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How to dramatically improve your workplace culture in one easy step

Workplace culture, I have learned, is hugely important. We didn’t pay enough attention to it in the first company I started, and we paid the price.

So when we created Knak, I knew right away that I wanted to put time and effort into creating and maintaining a great workplace culture.

In this article, I want to highlight one simple thing we’ve done at Knak that has dramatically improved our workplace culture. It has not only made Knak a better place to work, but is also helping our bottom line. Best of all, it’s an easy ‘fix’ that anyone can apply, at no cost.

We call it the Knakolade. It’s an employee-driven, values-based internal award program. To understand why it works for us (and why it could very easily work for others), you first need to understand the importance of workplace culture.

What is workplace culture?

Workplace culture, sometimes also called organizational culture, is like the operating system of a company.

According to this piece from Forbes magazine, workplace culture is “the values, belief systems, attitudes and set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.” Others talk about it being the rules (explicit or not) for working together, such as how people dress, behave and interact with each other, with partners, or with customers.

A positive workplace culture has been shown to be hugely beneficial to employees, raising morale, keeping people productive and generally making for a great place to work. A negative culture, on the other hand, can lead to low morale, high employee turnover, and an overall toxic work environment – with attendant effects on growth and productivity.

Workplace culture is often set by management. In fact, it should be, because if management doesn’t take the lead on this, a workplace culture will arise spontaneously over time. And what arises without direction may not be conducive to a company’s success. (I’ll come back later to my experience with this in the first company I started.)

How we created our workplace culture

We decided about a year after creating Knak that we would proactively build an organizational culture that would determine the company’s personality and approach.

To do that, the ten or so employees we had at the time all sat around one day and began a discussion of our core values, the values that would form the underpinning for our internal culture. But instead of just listing values, we started telling stories about things that had happened to us.

For example, at one point early on, we had a customer who regularly behaved rudely to one of our employees. It got so bad, it started affecting her work.

We decided this wasn’t acceptable, and we fired the customer.

That story made us realize that one of our core values is respect. We believe in behaving respectfully to everyone – employees, customers, service providers – and we expect others to behave the same way to us.

Out of that discussion, we ended up with a list of ten core values. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • respect
  • transparency, always
  • take calculated risks
  • think big, act bigger
  • keep it simple
  • go above and beyond
  • stay curious
  • get sh*t done
  • be positive
  • maintain balance

Having defined core values, the challenge then became: How do we create a workplace culture based around them, and how do we get everyone on the team to take ownership of those values?

Enter: the Knakolade

The answer came to me while I was watching a TV documentary about the National Hockey League. In many NHL teams, a “player of the game” is awarded in the locker room after each game. The player who wins the award for one game decides who gets it in the next game. In other words, it’s passed from player to player.

I liked the concept. It was simple and player-driven. It also occurred to me that it was probably good for team-building, because if anyone knows about team building, it’s professional hockey teams. 

Thus was born the Knakolade.

Simply put, a Knakolade is an acknowledgement of how someone has put our core values into practice.

Though Knak is based in Ottawa, we have employees all over the place. So to keep everyone up to speed, we have regular all-hands, phone-in meetings.

A Knakolade is given out at the end of each call. The employee who won the last Knakolade decides who gets the next one, and briefly describes how the recipient demonstrated commitment to one specific core value through his or her work. Other than that, there are no rules or criteria for the award.

From my perspective, the idea has been a spectacular success. 

It reinforces our core values by getting people to think about them regularly, and to consider where and how people demonstrate adherence to them. In this way, we have been able to keep our core values front and centre, and get employees to own them – and live by them.

The Knakolade has become my favourite part of the call because it ends things on an inspiring note.

But better than that, it’s become a highlight for employees. It’s now a big deal to win a Knakolade. We’ve had people break into tears on the call because they are so grateful to have received recognition. What’s more, it moves around the company, from one department to another.

Now that we’re getting bigger, with more and more employees, it’s getting harder to win a Knakolade. But that just makes getting one all the more valuable.

There’s no trophy or cash award given out with a Knakolade. Other than the acknowledgement at our team meeting, the winner gets a special emoji beside their name in Slack for the week, and we have a Knakolade Slack channel where every Knakolade winner is listed.

That’s it. But it works, keeping people focused on our core values and keeping morale high.

How do we know it is working? Our employees tell us so.

We’ve had positive reviews on Glassdoor, and we do well on our eNPS, the employee net promoter score that measures employee satisfaction.

All of this stands in sharp contrast to what happened with my first company, Revenue Pulse. 

When we created the company, we did not really consider core values. Instead, we simply decided that we would be laser-focused on making our customers successful and happy.

That worked for a while. However, over time an organizational culture grew up organically, driven by a few bad apples who ended up making it difficult – maybe even toxic – for a number of people. 

Revenue Pulse was, for a time, not a good place to work. Its bottom line was affected because the employees were not working as a team. And because there were no core values to point to, no frame of reference for behaviour, there was no easy way to fix the problem. (This has since been very much fixed, but it was tough at the time.)

What I learned from that experience is that you can’t build a sustainable business without taking care of your employees. So with Knak, we made a big shift. Instead of making growth our primary focus, we decided to give creating and maintaining a vibrant workplace culture top billing, followed by customer success and working on the product. Growth ended up being the happy by-product of the focus on culture, customers and product. 

In other words, workplace culture is how you build a strong team, and if you have a strong team, you can do anything. A good culture will translate into a good product, and if you have a good product, customers will be happy and growth will happen.

We feel our core values at Knak have been the main reason why we’ve been able to build a great workplace culture. And we know that our workplace culture is one of the reasons for our success.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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