How to Build A Positive Workplace Culture

It’s no secret to any professional that we spend the best hours of our life (at least Monday through Friday) at our place of business. Your colleagues often see you more than your family does, and your office, desk or cube could be considered your primary residence. As a business owner and leader, I never take that for granted. I’m a mother and wife myself, and there are some weeks when I see my kids a total combined seven hours in a five day span. The math can be heartbreaking, but it is a reality in today’s fast-paced business age. 

16 years ago, I started my career as a junior designer. I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and I had very little experience to compare what a positive workplace should be. I’d worked in the restaurant industry in college and managed a few hair salons, which taught me how to work with dynamic personalities and disgruntled clients…but for the most part I was naive. Fast forward a few years and a couple “big girl” jobs later, something was telling me there had to be a better way. Either I was loving the client work but hating the vibe of the culture, or I was loving the culture but wasn’t feeling fulfilled with the work. My young 20 something mindset was starting to challenge the status quo, and I was dead set on cracking the code to finding a positive workplace that also flourished in super juicy creative work. Thus, The James Agency (TJA) was born.

Selfishly, I created TJA to be the embodiment of all the things I wanted and craved when I started my professional journey. Some of my most precious relationships have cultivated from this business, and the energy that fuels this place is addicting. Want to know the secret to how we got here? Here are seven tips for building a positive workplace:

Start with gratitude.

I always tell our team members, clients and partners that it is a privilege, not a right, to work together. It sounds like something my dad would say, but it is true. At TJA, we love to open every Monday morning with a 15 minute all-hands team hustle, and the first thing on the agenda is team kudos. Why, you may ask? Giving people a vehicle to express their appreciation for one another in a public forum raises the morale of the group as a whole, sets a positive standard for the week and frankly makes people feel pretty darn awesome when they are acknowledged. Starting with gratitude in any professional situation, whether it’s responding with a thank you to someone who took time out of their busy day to send you an email or handwriting a thank you first thing in the morning to one of your teammates, sets the intention of appreciation. This will elevate how you show up and will also permeate within your organization.

Create a safe environment.

There isn’t room for toxicity in a professional environment. It’s a cancer that can spread quickly and can be harder to recover from than you may realize. I believe that creating a safe work environment means eliminating those negative personalities or breaking bad habits that seem to send a business into a downward spiral quickly. There are the HR terms of safety, and there are the psychological terms of safety. At TJA, we respect every idea, whether it is derived from a junior team member or a tenured senior member. We also practice humility daily, because we all know that an ego the size of an elephant can cannibalize all the cool work you are trying to accomplish together. In the advertising industry, there are so many unknowns that we can’t control (like fire drill phone calls from clients, quick deadlines and rush jobs). So let’s control what we can and show up with respect for everyone we work with. Honesty, integrity and vulnerability is how we roll.

Don’t pee on the toilet seat.

You are probably reading and thinking “what the heck does this have to do with creating a positive workplace?” Actually, it’s a saying we use at TJA that means, don’t leave a mess for someone else and respect everyone’s time. Nowadays, most professional environments are comprised of a multi-department structure or virtual teams. There is nothing more frustrating than when you go to pick up where someone left off and the files are missing, the work is a mess or someone has saved that crucial document on their desktop and now they’re on a flight to Paris for a two-week vacation. Drats! They’ve peed on the toilet seat! Not leaving a mess for someone is the functional meaning of this, but the emotional definition means “respect everyone’s time.” If someone has to duplicate your efforts and take time out of their daily duties to recreate work or go on a hunt for that missing document, you are basically saying you don’t care about their time. To me, time is our most valuable currency; and if we aren’t respecting our colleagues’ time, we are creating a negative workplace environment.

There should never be problems in business, there should only be opportunities.

Look, there is a reason why work is a four letter word. It’s HARD! Deadlines, client expectations, flub-bubs, it can all get pretty hectic and stressful. And most of the time when it rains, it really seems to pour. When emotions are high and stress is even higher, issues in business can seem like GIANT boulders. Whenever someone rushes in to my office with that “holy sh*t” look we all know too well, I ask them to take a different perspective. I ask them a couple questions:

  • What is the learning opportunity that we can glean from this experience? I always tell my team that a problem isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect and evaluate so we can do better the next time around.
  • What is funny about this situation? Finding the irony or humor in a stressful circumstance can quickly lighten a very emotionally charged room.

Be consistent.

There are so many new trends and influences on how to derive a positive workplace or culture. Flex hours, team builds and open work environments have all seemed to be tactics that business owners are testing. What we have found consistency is what works for us, and not being influenced by the newest professional culture craze. It’s easy to get caught up in what might seem like the newest positive workplace habits or maybe you caught a glimpse of what your competitors are doing…however a left turn in workplace rhythms can actually do more harm than good. Although change can be healthy, disrupting a good thing can be detrimental and affect the cultural balance of your organization.

Encourage positive thinking.

Our yard stick of life is short, and there are only so many inch marks left. Why waste that time on disruptive or toxic behaviors that don’t align with your business’ moral compass? I proactively encourage my team to think positive – all. the. time. Even when things seem to be going nowhere or the result didn’t pan out as we had hoped, positive thinking eventually cultivates positive outcomes. Setting yearly, monthly and weekly positive intentions as a group can also align your team and ensure everyone is facing the same North Star.

Don’t sacrifice the important for the urgent.

All too often, I see fellow business leaders punt team huddles or one-on-ones for that urgent client call or meeting. That connection with your team is crucial to maintaining your positive workplace environment. As the leader, you are the cheerleader of the company and the glue of your organization. Without that regular connection to your people, the mission, vision and energy of the business can quickly dilute and affect your cultural fiber. Rescheduling is fine, just don’t let those conversations get replaced with urgent client demands and deadlines.

Dependability, structure, clarity and meaningful work are all ingredients that, when combined, can culminate in a solid foundation for a positive workplace. Add some awesome sauce and voila…you have the magic recipe!

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