Consider the word “culture” and your mind might wander to an idealised image of an afternoon spent flitting through the rooms of a world-famous art gallery. Maybe it ventures to a fine dining experience set to the tune of classical music and high-minded conversation. Or it might, instead, think in terms of a particular set of values and customs – everything from favourite traditional foods and clothes to the time we spend with family and the in-jokes we tell one another.
The concept of “corporate culture”, by contrast, can seem decidedly grey. It has neither the glamour of the high-minded, artistic concept of culture nor the rich and intensely personal sense of self that springs from the broader idea of culture. Instead, to many people it is just that faintly hazy, general impression of how a particular workplace feels to work in. Do people talk to one another in the office? Are employees happy to voice their opinions? Is there excitement around projects and workloads?
It’s not that people don’t notice a good corporate culture – and they certainly notice its absence or an especially negative version of one – but they would probably struggle to articulate exactly what marks some workplaces out as places where their mood actually lifts when they walk through the doors each morning.
By contrast, organisations can spend a huge amount of time thinking about this corporate culture, mainly because there is a great weight of research linking employee engagement with higher organisational productivity. People who like their jobs, who enjoy being in a workplace, and who approach work with passion are also likely to produce better work, stay longer with an employer and take less time off. In theory, it looks like the most glaringly evident win-win scenario an organisation could work towards, yet a fair number still fail in the effort to foster even a passably decent work culture.
Many companies look to the examples of firms like Google and Facebook, and the widely-held conception of these workplaces as buzzing hives of creative, enthusiastic employees. Their corporate culture seems self-evident, writ large across hyper-colourful walls, scattered beanbags, and foosball tables. Employees appear to be making a consistent, boundless effort, with some even going so far as to look like they’re having honest-to-goodness fun at work.
However, organisations that seek to take wholesale from these examples and instil the same culture are likely to be disappointed. Letting loose with some artistically graffitied meeting rooms, jazzy “breakout” areas and a games console or two won’t necessarily create a sterling new culture that matches your company’s aims.
As a leader, an organisation’s culture is very much in your hands: how it is formed; what it looks like; the effect it has on productivity. What is important is identifying the kind of desirable workplace culture that reflects your own leadership style and the overall long-term vision for the company, as well as being the best fit for the needs of your workforce.
Not everyone, for example, will work at their best in an office of hyper-competitiveness or continually enforced team socialising. The technical nature of other individuals’ workloads might best suit a culture relaxed about delegation and the handing over of autonomy. Other teams’ rigidly high production standards and output might not be served well by a culture that prioritises continuous debate and ideas-sharing.
There are certainly common questions of corporate culture that an effort such as this must always answer. You need to think about the kind of relationship you want employees to feel they have with their organisation. You should consider how open and communicative the business will be. You have to look at how ideas and innovation can be most effectively encouraged.
What you should not do is approach a corporate culture as a copy-and-paste effort, cherry-picking winning attributes of leading companies without thinking how they might work in your own organisation. The danger is it could simply lead to your office looking more garish and your employees less engaged than before.
Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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