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How Do You Define Workplace Culture?

How do you define workplace culture?

a) High culture: we have some great pieces of work from contemporary artists on our walls.

b) All about culture: we have a very diverse employee group and like to learn about and celebrate each other’s individuality.

c) Wine culture: Wine Fridays! No keggers and foosball for our crowd. Pass the canapes please.

d) Umm... puppies? (That's a culture, right?)

Culture is frequently discussed, especially when looking to fix a morale problem, and when seeking to recruit “the right fit” onto your team. Discussed doesn’t mean understood, and understandably so. Culture in the workplace is about people, and most anything to do with people tends to be complex.

“One third (33 percent) of employees knew whether they would stay with their company long-term after their first week.” Maren Hogan, Red Branch Media on TLNT.com

What do they know? They don’t like the job, they want a better stationary cupboard, or, they don’t fit in?


What is this “fit” all about?

It’s less about an employee’s job, and much more about the larger organization. Namely, culture fit is about “are these my people?” and “am I theirs?”

Entrepreneur.com defines company culture as “a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time.” Putting together these pieces in a meaningful way develops an organization’s personality, which can be likened to your internal brand.


How do people experience your culture?

“Culture is similar to brand: it’s how people experience you. For workplace culture, this is an internal experience,” says Peter Reek, CEO and Founder of Smart, Savvy + Associates.

“A company’s true values and beliefs are reflected in behaviours, rituals (we ring bells at Smart Savvy), artifacts (think Owls at Hootsuite) and even policies (dogs are allowed) that employees are regularly exposed to, at each level of an organization.”

Dr. Henry Cloud is a leadership consultant and author of several books, including Boundaries for Leaders, who states that above all, “cultures are a combination of what you create and what you allow.” We have a culture whether we define it or not, whether we work on it or just let it evolve. For better or worse.


Does your workplace walk the talk?

True values and beliefs are the “walk” of the organization, whereas the “talk” may be framed and hung on the wall, or emphasized during team meetings, performance reviews or employee communications. Here lies the key: the walk needs to match the talk, whatever that talk is.

Developing culture statements around someone’s idea of “perfect” doesn’t matter if no one implements those ideas, or worse, contradicts them. Who’s tired of the organizations that espouse respect as a value but allows disrespectful behavior? To hire and retain and engage the right people, there is no perfect, only truth— we’re all different, and so are our ideal workplaces.

One workplace culture isn’t superior to another, but one is better for you. When a company’s beliefs, values and behaviours match up with yours, you’ve got fit.


What do you tell people about when they ask about your workplace culture?

Direct communication and well-rewarded hard work, or office dogs and unlimited Skittles? Puppies aren’t culture (sorry). Your elevator speech about your company’s culture doesn’t need to highlight the adorable antics of Butch the bulldog.

Rather, why does your workplace include employee’s pets? What values or beliefs are demonstrated by welcoming furry friends into the office? Same goes for the lunchtime running club, fondue Fridays, open workspaces, catered lunches, etc. Culture isn’t about the material things, but about how it makes people feel about working at your organization. 

Don’t get us wrong, it’s not about making people happy (we’re responsible for our own happiness, it’s not the duty of our employer), but rather, it’s about creating an environment where people who fit want to work there, stay there and be engaged in their work.

Ultimately, it’s about driving the behaviour called for by your strategy, so that collectively, you can achieve your goals.

Creating and nurturing a workplace culture might seem like the “fluffy stuff” on the surface, but there’s much (much) more to culture than a cohesive team. Attracting and retaining top talent who are engaged in their work, and care about the collective business goals drive an organization forward.

James L. Heskett, professor emiritus at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business, and author of The Culture Cycle, reports that: “Effective culture can account for 20-30 per cent of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.”

To exemplify that one culture isn’t better than another, Smart, Savvy + Associates talked to some leaders in Vancouver about their definition of culture, and how that lives out in their respective organizations.


Gabrielle Garon | CounterPath 

Gabrielle Garon of CounterPath believes culture is everything, and shares: "Culture is the practices that show up based on our shared values and beliefs, or the absence of them."

Related to a shared workplace culture, CounterPath has the tricky business of being a highly distributed team, across Canada, the U.S. and in Europe. Understandably, each office organically creates a local subculture, and Gabrielle employs strategy to connect these offices through anchors such as National Giving Day: once a year everyone is given time off to donate blood, with an overall team donation goal.

For Gabrielle and CounterPath, it boils down to inclusion, regardless of employee location. On the Canadian “Pink Shirt Day” to take a stand against bullying, the organization wants everyone to feel involved, and uses their intranet to create a "virtual cork board" of notes of kindness addressed to colleagues from office to office to continent and beyond.


Shawn Johnston | Forge and Smith 

Shawn Johnston, CEO and Founder of Forge and Smith defines culture as “the combined experience and purpose of an organization's team members through the work they do, the clients they do it for, the process and atmosphere they do it in, and the fulfillment they derive from the outcomes."

The Forge and Smith team hold a Launch Party once a month to take a closer look at those outcomes, and celebrate projects/sites that launched over the last 30 days. They do a little post mortem, talk about successes and challenges, call out who contributed and see if there's opportunity for improvement or learning from it. Paired with beverages and snacks, the party atmosphere blends with the learning for a balance of fun and moving forward.

Shawn balances focus on business goals and the people who comprise the team. This often include a team building game as part of the Launch Party, or a Shout Out Circle where each person says one thing they learned, one thing they're proud of, and one person they want to recognize.


So, how would you define your organization’s culture?

And is it just talk, or does it also walk?

Catherine Ducharme

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