The concept of culture is often misunderstood. Make no mistake, it’s complex and, at times, elusive, but that doesn’t mean culture doesn’t matter or that we can’t influence it to create a better world of work.
When all the gimmicks and facades are stripped away, what’s revealed is the core of your culture – your people.
I recently heard someone say that you can’t build culture through a screen. As lockdown closed off many of the tangible elements that represent culture for a lot of people – from in-office gyms to dogs in the office – a disconcerting feeling has crept in that the best of our workplace culture has been lost and with it, a competitive employee value proposition and a clear definition of what makes a particular organisation a great place to work.
This worry reveals a great misconception about what culture truly is. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s simply shifted, like we all have, to accommodate a remote-first world.
Intangible and nuanced, culture is notoriously slippery. This is why it’s often simplified down to visual markers, like the pool table. We then begin to believe that those markers are the only ones that matter when it comes to having a great culture: a pool table equals fun, which makes for happy people.
The surge in recent years of companies trying to emulate businesses such as Google speaks to that desire to capture and recreate the formula. It’s not as simple as painting motivational quotes on the walls, however. Understanding, and harnessing your culture is more complex, as these common misconceptions show.
You can’t bolt it on
Our culture isn’t something that’s separate from your organisation. It’s not even a component of your company. In fact, an anthropologist would say that your organisation is your culture. It isn’t part of you – it is you.
- It’s not about the perks
Culture isn’t built on quick wins like superficial perks and games. If your culture is you, this would be similar to changing the hat you wear and expecting it to transform you as a person. It’s said that culture is like an iceberg. In that metaphor, quick wins are so superficial that at best, they only touch the very tip. At best, perks demonstrate your culture, such as how management values wellbeing or communal gatherings.
- It’s not the same as a mission statement
Your values or purpose don’t comprise your entire culture. Those things are important, but they’re only part of the bigger picture. We all know actions matter more than words, and your culture is no exception. The lived, daily experiences of your people will reveal more about your culture than anything else.
- No individual defines it
Culture can’t be done top-down, but neither does it only work from the ground up. Many ‘experts’ miss the point that culture is largely about the relationships and interactions, so it’s about how your people work among themselves, within and across levels and functions.
- There are no quick fixes
Since it’s about people, changing your culture isn’t a quick and easy process. If your organisation is your culture, then meaningful change lies much deeper and will take more time to achieve.
The culture in your organisation is the sum of how your people relate to one another and work together – as individuals and as groups.
Getting it right
Instead of looking at what culture isn’t, let’s look at what defines it.
As we’ve already discussed, culture is never individual. We may experience it individually, but culture is always about the wider fabric of relationships between and among people in a group.
The culture in your organisation is the sum of how your people relate to one another and work together – as individuals and as groups. It’s their behaviours and beliefs, their interactions, assumptions and aspirations. It’s what they say, think and do.
In practical terms, it’s about how colleagues interact with one another. It’s about the flexibility, autonomy, trust and quality of communication and relationships that people have. It’s about our spoken rules as much as our unspoken expectations; what we aspire to be as much as what we are. These are all pieces of the larger culture puzzle.
Why it matters
After a stressful, challenging year, we’re facing a stretch of dark, cold days. This time of year can be tough under normal circumstances, but after the demands of 2021, people are facing greater pressures on their mental health and wellbeing.
A recent survey found that the average age of career burnout is now 32. A mental health storm is brewing with extended hours, increased expectations, presenteeism and poorly negotiated boundaries between work and home stretching employees to their limits.
Understanding your culture and using those learnings to support your people is crucial. When all the gimmicks and facades are stripped away, what’s revealed is the core of your culture – your people.
Where do we go from here?
If culture is about your people and their relationships, there are some key questions you can ask now to help make sure you’re getting culture right:
- Are people able to have open and honest conversations with leadership about their wellbeing or managing their boundaries? If they aren’t, your culture may be too hierarchical and opaque. Encourage people to speak freely and share honest feedback.
- How are you managing expectations – both those that your people have and the ones placed on them? Are you giving your people time and space to look after themselves and their responsibilities beyond work? Or are you demanding that your people stay on longer than before? Negotiating boundaries through open dialogue is a great way to establish what you expect from people – and what they can expect from you.
- Do your people have room to just ‘be’? With water cooler conversations replaced by faces on endless Zoom calls, are our days too busy and inflexible that people don’t have the time to relate to one another? The quality of relationships that your people have with one another matters in a healthy culture. Create spaces for people to get to know one another and bond.
Culture is about so much more than where we work and so by asking the right questions and adapting your approach, you can create a strong organisational culture in a virtual working environment.
Interested in this topic? Read The remote revolution: how working from home is changing company culture.