to get "buy-in" of other while "you" could indicate a tendency to blame others. In general, when a CEO and top management leaders say "we" more often, it helps to create a shared identity.

By using simple language, the senior management reinforces its effort to include everyone.

I have always felt that an effective way to win the trust of employees is to use simple language that everyone can appreciate. It's about being able to communicate in an uncomplicated manner. Just imagine how impactful it can be when the CEO or members of senior management explain the P&L of an organization in a way that can be understand by everyone from the janitor to shop floor workers to middle management. By using simple language, the senior management reinforces its effort to include everyone. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people view statements to be more truthful when they are easily understandable than when they are ambiguous. So it's in a leader's interest to use a simple language.

Problem-solving depth

Problem solving as concept is not new but I strongly believe CEOs need to do much more of it to increase the problem-solving depth of an organization. Companies like GE, Toyota have realised this importance and made it a part of the organizational DNA. Don't we all know how Jack Welch used Six Sigma (a problem solving approach) into an enterprise movement which helped to resolve so many organizational problems? Toyota also follows a unique problem-solving approach which has been documented by many authors.

When an organization improves its problem-solving depth, not only does it build a culture of continuous improvement but also reduces chronic issues...

Problem-solving is a leader's raison-d'être. Irrespective of organizational hierarchy, I consider everyone in it to be a leader. Whether a person is a blue collar worker or a functional head, he is a leader. Today in many companies, people lower in the hierarchy just take orders while all the thinking is done by those above them. Even the managers who are supposed to do all the problem-solving don't do it well as they may have been promoted or hired without ever being exposed to a structured approach to solving problems. Just imagine an organization where all employees are trained on problem solving skills. All the day to day problems that are faced by the company would be solved in a structured manner and the root cause addressed so that they don't erupt again. When employees follow a structured approach to solve workplace problems, all alternatives are looked at and effective solutions are implemented in an efficient manner.

The other reason why CEOs cannot take this casually is because of all the changes around us-- with the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution, many existing jobs may disappear. A McKinsey report says that 45% of current workplace activities will be done by robots. So, many of the existing employees have to be reskilled for the future. Given the sense of urgency, the World Economic 2016 Future of Work has identified "complex problem-solving" as one of the key skills for 2020.

The best thing about problem-solving skills is that they apply in any industry and any sector. When an organization improves its problem-solving depth, not only does it build a culture of continuous improvement but also reduces chronic issues being faced by the firm. So, why not make this investment?

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