The Genesis of Thriving Retail Workplace Cultures

The Genesis of Thriving Retail Workplace Cultures

Workplace culture – it’s something that we hear [and talk about] all the time [seriously…all…the…time]!! Some retail organizations do it really well – according to Fortune & Great Places To Work here are the best retail organizations 2016:

  • The Container Store [Ranked 14 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For]
  • REI [Ranked 26 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For]
  • Build A Bear [Ranked 45 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For]
  • Ikea [Ranked 63 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For]
  • Nordstrom [Ranked 92 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For]

There you have it – these are the five retailers that made the list – only one fashion company. What this means is that we are talking ad nauseum about culture and hiring the right talent and offering the highest level of customer experience but only five retailers are able to achieve that level of excellence. I recognize that some retailers are definitely making strides to improve culture and employee experience – but in lots of cases it’s being met with resistance that stems from the mindset that there isn’t enough time or people to support a focus or improvement. And in some retail organizations moldy cultures and climates linger, plain & simple.

Here is the Fortune’s METHODOLOGY for determining the “Best Companies”

To identify the 100 Best Companies to Work For, each year Fortune partners with Great Place to Work to conduct the most extensive employee survey in corporate America.

Two-thirds of a company’s survey score is based on the results of the Trust Index Employee Survey, which is sent to a random sample of employees from each company. This survey asks questions related to employees’ attitudes about management’s credibility, overall job satisfaction, and camaraderie. The other third is based on responses to the Culture Audit, which includes detailed questions about pay and benefit programs and a series of open-ended questions about hiring practices, methods of internal communication, training, recognition programs, and diversity efforts.

Pillars of a Strong Company Culture

The culture defines how employees describe where they work, how they understand the business, and how they see themselves as part of the organization. Culture is also a driver of decisions, actions, and ultimately the overall performance of the organization and, ultimately, determine the customer experience we deliver.


  • Objectives/Strategy;
  • Respect/Fairness;
  • Change/Adaptability;
  • Teamwork/Collaboration;
  • Employee Engagement/Resilience;
  • Fair/Balanced/On-going Feedback;
  • Development/Growth Opportunities;
  • Meaning/Purpose;
  • Customer Experience Delivery;
  • Frequent and Transparent Communication;
  • Aligned Decision Making;
  • Trust/Integrity

Organizations can begin to understand their true and organic culture and where it stands today by gathering honest and anonymous feedback from employees to see how aligned they are with the current and/or desired culture. A good way to do this is assess your organization’s cultural attributes and then measure them through an employee survey. Each of these attributes, typically, includes three to five items that define the specific category inside your organization in more detail and provide more insight into how the culture works. When you possess the results, the next step is to decide what attributes you want to keep [those that energize, engage and inspire your employees], leverage and develop a strategy to eliminate those don’t add value, or determine if it is something you can re-introduce at a later date. This is the first step to getting employees aligned with a culture that will drive success and motivation. When people feel included they are more likely to embrace the changes and initiatives needed to reinvent your culture to one that actually has an impact.


What Right Looks Like

Engaging workplace cultures, the kind all retail organizations should strive to create, are those in which employees are excited to show up to work each day. They believe in what they’re doing because they can find meaning and purpose in their roles – and – they understand how their role plays into the company objectives; they respect, feel supported by and learn from their leaders; and they enjoy and support their coworkers. The best workplace cultures aren’t built or reinvented overnight and they require tremendous focus, commitment, and consistency to maintain. Here are some things you can do to start the process of building/re-building a workplace culture that is worthy of achieving one of the “Best Companies To Work For” spots:

  • Ask Feedback From Your Team Regularly: Ask their opinion, pick their brains, and seek out their ideas/suggestions for innovation or things to eliminate from your business. As a retail leader you rely on your team to fill in gaps and perform functions that you are not great at or capable of. We have amazing talent that fills critical roles in the company in both corporate and customer-facing positions. They know operation and their part of the business inside and out — in many cases, better than you do. Odds are, someone on the team has a creative idea or suggestion that would improve productivity…ask them about it! With awesome platforms like Pulsemeter, that works tandem with today’s amaing productivity tools, like Slack – it’s easier than ever to capture feedback from your employees – often.
  • Be Generous With Salaries & Benefits [Especially For Your Top Performers]: Your employees, hopefully, don’t show up every day solely to earn a paycheck. BUT compensation, benefits, and rewards are top drivers of engagement and productivity. In fact, nearly 25% of employees would switch jobs for a 10% raise somewhere else. You don’t have to shower your staff with money, but pay them appropriately and review their compensation regularly. When it comes to your best employees, avoid falling into the trap where hard work is rewarded by additional work – pay matters and if hope to keep your team engaged, happy, and productive…this is a great place to start to show that you are working to value to your employees.
  • Focus On Reward and Recognition: TinyPulse found that fewer than 33% of employees feel valued on the job. Regardless of how accurate your organization believes this statistic to be – perception is reality. When employees don’t feel valued they will not feel compelled to give 100% all the time. Taking time to build a structured program that recognizes and rewards your top contributors is a great step in the right direction! Here is the best part – by introducing a recognition platform into your business that allows your employees to recognize each other – they will take it and run with it. Platforms like WooBoard, Achievers, or iAppreciate are all great [and easy] tools to use.
  • Foster [And Demand] A Culture Built Around Honesty & Trust: These behaviors and competencies start with the executive and senior leadership of company. The employees will follow their lead if it is genuine. If retail organizations are committed to transparent, honest, and engaging communication, your team will understand that to be the cultural norm. Honestly sharing will foster trust and support from your employees. Keep communication energizing and engaging and don’t pad the bad stuff…when that is shared – an energizes and trusting team will create innovative solutions that support overcoming business obstacles – collaboration at it’s best.
  • Respect Your Employees Work-Life Balance: According to this ABC News Report, “More than half of U.S. employees feel overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time, according to a national study 70% say they often dream of having a different job.” Retail employees are often expected to give 100% while at work and then be accessible and connected the remaining 14 hours of the day from home, at the movies, while on dates, out at dinner with their families…literally, 24 hours a day 7 days a week [because strangely, in our industry we still opt for quantity over quality as a measure of job commitment, loyalty, and productivity]. Now – not only is that just a demanding, ridiculous, and antiquated philosophy that keeps the culture moldy but according to this study by John Pencavel, Stanford Professor “productivity output was proportionate to time worked up to 49 hours per week. Beyond that, it rose at decreasing rate, for instance – those who put in 70 hours a week had the same productivity of someone who worked 56 hours“. So you are overworking and burning out your employees but you are lowering your productivity standards in the process. It’s not enough to simply pay lip service to work-life balance. You have to support it.
  • Communicate Clearly And Frequently: Employees are adults and, rightfully so, expect to be treated as adults.  They spend a huge chunk of their lives working for your company, and they deserve to know how the company is doing, where the opportunities exist, how they can help, who is contributing to the success, what their career path is…etc. Companies that communicate clearly, honestly, and openly are bound to earn the respect from their employees and it’s a great fundamental business practice.
  • Invest In Your Employees & Commit To Their Success: According to TINYPulse, almost 70% of employees say they’re not fulfilling all of their job responsibilities. If your employees are overworked, you need to ask them what part of their job description/role isn’t adding value or just simply getting in their way. I guarantee you will hear of some non-critical, productivity-sapping items to take off their plates that will help balance their time, improve their productivity, and allow for great focus on the items that do add value – plus they will be super thrilled you cared enough to ask. Offer resources and guidance to help support their continued development and learning. Communicate with them to give them in-the-moment and honest assessments of their work. These are things that great companies do to show commitment to their employees.

The above points are a great place to start but – they are just a foundation for a focus on culture. As retailers, our entire existence is based on the product we deliver to our customer and how we interact, engage, and delight the communities and clients that we serve. Retail success, by definition, is about creating a great experience and a compelling brand image that both talent and customers want to be a part of. It is shocking that only five retail organization realize this achievement is done through creating a truly phenomenal culture for their employees.  We should all aspire to be vying for a spot on this list and the other “Top Employer” lists over the next 12 months. We’re retail – we should dominate the list of great places to work.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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