The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) bucked a global HR trend last year. Gallup research showed that employee engagement fell in 2021 yet FSCS posted their strongest ever engagement and customer satisfaction scores. We sat down with their Chief People Officer, David Blackburn to discover how a great workplace culture built around trust and transparency helped FSCS drive greater engagement during a global downturn.

Here’s some of the highlights that’ll show you how to build a great workplace culture.

You don’t need a culture change initiative

It feels like we’ve been talking about workplace culture for the past 10 years. In truth HR professionals have been talking about it much longer. Yet every now and then your CEO will decide culture needs to be a focus. They’ll ask “what are we doing about our culture? I think we need a culture change initiative”.

My top tip is that you absolutely do not need a culture change initiative. If your CEO says that to you, question it. What you do need is a real understanding of where your culture is at and what it’s doing for you and your people. Don’t act until you have a clear understanding of what sort of culture you have.

When I joined the business in 2013, we knew we had some work to do across the board. Our engagement was below 40%. Fewer than 50% of our people felt we had a healthy and supportive workplace culture. Understanding our culture was my starting point.

How we began to change workplace culture at FSCS

I asked the question: is our workplace culture an enabler or a blocker? That simple question shows where your cultural strengths and weaknesses lay. Armed with that question, I ran a series of internal focus groups. I really wanted to understand where our culture was helping our people and where it was failing them. I ended up with a very long list of blockers, and not much in the enabler column.

Next, I set about understanding how we could turn those blockers into enablers. For example, how do we turn a tendency for the organisation to be inward-looking (a blocker) on its head? The simple solution was to become more outward-looking. While we’re a unique business, there are other businesses with similar functions that I felt we could learn from when it comes to transparency and workplace culture.

With a plan to fix those key blockers in place I next focused on our values.

You need genuine company values

In 2013 when I joined FSCS had defined organisational values. The problem was, they weren’t our values.

They’d been created by an external agency. They didn’t mean anything to most of our people because they weren’t their values. So, I set about building a new set of values in partnership with our people. We wanted our values to mirror the values of our people. That way they mean more. There’s alignment in what we’re trying to do as a business and what matters to our people.

What that means today is that we genuinely do live our values. And we feel comfortable to challenge any colleague who doesn’t.

Once plans for workplace culture and values were in place, my final focus was our leadership.

It’s essential that leadership role-model for their people. Once we had some strategy in place around where we needed to improve our culture and the values that would shape it, getting full buy-in from my business leaders was key.

Leaders must live and breathe culture and values, not simply have them printed on to the office walls and forget about them. That’s how to build a great workplace culture.

We knew we didn’t have all the answers

Don’t worry if the answer isn’t clear on day one of your engagement journey. Our first instance of transparency and workplace culture playing out is when we as a senior leadership team were honest with each other. We admitted we didn’t know how to fix all the workplace culture challenges, especially around transparency.

There’s this expectancy that someone has the answer. But that’s not how these things work. We were open and said that we didn’t know. But by working together, by engaging our people in the process and trying different things, we would find the answers.

There’s often a sort of paralysis around culture challenge. They feel so big and complicated that very little of worth gets done. What some might do is look at a few tactical solutions, but culture challenges are almost always a strategic problem. All those tactical things end up doing is buffing down the edges a little. They don’t fix anything.

When I first joined, our people strategy document was 38 pages long. Unsurprisingly, no one had read it and no one could remember it. Today, our whole people strategy document is less than 2 pages. And in fact, it can be summed up with one simple statement:

The right people, with the right engagement, mindset and skills, working in the right roles in the right environment.

And that’s it. That’s as complex as it needs to be. Then our job on the people team is to ask ourselves how we help our colleagues be that every day.

Engage, listen, and act

Improving workplace culture is simple yet so many get it spectacularly wrong. It’s about three things: engage, listen, and act.

Far too many people focus on doing just one or two of those things. But you must do all three if you want change that lasts. For example, many businesses still run annual engagement surveys. Then see some negative feedback and bury their heads. Or some executive will decide what new people-focused initiative should be launched without any data to back it up.

You must have an open dialogue with your people based on transparency to shift workplace culture. They will guide you to where your culture needs to be. You must listen to what they’re telling you. And you must then act accordingly.

But don’t do everything your people ask

I need to be clear here. Engage, listen and act never means do everything your people ask you to do. That’s not how to build a great workplace culture.

Not everything is going to be feasible. Some suggestions will be ridiculous. HR leaders need to think strategically. Look at the bigger picture and act where action is warranted.

Be honest with your people. Explain your decisions around the actions you do and don’t take. You’ll see trust and engagement increase.

An annual engagement survey doesn’t give you enough transparency for a better workplace culture

Engagement surveys do work; we still run them. But they’re only a small part of the wider engagement solution. You can’t build a robust feedback culture with your people using just a 30-question survey chucked out once a year.

We’re constantly checking the temperature of our people with more continuous feedback. This was particularly important during the pandemic. Checking-in with our people on topics such as their work-life balance, communication with line managers, and mental health is an important part of what we do around employee engagement.

If you don’t have a sense of the mood in your organisation you can’t hope to shape meaningful strategy around your people and their engagement.

How to build a great workplace culture

We’ve all been working flexibly since 2017 so we had a head start on the more practical things. But we’ve still had plenty to learn over the past two years. An interesting challenge has been blending the wants and needs of our people with the needs of the organisation. Getting the balance right between the two as we move forward is going to be crucial.

We’re developing frameworks that encourage personal accountability rather than strict rule books. For example, our 40:40 policy says 40% of our people need to be in the office 40% of the time. You choose how to implement that. We also encourage managers to run monthly 1:1 meetings with their people, but again – how they do that is down to them.

We’ll always give our people the choice of where and when they work. But what we’ve discovered is that the office’s primary role is for collaboration and innovation. Creativity and connection thrive when people are physically together.

We are constantly checking-in with our people, learning and adapting. The future of work is still pretty unclear so communication, transparency and trust are all going to be key.