WorkplaceCulture_Body.jpgby Cindy Waxer.

According to Ann Rhoades, founder of People Ink, a business culture consultancy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a friendly and inviting corporate culture is not only de rigueur—it’s good for business. “Companies are more relaxed these days,” says Rhoades. “Employees coming out of school want to work in a place that mirrors their values and where they can contribute ideas. They want to participate in a culture that’s open and transparent.” Rhoades would know. For more than 25 years, she’s been helping high-performing companies like Southwest Airlines, Doubletree Hotels, and JetBlue Airways develop people-centric workplace cultures. In an interview with business writer Cindy Waxer, Rhoades discusses the signs and side effects of both casual and formal corporate cultures.

CW: What’s the key difference between a casual and formal corporate culture?

AR: In a casual corporate culture, employees know that even when their opinion is contrarian, expressing it is something that’s encouraged. Leaders don’t want to just hear what they say repeated. They want contrarian views and for people to have other ideas to contribute. In a closed environment, however, one where it’s the old autocratic, top-down environment, you can almost tell while walking through the office. People aren’t laughing or relaxing. Typically at those companies you see high turnover and you don’t see great customer service numbers.

Also, when there is a belief that you can’t go above the person you report to, and that you can hardly say hello to the person above you, that’s a very closed and quiet environment. In a casual culture, on the other hand, people are asked their opinion on a daily basis and they’re constantly communicated to about what’s going on in the organization. They don’t have to keep information close to their vest.

WorkplaceCulture_PQ.jpgCW: What are the physical signs that a company’s culture is either too formal or too casual?

AR: In an open environment, employees tend to have more personal things out in the open, like pictures of their family. In a closed environment, everything tends to be exactly the same in every single cubicle and in every single office.

CW: Can you provide specific examples of companies with well-balanced corporate cultures?

AR: It’s much more relaxed at JetBlue and Southwest Airlines where I served as Chief People Officer before launching People Ink, yet we were more productive than most companies. Our performance in terms of financials was very competitive and we also had one of the most transparent organizations I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They’re very casual about certain things like dress but they are not casual about customer service. They take their customers, their organization and their work very seriously.

CW: Can an organization have a loose corporate culture and encourage high performance?

AR: Just being loose and transparent isn’t good enough. An organization that encourages great behaviors, including having fun and being transparent is great, but it must also perform. At Southwest, we demanded performance. Everybody had a defined strategic plan, we had a defined plan for all departments and they delivered on that demand. A loose culture and high performance aren’t mutually exclusive. Having fun and enjoying work doesn’t mean you aren’t productive. Engaged employees will create a more productive and higher performing company.

CW: How can a company properly assess its corporate culture and whether it’s too formal or casual?

AR: Many people believe that they have a great corporate culture, yet they can’t understand why they have high turnover and people don’t appear to be happy and productive. We tell people to really assess their culture by looking at what your customers are telling you, what employees are telling you in surveys and any feedback you can derive through focus groups. People Ink visits different sites and people tell us what the culture is really like. You’d be amazed by how open people are with you.