Trying to improve company culture with catered lunches, free massages, and NERF guns is like trying to survive on popcorn.

Staff Writer

Surface-level perks like free Starbucks, company box seats, and ping-pong tables in the break room don’t help you build a sustainable company culture. While they provide temporary morale boosts, truly great company culture requires more substance to attract and retain talent.

Company culture is a combination of values, the shared goals you work toward, and the effort you put toward those goals. Your culture is built on (and reinforced by) how you hire, fire, promote, train, and reward employees and how management corrects behaviors. All the extras are just that: extra.

Consider the fact that most employees are excited to work for companies they believe in that value them. Whether your team is made up of Millennials, older workers, or some combination of generations, workers are generally looking for the same things.

All employees want their work to be personally fulfilling, to be treated with respect, and to work for a company they’re proud of — and that all starts with culture. To improve your company culture and create an environment where your employees (and your company) thrive, you have to elevate engagement and feelings of success for employees while uniting them through shared values. Here are five ways to do that:

1. Develop clear and concise values.

Are your values easy to remember and embrace? Are they aligned with your mission? Does your incentive structure back them up?

An example of a company with concise guiding values that are easy to remember and follow is Meltwater. Meltwater, a SaaS company, is guided by three core principles summarized as MER. It discusses these values on its website, explaining:

“MER [is] an acronym for Moro, Enere and Respekt, which creates the Norwegian word ‘More.’ We celebrate our victories without losing our drive to improve — whether in reaching personal goals or corporate milestones. Though simple on the surface, our values guide us in everything we do, from how we prioritize our objectives and make decisions to how we clarify expectations and measure our success.”

These values drive company culture and allow Meltwater to foster better relationships with its employees.

2. Allow employees to pursue opportunities for growth and learning.

Nearly all employees want to work for a company that makes the most of their skills and talents. This means providing the training, resources, and autonomy to expand their personal capabilities.

Zappos states the importance of personal growth directly on its list of 10 core values: “We believe that everyone should be constantly trying to grow from a personal and a professional standpoint. By pushing our employees to unlock their full potential, we’ll help them achieve a greater level of fulfillment.”

Besides helping people become better at their jobs, growth and learning opportunities show employees you care about them as complete people, not just as employees.

3. Invest in your employees.

Great company culture demonstrates to employees that they are valued as people, not just for what they do at the office. Your employees are your best marketers. People support a company where they see and hear that employees are valued.

bluemedia, a people-first company, makes sure employees are cared for and enjoy where they work. Darren Wilson, president of the national signage company, recently explainedhow bluemedia’s people serve as the foundation for the long-lasting partnerships the company is built on, propelling the company’s long-term success.

Support employees at work and in their personal lives. Benefits like paid leave, educational reimbursement, and flexible work-from-home policies signal your willingness to help employees live better. This investment reaps long-term rewards and helps build loyalty and trust.

4. Create a flat and open organization.

Removing management layers spurs creativity and production. No company understands this idea better than Squarespace, a frequent flyer on “best places to work” lists. Its key attribute? Having as few levels of management between staff and executives as possible.

Sure, not every company may be able to restructure itself as a flat organization. But if you want to preserve culture and retain your best employees, ask yourself some important questions: How can you make executives more accessible? What barriers can you eliminate? How can you increase idea flow and communication?

5. Promote transparency.

Nearly one in three people reports lacking trust in his current employer, and that’s a major problem for company culture. Part of forming and maintaining that trust is open communication and transparency, and Twitter is one company built on communication.

Twitter’s company mission is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers,” and that extends to its employees, too.

Where can you involve more employees in decisions? How can you more effectively communicate? Talk to your employees to see what they are currently frustrated with or wish they had more information about, and start there.

Don’t give up early. Your culture isn’t magically going to shift overnight. How long will it take? Opinions vary, but Steve Jobs worked for a year and a half to change Apple’s culture, and Best Buy’s Hubert Joly worked twice as long to transform his company. Drop the surface-level perks, and focus on creating a company with clear values, fulfilled employees, and internal trust over the long run for success.