Corporate culture – a big pill to swallow

There are a lot of things that feed into the quality of your work life. As social creatures, the culture of our surroundings is one of the most important one. 

Happy employees lead to happy companies, inspired employees make inspiring things. Yet I keep hearing sentences like “Ugh, work is work. I don’t really like it, but why should I?” and that’s always felt terribly wrong. Given we spend more that half of our awake hours at work, the culture at our workplace ends up having a great impact on our wellbeing. It affects our quality of work, our motivation, performance and mental state. Which got me thinking about the big question: How might companies create a place where people like to come back, in fact enjoy spending more than half their lives at? What do employees want from work so that it’s more than just work but also play. 

Organisational culture cannot be built in a boardroom, isolated from the rest of the company and be served across the organisation. That trick simply won’t hold up. 

Influencing social interactions are difficult, once they get going you, as an organisation, have very little control over the knock on effects. There are ways to nudge the direction though, John Coleman’s article on Harvard Business Review talks about the 6 building blocks that affect corporate culture which is a good place to start thinking about factor affecting change. 

1- Vision

The simplest foundational element of a culture is it’s vision. It gives purpose to the organisation and the work being done. Knowing what the purpose is also encourages a certain way of decision making. An organisations vision statement will not only help orient employees but also communicate expectations to clients and stakeholders. 

2- Values

While the vision statement sets purpose, values provide guidelines on how to get there. Values of a company are practical instructions that set behaviours and encourage certain mindsets. 

Look at what employees feel strongly about, is it consistent throughout the organisation? Does everyone share a set of values which allow them to work harmoniously towards the purpose or do you need to check in with every decision that’s been made and make sure they come from the right place? 

3- Practices

“We are what we repeatedly do.” — Aristotle

Doing over saying. Evidence of your culture can be seen in ways you do things, the processes you follow, incentives you provide and things you punish. It doesn’t really matter if you repeat your purpose, your values, put them on posters and hang them tall, if you don’t practice what you preach the words will only remain on the wall, they won’t become embedded in your culture and be part of your employees daily life. 

4- People

The people in a company are the ones who make the culture and carry it on. It’s your second family, you see them more than your mom, dad or even your partner. Just like a family, employees that share or have the willingness to embrace the same core values as your company will stick together and support each other no matter what. They will enjoy being together, look forward to spending time with and learn from each other. That’s why cultural fit is a top requirement in recruitment, selecting who you bring in the family is a way to keep feeding your corporate culture but also ensuring that your employees are surrounded by like minded people who share their values.

5- Narrative

“Any organisation has a unique history- a unique story.”-John Coleman

All organisations have a history, narratives are powerful tools that tell the organisations story. They feed the culture, and deliver stories about key events that shaped the organisation into what it is now and the values it stands for. 

Cultures feed on narratives, they provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is”.

Narratives can be formal, planned and organised or informal, they travel across the organisation and carry culture in narrative form. 

6- Place

Ping pong tables anyone? Or colourful slides welcoming you at the lobby? Office furniture has been the most obvious signifier for corporate culture for quite a while now. 

Our surroundings are invisible cues that trigger certain emotions and mental states. Our monkey brains scan the environment constantly and tell us whether we can relax or should be alert and ready for combat. 

The layout and architecture can be used to facilitate new ways of working, Steve Jobs when redesigning the Pixar office, made sure the facilities like cafeteria and toilets were in a central location to encourage social interaction and spark ideas across team members.

Office space is the most tangible signals of an organisations culture. Each item along with its location repeatedly tells a story, just like a broken record it repeats a message over and over again. From the motivational posters on the wall, to the office chairs and the carpet. It can make or break the mood of an organisation and determine whether it’s as a place people desired to be in. 

So have another look into your office, what does the lamp tell you?

Keeping it all together

So what do you do with these? 

Just like in everything else, there needs to be consistency. To be able to shape and sustain a solid corporate culture, organisations should make sure the foundations are in the right place and that they work harmoniously. Any discrepancy between the building blocks will lead to mixed messages to employees and have knock on effects to overall business performance. Not to mention, you’ll end up with a big group of unsatisfied, underperforming employees that are constantly at the lookout for the emergency exit to get out the war zone as soon as possible. 

Revisiting the foundation and taking a hard look on your what’s been embedded into the employees day would explain what the culture has become. Easier said than done, organisation can still influence how culture can be shaped, by carefully rethinking the building blocks the workplace can turn into an inspiring place where people want to be and perform their best.

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