There’s a famous Peter Drucker saying, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It’s a lesson that a lot of businesses neglect, despite good intentions. No one sets out to create a lousy working environment (with the possible exception of Mr Burns in The Simpsons, and he’s not even real); annoying, frustrating and unproductive work cultures develop when no one acts to deliberately create something better.

shutterstock_379260598Organisational culture is rarely designed from the beginning. It’s also intangible, and one person’s experience of an office or team or company is different from someone else’s. Good intentions either remain on the shelf, or are implemented, only to fade over time. But the best companies know that working on their culture matters. They know that they can’t fully control or own it, that they need to involve and empower their people to shape it, and that the hiring decisions they make are as much about finding the right “team-fit” and personality as they are about hiring technical ability.

Everyone knows this applies to the innovators – the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world – but equally look at successful leaders of smaller companies, like Gary Vaynerchuk of Vaynermedia, or James Watt from the craft beer company, BrewDog. They have an almost-unhealthy obsession with culture – and they know how vital it is to their success. People are ultimately not loyal to bosses or pay packets – they’re loyal to the culture.

At my company, Think Productive, we’ve recently been thinking more than ever about culture. We’re a small company, so we don’t have huge budgets for salaries or training, and every single person has to be talented and work hard, but we do believe in making it a great place to work. And you can’t just assume that it is – you have to put things in place. Consult the team and find out what matters to them. Deliver the best working environment that you can possibly afford.

There are loads of things that we can do without huge budgets: we offer duvet days if a staff member isn’t really sick, but just needs a day in front of Netflix, we do a group meditation once a week, we organise karaoke, drinks and BBQs, we have a ‘show and tell’ once a week so that staff can share things they’ve learnt or find interesting. We do regular ‘121’ meetings so that people can have a say about how they’re managed and discuss concerns, we’ve brought in improv comedy trainers to work with the team… None of these things are anywhere near as expensive as a company car, but all create a trusting, fun and inclusive environment, where everyone feels respected, involved and motivated. And it’s a constant process which you need to work on, not something you create or fix, and then finish. We have an ideas jar next to the kettle so that we encourage suggestions, and we’re consulting right now on how to improve the overall benefits package that goes with the salary.

I recently worked with HR software and employment law advice company, BrightHR, to compile a report called ‘It Pays to Play: Play and Productivity’, which looked at the importance of play in working environments. The report surveyed 2,000 British business owners and leaders, and found that where organisations encouraged play – anything from a pool table in the corner, to an office bake-off – people felt more engaged with the culture, and productivity increased as a result.

Linked to this was the rather startling revelation that only 8% of the businesses surveyed actually measured or monitored productivity. This creates an obvious disconnect between peoples’ work and their results. It’s one of the quickest ways not only for an organisation to lose focus, but for its workers to feel like what they’re doing lacks purpose or impact.

My book, How to be a Productivity Ninja takes on the idea that increasing productivity is a fight against the systems, culture and sheer overload of useless information that pervades modern office life. Whilst this is true, it’s far better for a leader to actively work on culture than to expect each of their people to spend so much time battling against these unnecessary frustrations.

So what’s on your to-do list today? Chances are, very little of it relates to working on the culture. But as a leader or business owner, it’s probably the place you can have maximum impact. So make space for what really matters. Whether that means automating things, delegating stuff, or simply being more ruthless with what your team says yes to, it’s time to start being proactive when it comes to culture. There will never be that ‘quiet week’ a month down the line. It’s a myth. And that means the time to start is right now.

By Graham Allcott, Think Productive