Culture Blog

How can we be sure CULTURE is more than just a buzz word?

By: Mary Beth Oakes, CEO

I’ve been just as guilty as any CEO using and admittingly over-using the promise to fuel employee positivity, productivity and loyalty. Yes, I’m talking about culture- the reigning champ of hip offices everywhere.

The word woke me up from a nightmare where I was standing in front of my team like the lead CEO cheerleader shouting, “Give me a C-U-L-T-U-R-E!”. But only silence followed, and I woke in a panic asking, “Am I cheering about a culture my company doesn’t feel the same about? Are we cheering for different teams?”

I had to dive in before the sleepless nights got the best of me.

The shift toward culture may be gaining prominence as small businesses struggle to compete for talent with larger counterparts in the areas of plump paychecks and generous benefits packages. They’re beginning to recognize culture for the trump card it is, particularly with Millennials used to interactive, stimulating environments. But more telling, small businesses realize that space plays an undeniable role in the development of that culture. Without workplaces intentionally designed to support socializing, healthy collaboration and having fun, culture will wither beneath the weight of an underperforming office environment.

So, we got down to business to find out what our team REALLY thought about our culture. We put an emphasis on the employee experience, sending out a Performance Climate Survey and we waited for the feedback to come pouring in.

As a CEO, the results were both exciting and hard to hear. The day I heard, “Fridays aren’t fun around here anymore”- I nearly fell out my chair. The feedback was widespread, from soft factors like social events to more shocking like employees feeling underappreciated or like they lacked room for growth.


Once we had the results, we had to determine what’s next? That’s when The Culture Council was created, a group made of employees from all levels to determine what mattered most. Then, we spent a day talking about the results and boy did that day run long. The small breakout sessions allowed our employees to speak openly and honestly about the areas they needed more support or wanted to see change.

The hard conversations were worth it because I believe that healthy relationships in the workplace contribute to a sense of belonging and purpose, which in turn translate into trust and increased collaboration. At Business Furniture + Choreo we know physical environment plays an undeniable role in company culture, but this is about more than ergonomics and stunning designs. We had to be sure our culture reflected a space that promotes authenticity rather than stifling it and that celebrates transparency rather than hiding behind closed doors.

It took a year of engagement from our team to define the trouble areas but once we did, we made a plan and activated:

  • Monthly Dashboard Meetings
    • Our survey showed our team wanted rewards beyond extra zeroes on a paycheck. They wanted to “be in the know” and that meant looking at the numbers, profits and losses.
  • Communication
    • It seems simple but often employees just need to know the “why” so they can understand hard decisions made by leadership. We started “The Buzz”, a weekly email that breaks down the hot topics.
  • Accountability
    • 1:1 Meetings with managers and feedback sessions with transparent conversations on growth potential
  • Benefits beyond dollars
    • We added flexible work arrangements, better paternity leave and created a Giving Council, dedicated to non-profit work and encouraging employees to give back with paid VTO (Vacation Time Off)

For the first time in a long time, I can feel it in the office as we’re turning the volume up on creating and fostering a vibrant culture beyond the buzz word. It brought me to tears recently at our 2020 Company Kick-Off at the Indianapolis Colts Complex. Wearing our MINDSET shirts, we talked about a shift in our thoughts and the words we’ll use to do better, be better and work as a team. As I walked away from the field feeling proud of my team, I turned around as my favorite song blared from the speakers. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a project manager on centerfield dancing and wondered if I’d flashed back to a dream-like state and in a way, I had.

It was a flash mob happening all around me as designers, assistants, managers took to the field dancing in unison to the moves they’d spend weeks perfecting out in the warehouse.

There it was- the culture of my dreams happening all around me, far from the nightmares I’d worried about and all because we woke up to face the music.