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What Is Office Culture?

Can you sum up your company culture in a sentence?

How about two?

We’ve talked before about the importance of cultural fit – why it matters that employees mesh with your culture – but we haven’t gone into much detail about what makes a company culture to begin with. And that’s an important definition to have, because “culture” isn’t just “oh we have bean bag chairs in the break room;” it’s a larger element of your company’s identity that encompasses the intersection between how your company sees itself and how your employees interact with it.

Culture, broadly speaking, is the overall working environment you provide your employees on a holistic level; it encompasses both the tangibles (bean bag chairs in the breakroom) and the intangibles (employees are expected to push themselves until they drop). Your culture is developed through systematic and deliberate decision making that determines what you value, why you value it, and how you expect your employees to engage with those values.

So in other words, if your definition of office culture is “We have casual Fridays!” you aren’t thinking it through enough – and your team might be suffering for it.

We find that there are four questions that help you make sense of your office culture:

  • Do we focus on collaborative or individual work?
  • Are we outcome-driven or process-driven?
  • Do we expect and allow employee autonomy?
  • How do we expect our employees to manage their work/life balance?

These questions are designed to help you think about your culture in a more systematic way, and zero in on a definition that extends beyond the superficialities of workplace attire or available snacks; culture, in the end, is about how you expect your employees to work and what they can expect from you in return for their effort.

These are the real points that differentiate you from other companies, because they’re what matter. Do you expect your employees to work tons of overtime because your office values people with that kind of drive, even while you don’t actually require it? That’s huge! Because that unspoken expectation creates a certain kind of environment for which people who don’t work like that aren’t well-suited; it creates an atmosphere in which opportunities are fearlessly sought and ruthlessly exploited. And that’s a very different kind of company from, say, a more laidback lifestyle company that’s growing but doesn’t push in the same way.

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That means that office culture is ultimately core goals and values and how these get expressed in day-to-day office life.

Think of it like this: the way you expect your employees to work has a bearing on everything you do; you aren’t going to have a fully-stocked breakroom if you don’t expect them to make full use of it, and you aren’t going to go on team outings if camaraderie isn’t something you want them to experience and value. Offices that expect collaboration don’t silo their employees, and companies that want their team members to be strictly by-the-book don’t empower them to make decisions with flat organizational structures. Everything else – from team lunches to ping pong tournaments to, yes, casual Fridays – are incidental; all they do is play out this basic game of reciprocal expectations. You provide what they require so that they can deliver what you require: an environment that makes those expectations reasonable.

Broken Cultures

Office cultures break when this basic reciprocity falls apart – when companies expect their workers to pull long hours without recognition or reward, or communicate conflicting expectations, such as independent thinking and strict hierarchical reporting, or say they value transparency but quickly turn to reprisals. In other words, cultures fail when the values communicated are not commensurate with lived experience.

That means that building an effective culture means keeping abreast of how your team feels about what they’re being told versus what they’re actually experiencing on a day-to-day level. Where there is a lack of this reciprocity and what an employee gives isn't matched by what an employee is getting, you end up with a toxic culture. By perpetuating a sense, among your team, of being exploited rather than respected, internal communication collapses while stress flies through the roof. Bad culture, in short, leads to unhappy employees who will turn around inferior work – and likely create a situation where your turnover increases dramatically, raising your costs at the same time.

So culture is deeply tied to your bottom line, which means you have reasons both business and humanitarian to sustain a healthy one. So that means it might be time to assess your culture to make sure it’s not doing more harm than good.

You might be surprised by what you find.

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