There's a lot of talk today about company culture and the effects of people working remotely, or in whatever hybrid way they've assembled themselves to get the work done. Primarily organizations and teams are asking if we can be the kind of connected, productive, engaging workplace we want to be without being in close physical proximity.
The question is important. It also causes a bit of a dilemma. In order to create, rebuild or even recognize our team's culture, there's a lot we need to understand. How do we judge a company or team's culture? What role does working together physically play in creating it? Maybe more important, and harder to answer is: How do we know?
Are we missing the big picture?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I'd like to quote the late Marshall McLuhan on this. (Actually, I wouldn't because it sounds pretentious and out-of-date, but it's such a great line I can't help myself…) "I don't know who discovered water, but it wasn't a fish."
What he means by this is that usually we are so busy going about our business, we see the details but not the big picture. A fish might see rocks and plants and bigger fish to hide from, but do they know there's this thing called "land"? Do they know not everyone breathes through their necks and swims to work? Or is that just how things are, and they don't give it another thought?
In our new book, The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for the Modern Workplace, Kevin Eikenberry and I challenge people to take this moment to re-examine their ideas about what they believe their workplace should look like (including whether or not it's an actual place!).
Could you define your company culture?
It might help to start with a quick definition. Culture is a lot of things, but it usually gets boiled down to; "How we do things here." This includes the details of workflow (we do everything in-house, or we outsource non-essential parts of the business.) It's also how you communicate (Do you have constant Zoom meetings? Hallway conversations? Work in project teams or as a whole unit? Use Teams to chat and collaborate until the servers blow up?). And, of course, there's the social/people component. (Are you collaborative, do you avoid conflict at all times, are you competitive with each other and that drives everyone to work harder?).
If we continue the fish analogy, a clam buried in the mud would see things very differently than a jellyfish, who floats on the tide, and that's wildly different than a fish that can self-propel and go anywhere it wants. Yet they share a "culture."
Three Components of Company Culture
We believe there are three components to determining a culture. Identifying and examining them might be helpful as you try to figure out what your culture is, and work towards an aspirational culture that accounts for the changes in how we work while being the company you want to be.
Those components are:
- Communication. How do we communicate? When do we talk in person, when do we settle for text messages? Do our communication styles fit the culture we want to have or do we need to adjust things?
- Collaboration. How does work get done, and how does your team pull together to make it happen? Every person for themselves, doing their best? (Sales organizations work like this a lot) Maybe you take a team approach that is slow because everyone collaborates and has to buy in but that gives you a focused consensus and buy-in from the team, and that's important to you.
- Cohesion. How is the morale on your team? Are people engaged and bought in? Is there a high level of trust and candor?
Examining those three components can help you understand the water you swim in. What's the culture you aspire to? What does the current water you swim in look like? What behaviors, processes, and mindsets need to change in order for them all to align and be the aspirational culture you seek? And know that you can't do it by yourself. This examination must take place as a team (what if only oysters got to define the culture?)
Identifying your team's current state, comparing it to the goal may help identify the positive parts of your existing culture, and point to where things might need to change as people aren't physically close to each other as often.