Written by Bonnie Wu, Edited by Kelly Guo
What is company culture? Company culture is the sum of an organization's attitudes, standards, and attributes that are leader-led and embedded in the everyday life of the company. Aligning your values and goals as an organization is crucial to everyone's wellbeing, productivity and success as you form better relationships and work together towards a common vision.
A company's culture should be unique and distinct to your business. Everything else can be replicated - products, strategies, innovations - but your culture and personality will clearly differentiate your business from its competitors in the mind of its stakeholders.
Why is Company Culture Important?
Benefits of a Strong Company Culture
There's an abundance of benefits to having strong company culture underlying your business operations:
Strong culture attracts better talent, and more importantly, retains that talent. When people believe that your company is the perfect fit for their values and goals, they're more likely to stick around for the long run.
This results in:
- Lower turnover
- Fewer new hires to train
- Better relationships and team chemistry
Companies with winning organizational cultures have 72% higher employee engagement ratings than organizations with weak cultures.
- Denison Consulting
Strong company culture enriches your brand identity, which further attracts better talent while boosting customer loyalty and public perception - all around making your brand more memorable and favourable. This deeply impacts any B2B and B2C relationships you build.
Vision & Identity
As your company's only unique identifier, your corporate culture encompasses the vision, values, and norms of your company. A clear and coherent vision keeps your organization focused and together, especially during complex projects and stressful periods of time. Your culture should excite people and give your employees a sense of purpose and pride.
There are long-lasting effects of a strong culture, powering the potential of your manpower and human assets on your teams.
A workplace culture focused on people has profound appeal, with many benefits including:
- Improved engagement
- Unique employee experience
- Employees feel more connected to the team and each other
Attracting Top Talent with Company Culture
"Your culture is the formula, the DNA that provides guidelines, boundaries and expectations for your team and your customers, and is the primary platform to inspiring and motivating your people, and it is the most powerful resource you have to attract, recruit, hire and retain the highest level of talent to your business."
Corporate culture is becoming a hot topic as it demands more consideration during the hiring process by candidates. More companies are also shifting their attention towards cultivating an attractive brand culture, partially due to the fact that studies have indicated measurable increases in turnover for companies with poor or nonexistent cultures. The best people always want to work with the best companies, and these people are valuable resources to catalyze ongoing business success.
The new generations desire a strong company culture: As new generations become taking over the workforce in the near future, it's apparent that millennials desire a strong company culture more than anything else. If you fail to attract their attention, you could be stagnating your growth as you begin to lose the recruiting war and find yourself short of talent.
Remote vs In-Person Culture
Historically, office settings and the interactions that play out within its walls have been key signals of culture:
- This is often built and reflected in the way people behave and dress
- Further reinforced by physical settings, from open office spaces with ping pong tables and napping pods to traditional offices with wooden furniture and leather chairs
LaMoreaux at IBM described how the shift to working from home has made people “a little more human.” Meeting with remote colleagues, she says, feels like being invited into their homes, and employees have learned so much more about the multiple dimensions of each other’s lives (how they live, the colours of their walls, their family members and pets, etc.). Although this wasn’t an intentional intervention by IBM, she wants to keep it going and is exploring how to embed this in the culture for the long term, even when some employees return to the office.
The first hurdle we must overcome while re-imaging our organizational culture is acknowledging that culture can no longer be forged in the same way as it was in an office-centric model. A strong remote culture directly translates to a strong culture, but the same cannot be said for the inverted relationship.
Elements of remote culture will become inevitable in the future as employees demand flexibility. A study surveyed workers across six major countries and found that the vast majority value flexibility — 16% want to be fully remote, only 12% want to return to work in the office five days a week, and a clear majority of 72% want the option of working within a hybrid remote-office model. This demonstrates a desire for work-life balance and flexibility, but also a need for in-person elements and face-to-face interactions as humans are naturally social creatures.
As a result, everything you do from this point forward must be intentional towards reinforcing aspects of your culture that work. Overall, organizations that are adapting well to this massive remote work experiment have invested heavily in reinventing processes and touchstones that align with their desired values, norms, and goals. In simpler terms, it's about rethinking how your employees will work together.
Challenges of Remote Culture
Remote work culture is an unconditional feeling of connection co-workers experience when they’re bonded by similar priorities, interests, and attitudes. This feeling of connection survives when people don’t see each other on a regular basis. Strong work cultures give people an unshakable sense of belonging.
Corporate culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by the organization's leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions and ideologies.
This being said, it can be difficult to establish a sense of community and build the bonds that establish a lasting culture. The hard truth is that nothing can really replace face-to-face interactions - scientifically, there's something about being in each other's presence that allows us to form chemical connections with each other to promote a sense of emotional closeness. Plenty of research shows that our ability to connect meaningfully to others is less satisfying when we’re not physically present and that shared understanding is harder to establish and more likely to suffer from “drift” as we spend time apart. The absence of shared context, from body language to water cooler conversations and favourite shared kitchen snacks, dilutes these myriad signals that convey culture.
Buffer’s State of Remote Work Survey established “loneliness” as the second biggest struggle with working remotely.
In other words, a remote culture doesn't necessarily have to lead to a diluted culture - cultural beliefs and norms are still being created and reinforced, but they’re just not being guided by the same systems and routines that were previously established in the office. They’re more subject to influence from new, non-work factors present in employees’ day-to-day lives.
Key success factors in building a winning remote culture are:
- Invest in your talent
- Commit to a flexible balance of elevated remote experiences and these crucial in-person elements
Especially if you're transitioning towards building a culture fit for a remote environment, it's not about incremental change — you must recognize that culture is evolving despite being remote and that organizations need to invest a substantial amount of time and energy into keeping their cultures on track or steering them in new directions. Redefining your company culture will help you to match the new rhythms that emerge as your company grows and takes on new challenges. A strong culture will also help you find your people (because they're out there!) and keep everyone close together.
Assess: The Culture Audit
What is a Culture Audit?
"The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process."
- Harvard Business Review
It's time to reflect on and tailor your company culture to support the future of your business.
As Chris Cancialosi wrote in Forbes, "Your doctor won’t give you a prescription without taking every symptom into account and identifying the root issues driving your illness, and an ineffective culture is the equivalent of an underlying heart condition — not readily visible, but potentially deadly nonetheless."
A culture audit sheds light on a company’s core DNA, the underlying behaviours, norms and processes which guide decision-making, problem-solving, and cross-functional collaboration and communication. This level of transparency will grow your awareness of what your culture is truly about and how different elements are enabling and hindering your ability to drive your strategy and consequently, your growth potential.
Auditors are now looking at the primary drivers of human behaviour. These underlying cultural signals might not be obvious to the untrained eye, but they’re critical to driving organizational success. You must not observe what people are doing but begin pinpointing why people act a certain way. This will prove to be essential for truly motivating your team members and encouraging genuine productivity.
There will never be the "right" time to conduct an audit, but putting it off doesn’t make these deep-rooted, internal issues go away. Auditing your culture is the first step toward creating a truly sustainable, productive, and healthy work culture.
Why Perform a Culture Audit
Performing a "Culture Audit" is an essential step in evaluating how effective your current culture is towards reaching your goals and achieving healthy growth.
A recent report presented by The Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors identified the prominent need to conduct audits on corporate culture and called for internal auditors to incorporate these key elements within their audit processes — this suggestion demonstrates a drastic change to traditional auditing processes, which evaluate quantifiable aspects of business such as inventory.
Questions to Ask During a Culture Audit
Here are some guiding questions to use as a starting point for your culture audit:
- Why does our company exist?
- What is our passion? What do we want to achieve?
- What needs to be changed? What are our pain points?
- What gaps in talent, skills, attitudes, and personalities do we need to fill?
Adjust: Curate a Winning Culture
What is a Winning Culture
Recognize those who live and breathe your culture
Your people want more than a steady paycheck and good benefits; they want to feel like what they do matters. And when your people feel like they matter, they’re more likely to become culture advocates—that is, people who not only contribute to your organization’s culture but also promote it and live it internally and externally.
Letting Leadership Lead
Whether intentional or not, the strongest leadership values and norms trickle down to mould your company’s culture and your people's behaviour.
To truly develop a great culture, there can be no special rules or exceptions for any subgroup. Your leadership team should consist of the strongest cultural fits, and as the faces and role models of the company, they will show others how to adopt, uphold, and demonstrate the values, ideologies, and beliefs of your company.
An inflection point as prominent as COVID-19 serves as an incredible opportunity to capitalize on the shift to remote work by profoundly resetting the culture while also crafting new ways to reinforce certain elements. When existing in the same office, leaders implicitly transmit culture by modelling behaviours and norms in the presence of their employees. These same signals must exist when remote as well; however, they’re much harder to detect and interpret by these same employees. After deciding on the type of culture they want, leaders must identify appropriate communication methods, and how and when to send them without distortion.
At Slack, we’ve seen this as an opportunity to make executives more approachable, show our own vulnerability, and transform the culture into one that more explicitly values individuals and individuality. All-hands meetings that were once monthly, hour-long formal productions are now bi-weekly, 20-minute updates, with executives dialling in from home (featuring the occasional kid crawling onto a lap), combined with more town hall-style “ask me anything” sessions conducted online. The point is to meet people where they are, project openness, and build the same culture of empathy internally that we expect our employees to demonstrate externally with our customers.
Finding Your People
Repeat after me: Do not accommodate everyone. (Yes, you heard that right.)
Only hire people that fit within your culture through a disciplined hiring process. Especially under pressure, the desire for growth and searching for top talent may blind you to obvious signs of a cultural clash. Everyone must buy into your culture, both naturally and intentionally, or it will prove to be an issue later on. Develop the discipline to consider new hire cultural compatibility and reinforce its importance in the onboarding process as well.
Your business culture will be unique and refined to help you achieve your goals - that means what works for one organization may not work for another. Attempting to define conditions that are too general, inclusive, and broad may lead to an uncomfortable work environment for everyone involved instead.
Action: Implement and Reinforce
Biggest Mistakes Leaders Make
The most common mistake in regards to organizational culture is defining it, only to soon forget about it. Many organizations may let it go unmanaged or delegate it to the HR functions, where it becomes a secondary concern. Even the most detailed, thoughtful strategies and execution plans can disappear without some sort of metric or measurement system.
Building culture requires your team’s buy-in: Companies generally have a person or a small team whose “job” it is to organize culture-building of events. It’s important to remember that culture itself cannot come from one person or one team. It can’t be forced onto people—it is dictated by the collective.
‘Zoom fatigue’ is real: Our collective screen time has been through the roof since the pandemic began—and it’s having a number of negative impacts on our health, including cognitive function and sleep quality. We’ve been living in this reality for so long that it can sometimes be easy to forget that we are still in a global pandemic. And though the switch to working from home is no longer temporary, people are still getting used to it. It’s crucial to not take things personally during this time—if no one comes to a planned event, don’t have hurt feelings. The novelty of virtual happy hours may have been fun for people last spring, but maybe now it’s time to adjust.
Culture Assists With Onboarding
We now know that organizational culture can also serve as an aligning force at your company, but this is especially true with new hires who, more often than not, have put some considerable thought into the type of culture they’re entering into.
The culture at your organization is ultimately a guiding force for new hires, so it’s important that it starts with onboarding - the first formal touchpoint they have with your company. With well-aligned staff, they should also see this behaviour being modelled and demonstrated with every company interaction they have.
“People fail in new jobs because of poor fit, poor delivery or poor adjustment to changes down the road. Assuming you’ve aligned the organization around the need for your new employees and acquired them in the right way, your onboarding program should accommodate their needs (so they can do real work), assimilate them into the organization (so they fit culturally) and accelerate their progress (so they can deliver and adjust).”
- George Bradt in Forbes
Develop a plan: This plan should include a 2-week introduction and onboarding, as well as what onboarding will continue to look like 30, 60, or 90 days out. Full-time remote workers take longer to onboard. The purpose of this plan and setting all the meetings ahead of time will reduce the stress and anxiety that new hires can often experience. It also ensures they are being introduced to all the necessary people, processes and projects, giving them a clearer picture of their role and responsibilities.
Leadership must be assessed across all levels and functions. Everyone's insights, opinions, and experiences, workers and leaders alike, must be gathered, evaluated, and communicated to decision-makers. Problems that consequently result in low morale or hurt productivity aren’t typically topics of conversation that workers tend to enjoy chatting about with their superiors. It is crucial to recognize the underpinning issues concerning this inability to be transparent and honest no matter how friendly and open-minded you believe yourself to be as a leader. Objective auditors create an opportunity for people to express their opinions without fear of retaliation.
You may find the need to bring in experts who have reliable methods for quantifying culture and presenting their findings to business leaders to inform decisions that mitigate risk and position them for long-term success. Understanding and assessing culture can be of complex nature, where unskilled or unqualified auditors can run the risk of further increasing this risk instead.
Once you gather the necessary information, this data must be weighed against industry benchmarks before opening a dialogue to develop effective strategies to drive productive behaviour necessary for company growth.
While “culture” is not one person’s job, it should be one person’s (or one team’s) job to facilitate check-ins on the individual level. Since you aren’t just passing people in the hallway or seeing them at the water cooler, you’ll have to be active and intentional about setting up a one-on-one time to talk—especially when it comes to onboarding new hires. Both qualitative and quantitative data are useful here, as do individual chats for anecdotal information if possible, but surveys are also a great way to fill in the missing puzzle pieces with numbers.
Culture at Onova
What Does Culture Mean To Us?
At onova, culture is a top priority with the goal of providing freedom to do work that you enjoy, and do work the way that you want. From day one, we strive to make our employees feel important, supported, and part of not only a team, but also a family. Our philosophy is that people are the happiest in an environment that brings out the best in everyone, and by curating a great team culture, Onova becomes a place that everyone loves to work at.
Trust and Psychological Safety
Earlier, we discussed the importance of having feedback set as an expectation. Especially if you're not experienced in leading a remote team, chances are you won’t get everything right the first time; however, this process is easier said than done.
Trust and psychological safety are imperative for any workplace. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’
“Teams that are emotionally connected can be vulnerable with one another because there is a baseline of safety and trust in the relationship. This means they’re more willing to share that crazy idea or push back when they see something that they don’t agree with.”
- Jesse James Garrett, Chief Creative Officer at Adaptive Path
Although trust, honesty, and psychological safety should be an obvious and given cultural element at any organization, we wanted to share how we cultivate and reinforce our environment of psychological safety with remote employees here at Onova:
It all starts at the top: This is another key opportunity for company leaders to model behaviour by showing up with humility, curiosity, and interest. Leaders will set the expectation that it’s alright to make mistakes and should be proactive to promote participation. As co-founders who work closely with our employees, we ask for feedback more often than not via:
- all-hands sync-ups
- smaller project meetings
We encourage asking your employees and teams to do the same with each other to build a culture of open feedback.
Education is key: During our onboarding processes at Onova, we teach our employees how to give constructive feedback that avoids pushing blame and making things personal. Then, we run through scenarios and walk through how the critical element of constructive feedback should be deeply integrated into every step we take as we collaborate and work together. Doing so boosts employee engagement for the whole team and promotes positive working relationships.
Recognizing How People Work
At Onova, we make it a point to acknowledge the differences in the way our employees learn and work. As a part of our onboarding process, team members take a 16Personalities test and prepare a short presentation to help team members understand how to effectively collaborate and set boundaries with one another.
Our culture values flexibility, allowing our employees to mould their work lives to fit in with their passions and work styles. As a part of this commitment, our team is able to work from anywhere in the world as long as it aligns to client hours.
One of the most important roles of a leader is to create a great team culture. A culture that invests in the happiness, personal development, and well-being of employees will be rewarded with greater talent, job satisfaction, and performance.
At Onova, we pride ourselves on our winning culture, creating an environment that is truly enjoyable and rewarding to work in. Read on to learn about the principles that guide our culture-building strategy.