How to create and sustain company culture

Holly Branson sat on a sofa
Image from BBC Sounds
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 19 December 2022

I was thrilled to write about company culture for Virgin StartUp’s community newsletter this month, as it is one of the most important assets a business has. It’s one thing to build a strong and people-first culture, but it’s a whole other ball game to sustain one. Hopefully you find this useful as we look ahead to 2023.

The entire Virgin brand has been built from Dad’s understanding that if you look after your people, your people will look after your business. We’ve never under-estimated the collective power of like-minded people who are all committed to changing business for good, and looking out for each other every step of the way. So the first way to build and maintain a healthy culture is to look after your people and make sure you’re hiring the right fit. At Virgin, we look for optimists. We look for people who praise instead of criticise and who are passionate about making the world a better place. This is particularly important at a senior leadership level, as an incompatible leader can quickly corrode the company culture, and much more too. When we hire leaders and managers, we make sure they understand that the company’s first obligation is to our people and our purpose.

Three members of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew in Tampa
Virgin Atlantic

Secondly, you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to creating a workplace that is 100% human focussed. At Virgin, we pride ourselves on letting people bring their authentic self to work each and every day – and celebrating our differences. We also try to be as flexible as possible, as we know people have lives outside of work. This shows up in many different ways across the Group. At Virgin Management, our people benefits range from unlimited (and paid) annual leave to shared parental leave; private healthcare; dental insurance; adoption and surrogacy leave; fully flexible working; free lunches; and full-scale fertility support.

Beyond implementing forward-thinking people policies and benefits, it’s crucial for businesses to build workplace cultures that break down the hidden barriers forcing far too many people to suffer in silence. When I returned to work from maternity leave, I experienced a period of intense anxiety - but when I opened up to my colleagues and loved ones, I realised I certainly wasn’t alone, and I felt an incredible amount of support and compassion. This is why we need to facilitate and normalise these conversations at work, and provide a safe place for people to reach out about the challenges they are facing outside of work. Creating a culture based off trust, belonging and transparency is key.

Holly Branson at Virgin's office in london with a group of employees
Holly Branson

It's also critical to understand that culture is built off healthy relationships. As James Rutter (chief creative officer at COOK and a passionate B Corp advocate) put it at a recent 100% Human At Work gathering I joined said:

The unit of any culture is the relationship we have with one another.

Sometimes businesses get too caught up in the research papers and the workplace seminars and they forget that culture comes from people connecting with one another and forming healthy relationships. Nurturing these relationships in the same way as you nurture the relationships you have with friends and family is a simple way to help one another thrive. We’re all human at the end of the day and we’re always happiest when we’re in healthy relationships.

Holly Branson, Richard Branson and Sam Branson at the Virgin Stars of the Year celebration 2019
Virgin Stars 2019 | Image from Owen Billcliffe

Finally, it’s important to know that when culture comes under threat, you’re best to go back to the basics. Your purpose and your values should underpin everything you do so if they are healthy, well communicated and prioritised, everything will flow from there. When they become challenged or dismissed and culture becomes contaminated, you can’t put your head in the sand. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, address the core issues, go back to your values and make sure your leaders are modelling the values and the behaviours you want.