Think about your company’s culture for a moment. Is it healthy and vibrant, or drab and uninspiring? How do you tell? Many companies today focus on creating great experiences for their users or customers, but often overlook the experience of their employees.
Office perks like a fully-stocked minibar, ping pong tables, and flexible remote work policies are typically associated with signs of a healthy culture. But Courtney Lawrence, Senior Resident Anthropologist at management consulting firm Idea Couture would encourage you to look deeper. “These are features of culture, which can help,” she says. “But they’re not culture.”
Courtney and her colleague Jason Marder, Innovation Strategist, recently published a white paper called Co-Creating Corporate Culture. In the paper, they outline the importance of a strong organizational culture and share steps any company can take to improve engagement among their team.
We asked them why the culture conversation is so important and what strategies other companies can use to understand and improve their own organizational culture.
First of all, why was it important to write a paper on organizational culture?
Courtney: Everyone talks about how innovation needs to incorporate a consumer-centric, patient-centric, or human-centric design lens, and everyone is on board with that. Few people are taking a look at their own organization and saying, “We need to be an employee-centric company. We need to understand our employees’ needs and design a workplace that’s based on that understanding.”
I got the idea for the paper last Spring after reflecting on some of the clients that I’ve worked with. On a number of occasions, they were really excited about the ideas and innovations we proposed, but it seemed like their culture was a barrier to successfully implementing some of them. We wanted to create a conversation around how to combat that.
How does a company understand the health of their culture?
Courtney: I’ll give you an example of work we did for Burberry. We worked with them to help redefine the future of luxury for their brand and reinvigorate the culture, all while maintaining the brand’s legacy. We did a series of interviews, observations, and workshops to generate cultural insights and principles that told the story of innovation and creativity within the company. The effort showed that leadership was very much interested in understanding the on-the-ground experience. That work led to a leather-bound brand book that acted as an anchor and inspirational asset for the entire company. It’s been used in onboarding new employees, guiding internal communications, and inspiring innovation efforts.
The paper also cites other examples of companies with built-in structures like weekly meetings and one-on-one interviews, where employees can report back to leadership on how things are going on a regular basis. So whichever way you do it, whether it’s through internal or external sources, the key is to take the time to reflect and really understand the issues surrounding your company. It needs to be more than just sending out a quick survey asking, “How happy or satisfied are you at work?”. You have to actually ask people what’s going on and why, and often it’s not obvious what the problem is.
“The key is to take the time to reflect and really understand the issues surrounding your company.”
Jason: Imagine a survey that asks “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?” Somebody’s six is different from another person’s six. Someone else might rate themselves a four when really they are a six, but they had a shitty day that day. There’s no way to actually understand the issues going on with a survey because it’s totally subjective.
Courtney: That’s why in anthropology we don’t ask questions like do you like this or do you like that? For example, do you like the blue marker or do you like the red marker? The question would be more like, are markers even important to you? How do you use markers? In a business, you don’t just want to know if people are happy or engaged; you want to understand the motivations and drivers.
When people talk about culture they often list activities or benefits their company provides. How do those play into culture?
Courtney: Things like free food, laundry service, and ping pong tables are features of culture, but they don’t make up your culture. You really don’t know what a culture is like until you live it. Culture is this intangible energy or feeling you get from a certain place or group of people. And it can’t be re-created, so there’s no rulebook or guidelines on how to do it. Culture is the reason your group is together. The space you’re in or the perks you have can all change, but when you feel this drive or motivation to do the things you do, that’s culture. It’s that bond or emotional connection you have with one another because you’re all working towards one common goal and everyone has respect for one another. When those things are in place and people feel like they’re part of it and are involved—that’s when you know you have a really great culture.
Jason: I would build on that by adding this concept of “magnetism.” Do the people you work with ultimately pull you in and make you feel attached to them (and by extension what you do with them) on a day-to-day basis? If you feel that bond and that sense of magnetism, then you will do everything in your power to keep it alive.
Why is it important for organizations to create an environment where this “magnetism” exists?
Courtney: When we talk about creating organizational culture, what we’re really talking about is creating community. Over the past fifty years, traditional forms of community have changed. You used to be able to find community in places like your church or local towns and villages. And despite community being more and more present online, there’s still this desire to be face-to-face with other people and create a social bond. People are turning to the workplace in search of community because we spend thirty, forty, fifty hours a week with our co-workers and we shouldn’t feel isolated from them.
“When we talk about creating organizational culture, what we’re really talking about is creating community.”
What’s the risk for companies that fail to create a sense of community among their team members?
Jason: I like to think of it like an hourglass. At the top of the hourglass is the world of people that could be employed by your company, and at the bottom of the hour glass are all of the people you can serve with your company. Your company sits in the middle at the fulcrum of that. If your company builds a reputation for being an unwelcoming, unsupportive place to work, the top of the hourglass will shrink, which means you get fewer talented people working for your company. If that happens, you’re not able to serve your customers as best as you could, which means the bottom of the hourglass shrinks until you eventually collapse on yourself.
What can employees do to positively influence their company culture?
Courtney: Ultimately in business, leadership needs to buy in to any kind of change for it to make an impact. That said, we’re proponents of employees at every level having some kind of input over the the way change is led. Employees shouldn’t sit around and wait for leadership to take the reins. Often, it’s not that leadership doesn’t want to fix their culture, it’s just that they’re not even aware a problem exists. If you’re used to the hierarchical model, you assume that leadership will make the change and all you have to do is wait. I don’t think that’s the case. Regardless of whether or not you’re in a hierarchical structure, you still have an obligation and responsibility to look at what you want changed. The best scenario is that the culture and values of the organization have been co-created together. When a mix of people have been involved, the company’s culture ends up embodying the people. You can’t separate the two.
“Regardless of whether or not you’re in a hierarchical structure, you still have an obligation and responsibility to look at what you want changed.”
What are some ways employers can find out if prospective employees are a good culture fit?
Jason: When you’re describing your company to potential employees, you want to pitch the problem your company is trying to solve, not the benefits that person will get by coming to work for you. If you can frame your company—and inherently your culture—around how that person will feel about the work they’re doing and how they’ll feel about working with you and your team, like-minded people will be drawn to your company. By creating a unifying theme and motivational pursuit, they’ll be excited to work with one another because they are on the same page.
“Pitch the problem your company is trying to solve, not the benefits that person will get by coming to work for you.”
What’s the one thing people should keep in mind when they’re looking to revitalize their organizational culture?
Courtney: Creating culture should be fun. There’s a mentality out there that a project like this will be a huge effort or that there’s too much other “stuff” going on to focus on culture. Ultimately, revitalizing your culture is an opportunity. In those times of transition or when there’s a lot of chaos, it’s actually an opportunity to envision what you want, and then create it. The key is not to blame outside forces, it’s to actually take responsibility and say, “We can make a difference and affect our culture.” It’s important to realize you don’t have to start a huge project to make a big impact. So get creative and think differently about how you might re-envision your work environment and have fun doing it.
About: Idea Couture is a global strategic innovation and experience design firm. They use design thinking to help organizations navigate and innovate in complex and uncertain environments. Learn more about Idea Couture and the work they do at ideacouture.com
You can download Co-Creating Corporate Culture here.