Redefining Your Shop Culture – Go From Good to Great


One thing that all business struggle with over time is the idea of identity and culture.  You spend a lot of effort every day in the struggle to obtain new business, forging relationships with clients, marketing yourself in the community and just working on the challenges you face in getting orders produced and out the door.  How much time though, do you spend thinking or building your company culture?  What is the notion of “company culture” anyway and why does it matter?

The basic definition is that a company culture is the personality of the business from your employee’s perspective.  How do they see it every day?  How are you defining the experience for them by living your company mission, values, expectations, work environment, ethics and goals?  Do you live by a common core set of rules, or does your shop have one set of expectations for the front office and another set for the production crew that has to get everything done?  Is it team-based or a dictatorship?  Do your employees enjoy working at your shop?  Do people quit their jobs and use the phrase “I just can’t take it anymore!” as they drive away from the shop with tears of joy streaming down their face?  Culture is important, but it’s an ethereal, hard to define and easily lost, thing.  Cue the old Johnny Paycheck song “Take this Job and Shove it”.

Whoa.  Hold on.  Cut the music, buster.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Let’s explore some things that you can do to build a positive company culture that will help drive employee retention, satisfaction and boost your company morale.

Shops are all different sizes of course.  Some are quite large with multiple departments, with many layers of managers, assistant managers and team leads.  Others might only have three people in the entire company and everyone wears many hats, but everyone reports to the owner.  One thing is certain though, is that there’s someone in charge.  What’s the leadership style of your shop?  Does it resemble a general, barking orders at a private to clean the latrine?  “Do what I say!!”  How are you setting the tone for the work?  Do you emphasize active listening?  Teamwork?  Think about these:

Set clear expectations and rules.  Have a written company handbook that outlines the “rules” for your shop.  Be very specific and detailed.  Include everything and have a policy.  Can you use a cell phone on the floor?  Check Facebook at lunch?  How do you ask for vacation time?  How many sick days does an employee have a year?  Can a manager receive a gift from a vendor to use their product?  Be as thorough as you can and double check the legality of your handbook with an HR professional.  Regardless of your company size, a handbook is a wonderful tool to set the standards that you going to hold everyone accountable to during the year.  Everyone, including all managers, follows these rules.  The handbook is the tool that sets the standards and baseline for the company culture.  Tip: If you are a member of SGIA, you can find good sample company handbook language that you can use as a baseline to create your own.  Check it out at

Accountability.  In your shop, do you play favorites?  People notice.  You need to hold staff accountable the same way when there is a problem.  One person can’t stroll in late without consequences if you are demanding timeliness from other people.  The most common example of this is how the front office and production crews are treated.  There has always been a divide with these groups and some animosity.  Make sure your thinking is about inclusion and teamwork, and not divisive.  A great way to establish a culture of accountability is with your performance review system.  Start with just a self-review and a manager review.  If the staff member is high enough on the food chain, have supplemental reviews for them by everyone they influence daily.  I like to do it every six months, and use a ten question survey for everyone (including the owners and managers).  Judge how each person performs their role in the company and is base the questions on Customer Service Focus (both internal and external), Attitude, Getting Things Done, Skill, Efficiency, and Communication.  Set three goals for the employee to work on in the next six months, and then review them then.  Want to drive home the notion that everyone matters and you want them to treat others with respect?  Make it part of the review and have your staff complete reviews on other staff anonymously.  You will see a dramatic change in behavior.  The more you talk about your expectations and set the tone for the company, the more you will realize it in reality.  Tip: Check out this article for more information on how to build a performance review program: “Build a Better Performance Review Program”

Take care of people.  Sure, your shop is jammed full of computers, equipment, ink, thread, chemicals, boxes, and shirts.  What makes it all tick?  People.  What do they have?  Problems. There is a daily constant barrage of challenges that your staff faces.  Some have huge problems such as alcohol or drug dependency issues.  Some have sick kids, or their grandmother just passed away.  Some have financial challenges.  Some have emergency situations as their car just blew a head gasket.  Some just can’t work an alarm clock.  Others are saving for a house.  Every one of your staff is different, but sooner or later their challenges are in your lap.  How you handle these, react to them, and deal with them is noticed by your staff.  Are you fair and honest?  A sucker for tears and a sad story?  An easy mark with an open wallet?  Believe or not, your company culture is quite often defined by how you react to these situations and deal with the multitude of problems your staff is confronted with every day.  Be honest and genuine.  Having policies and procedures in your company handbook can go a long way in dealing with some of these situations.  For others, you have to make a ruling one way or another.  Understand though, that for many small companies how you deal with a situation can set a precedent for others to follow.  I’ve found after a few decades of managing folks that if you handle situations honestly, fairly, and with an optimistic point of view, most employees with return the favor when you need them to.  That’s when you need a crew to stay late on a Friday, work through lunch, or come in on Saturday to get that rush job handled.

Emphasis on Teamwork.  It’s been said that “No man is an island” and that’s very true for businesses with staff.  You need your staff to work together as a team.  Emphasize that it isn’t “their” order, but the company’s order.  No finger pointing.  No “I can’t do my job because they didn’t do theirs”.  If you can establish the culture of execution by having everyone band together, communicate and try to make it easier for other staff downstream, then you’ll start to see things getting through your pipeline faster, with less hassle and fewer challenges.  Getting everyone to buy into the program is sometimes a challenge, and you might have to break some things and rebuild them to get what you want.  Teamwork also includes managers and even owners getting their hands dirty and working with crews to accomplish tasks.  This means working on the production floor, helping with the billing or putting orders in, or even just manning a hang-tagging gun or sweeping the floor.  The sooner you set a positive example for others to follow, the easier it’s going to be to establish your culture of getting things done.

Make it fun.  Is working at your shop a big drag?  In order to truly engage your staff you have to make it a great place to work, where people feel like time passes quickly and they are valued.  Learn what your staff likes and work towards having some events that trigger involvement, discussions and laughter.  This could be anything.  Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Get your staff involved with their ideas, and implement them.  Here are a few examples of things we’ve done recently:

  1.        Employee Chili Cook-Off.  We just finished our first employee chili cook-off competition. (see the photo above)  We had eight entries, and invited customers to be the judges, and also had our staff judge too.  We had two awards, one for most popular employee chili, and the other was voted best chili from our client.  This was a fun event that we also coincided with a grill-out where we cooked hot dogs, hamburgers, and black-bean burgers (to recognize those that aren’t eating meat on Fridays due to Lent).
  2.       Fundraisers or Events for Charities.  At Visual Impressions we support many local or national philanthropies by holding events to raise money or activities that involve our staff.  These are often at the request of some staff members, and over the years we’ve cleaned up the neighborhood with trash pick-up days, donated to Toys for Tots or to the Hunger Task Force, raised money for cancer research and walked for the ACS Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event.  At the end of April we’re holding a garage sale, where employee donated items are being sold to raise money for our Making Strides fundraising.
  3.        Halloween.  Every year we hold a costume contest.  We award cash prizes for best costumes and have employees vote.  It’s a fun day when all kind of crazy zombies, nurses, and superheroes are printing or working.
  4.       Holiday party.  At the end of the year we’ve had a lot of fun with having a holiday party.  We’ve had it on site with catering and also at local restaurants.  We do a Secret Santa too (voluntary), and it’s usually pretty hilarious.
  5.       Victory Garden.  This spring we’re going to build a few victory gardens on our property and grow stuff.  We already have a bunch of eager gardeners waiting until the thaw (we’re in Wisconsin) so we can get started.
  6.         Biggest Loser.  Last fall we had a Biggest Loser competition with ten teams of four people competing to lose the biggest percentage of weight.  In a company voted decision, the final weigh-in was cruelly the Monday after Thanksgiving (do you really want that extra piece of pie?).  Overall we lost almost 600 pounds in three months.  Our staff can still be seen walking and exercising during breaks and lunch, and this has led to a healthier and happier staff.
  7.        Attendance Lunch.  For employees that have perfect attendance, we have either brought in lunch or all go out to a restaurant to celebrate.  These are staff members that have not been late or absent for a designated time period.   Believe it or not, we have over 40% of our staff rewarded with this usually every time.  That’s not bad, considering we have over ninety employees.
  8.       We have a grill and are not afraid to use it.  When the weather cooperates we’ll grill out on a Friday “just because”.  Sometimes we bring in pizza, donuts, or other treats.  Especially if we are working overtime or celebrating a company victory or milestone, such as completion of a huge order or hitting a sustainability goal.

Catch People Doing the Right Thing.  It’s easy to write someone up for a mistake.  Much harder to catch people in the act of doing something correctly or above what they normally are capable of accomplishing and rewarding them for it.  Nothing says makes someone’s day better than acknowledging achievement with a “Good job” or “Thank You” – or movie tickets, money, a half-day off on a Friday paid, or even a raise.  This is hard to do if you just sit in your office all day.  Get up, walk around and talk to people.  Be observant and pay attention to what’s going on.  If you have management staff, make sure they understand that they can nominate people or reward them so you don’t have to be the one looking for good behaviors to reward.

New Hires.  Do you have some openings in your company?  Don’t just fill the positions with a warm body.  Think about how the potential candidate will fit in with your existing group.  Ask questions, check references and do your homework before potentially causing a disruptive presence on your staff.  The old maxim, “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” applies here.  The other end of the stick applies too.  If you have long term employees that are in the way of a culture change, for example having someone that is a constant “this won’t work”, you may have to think hard about keeping them on staff if you are looking to improve and grow.  Instead of terminating their employment you might want to consider reassigning them to another department or train them in a new skill.  Be firm and clear about your expectations and your reasoning.

At the end of the day, your company culture is what you make it.  Not happy with the way things are going?  Talk to people in your company and find out what they want, need or desire.  Often they just want to be acknowledged and listened to, and it isn’t about money all the time.  (Sometimes it is though…)  Also, if you have managers, make sure you are also talking to your staff and not just your leadership team to gauge the pulse of the company.  I’m a big believer in the “Trust, but verify”, mode of following up on things.



  • Great post – what you are basically talking about is building positive culture and good morale. As a former manager of production shops, I know what a difference this can make. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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