Company culture might seem like a buzzword that human resource professionals like to throw around, but it's actually a very real and important concept. The culture you set internally influences the productivity and happiness of your team and can have a significant impact on the long-term success of your business.
It's human nature to want to fit in, and a defined culture can help cultivate that sense of belonging in your workforce. If your staff generally enjoys coming into work each day, chances are they will want to continue working for you for the foreseeable future. In many ways, your company culture can help you:
- Attract high-quality job candidates
- Increase productivity
- Achieve your company's objectives
- Increase revenue
Oftentimes, your industry influences your culture. But you – as the business owner – have the ultimate say. Once you know how your company is perceived by your current staff and potential job candidates, you can adapt, develop and improve your culture so that it is optimized for what you want it to be.
What company culture is vs. what it is not
Culture is the way things are done by a certain group of people. So, without people, you don't have a culture. It's the same definition whether you're talking about a geographical region or a business. The only difference is that with company culture, the people involved are you and your team. Your business's culture includes everything from your core values and beliefs to attitudes and behavior.
Company culture can be difficult to define, but it will influence nearly every aspect of your business, including:
- Work environment: Your workplace is a physical representation of your business's personality.
- Communication: Your culture will dictate how your employees interact with each other and your customers. It will also determine how you and your leadership team communicate with your staff.
- Dress code: Clothes can affect how people feel and interact with others, as well as influence consumers' perception of your business.
- Conflict resolution: Disagreements are inevitable in the workplace, but your culture can impact how you and your staff resolve disputes.
- Rewards and promotions: You'll likely give bonuses, raises and advancement opportunities to people who exhibit behavior that you value in your company.
- Decision-making: Your staff will use your company's beliefs and goals to make decisions that benefit the business when you're not there.
- Employee engagement and productivity: If your team aligns with your company's purpose and fits in with their co-workers, they'll generally be happier and more enthusiastic about their work, which increases their productivity.
It’s important to remember that company culture is not:
- Ping pong tables in the breakroom
- Well-stocked kitchens
- Weekly happy hours
- Free tickets to local events
- Unlimited vacation time
- The ability to work from home
Those are the perks and benefits that come with working for your company, which are not the same as culture. Your company culture, however, will shape what perks you offer.
Common types of company culture
Because culture can be difficult to define, it's often easier to understand if you look at examples.
Team-oriented cultures encourage employees at all levels to participate and help the company reach its goals. Everyone helps each other out, instead of only looking out for themselves. When hiring someone new, these companies focus more on how the candidate will fit in than what skills they bring to the table.
Staff members are comfortable communicating with each other, and they'll often try to find a compromise that benefits all involved parties when conflict arises. They are also usually friends with their co-workers and regularly socialize outside of work. This comradery is promoted through frequent team outings or an open office plan, which encourages the team to interact with people in other departments and freely share ideas.
A great example of a team-oriented culture is Zappos, which understands that each new hire influences its culture and team. So, they hold a cultural fit interview for each candidate, which carries a lot of weight when determining who to hire. Then, they offer each new team member $2,000 to quit after their first week of training if they decide the job or company isn't a good match for them.
In traditional cultures, there are clearly defined responsibilities and hierarchies. Major decisions are primarily left to the leadership team. Because of the strict chain of command, opportunities to advance often require a formal promotion or transfer process. To project professionalism to their clients, traditional companies usually have a strict, business formal dress code.
Employees typically perform tasks that require their full, uninterrupted attention, and the workplace will include individual offices so workers can shut the door when needed. Staff members are not likely to interact with people outside their department, and they will often communicate through more traditional methods – phone calls and email. Furthermore, they’ll generally proofread their emails before sending them to ensure they're free of grammatical mistakes.
Although many companies, particularly small businesses, have adopted more relaxed cultures, you're still likely to see traditional cultures at your local attorney's office or bank. They want to ensure their clients see them as an authority in their respective industry and feel confident that nothing will fall through the cracks.
Freestyle cultures are on the opposite end of the spectrum from traditional ones. They tend to have flexible roles and allow self-organization to promote collaboration within the company. Many startups have freestyle cultures because it's vital that everyone pitches in and takes on new responsibilities as needed.
Staff members are encouraged and enabled to work however they are most productive, which tends to resonate with an increasingly mobile workforce. Transparency is especially important, and co-workers communicate in all different ways: text, instant message and social media are all fair game, while video chat allows remote workers to dial in and stay engaged when they can’t meet in person.
HubSpot is an excellent example of a freestyle culture. They published their culture slide deck to share their vision and purpose with people outside the company. Not only are they transparent with the world, but they also enact a "no-door policy," so every team member has access to anyone else in the company. They focus on results rather than the process by allowing their team to try new techniques without having to run every decision by someone on the leadership team.
Businesses that adopt an elite culture want to push the envelope, and they encourage innovation at every level of the organization. They have a strong purpose and want to have an impact, so they're willing to take big risks to accomplish their goals. Their employees share these same ideals. They regularly push themselves to exceed all expectations by making their jobs a top priority and working 60 to 70 hours a week.
Like with team-oriented businesses, companies that adopt an elite culture will often have an open floorplan. But, they'll take it a step further and allow workers to move freely around the office so they can hold impromptu brainstorming sessions. Because of this freedom, staff members are usually not afraid to bring their ideas directly to the leadership team or question whether processes could be improved.
To further encourage innovation, companies with an elite culture often opt for a more casual dress code. This allows their team to showcase their creativity through their wardrobe and to ensure that everyone is comfortable at work so they can focus on pursuing new ideas.
A great example of elite culture is Google. Their mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." To achieve this mission and surpass users' expectations, Google famously allows staff to work on side projects for 20% of their time on the job. This policy has encouraged workers to find innovative ways for Google to achieve its purpose and has led to the creation of products like Gmail and Google Maps.
How you can create a strong culture
If left to its own devices, your company will still develop shared beliefs and behaviors based on your team members' personalities and prior experiences. But, you can also build your culture by following these steps:
- Identify your mission: Why does your business exist? Share your goals for the company with your team. Not only will this help them understand any decisions you make, but it will also help them find meaning in their own work.
- Define your long-term vision: Creating a positive culture takes time, but you can start by defining your values. These will act as your guideposts as you're deciding where you want your business to go. Your staff will know how to act in new situations and understand what their objectives are.
- Communicate your culture: You're not always going to be standing over your employees' shoulders, so they need to know how to make decisions when you're not around. Create a shared document that includes your mission statement, core values, examples and shared beliefs. You might choose to include this information in your employee handbook, through a slide deck, or even in a video.
- Hire people with similar values: Once you've established your core beliefs, you'll know what to look for when you’re hiring new workers. Hiring people who share the same tenets as your company can help you maintain your culture because they'll buy into your purpose faster and will want to stay with your business.