If you’ve spent any time around me you’re likely to have heard me talk about company culture in some shape or form. I feel it’s one of the of the most important parts of a company, and yet feel it is also one of the most overlooked.

In the first part of this epic two-part series, I’d like to explain what I think culture is and why I believe it is so important to a company. In the next part, I’d like to discuss what we can do to foster a good culture in a company.


What is culture?

Culture is a word that is difficult to define. As with any word that is difficult to define, I turn to Wikipedia:

Organisational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the social and psychological environment of an organization.

Paraphrasing this surprisingly accessible definition, your company culture is how it feels to be part of your company, and also how it generally behaves.

Let’s leave the company setting for a moment, and head to your local café. When you walk in, you’re greeted with some quiet music playing in the background, comfy chairs and the smell of coffee. It’s designed to be a welcoming place and - if your local café has got it right - it is a welcoming place.

What I’ve just described isn’t culture, in my opinion; it’s the environment. How do people behave in the café? In my local café, there is a mix of different groups: there are big groups of friends chatting, all the way to “one man and his phone” sat at the back. However, there are patterns: everyone goes to the counter, buys something and sits down; groups rarely talk to one another; and despite the constant whirr of the coffee grinders, complaining about noise is frowned upon. This, I believe, is part of the culture of a café - it’s the unwritten rules and traditions of a place or group of people.

What is your office like? Does it feel like a café, with groups of people gathering round to talk; or is it more of a library - a quiet, contemplative place? Is there a shared tea-making ritual? Do colleagues have lunch together in a shared area, or do they eat on their own? What are they eating - something to tide them over, or an indulgence for the middle of their day? These rules, patterns and rituals are what I would call culture.

Why is culture important?

“Why should I care about where people are eating their food? As long as they get the work done, they can do what they want!”

Companies are groups of people. I’ve found this often ignored in management teaching, referring to people as “resources” and approximating them as profit-making machines. This ignores a major facet of people, which is that they have needs that need to be addressed.

Some of the most basic needs are psychological and social, and the definition from earlier directly linked culture to these needs. Put simply, if you don’t like working in your company, you’ll go somewhere else. I think a company’s culture is the main difference between liking and disliking your work.

80,000 Hours are a non-profit oragnisation that provide evidence-based careers advice, and have written an article about the six key ingredients of job satisfaction. I’d suggest that more than half of them relate to culture:

  • Engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow (freedom, variety, clear tasks, feedback)
  • Supportive colleagues
  • A job that meets your basic needs, like fair pay, a short commute and reasonable hours
  • A job that fits your personal life

If more than half of the components for job satisfaction are affected by culture, then surely culture is an important factor of an organisation? Unless you’re in a company that embraces high staff turnover, it’s costly to not keep staff satisfied.

Why is culture often overlooked?

In the tech community we are blessed with a number of companies that prioritise culture, showing us that offices can be enjoyable places to work, even if you don’t have a big budget. However, it hasn’t always been the case, and there are still a number of companies that don’t see culture as important.

By putting yourself in the shoes of company management (if you aren’t one already), you can see why you might overlook culture:

  • It’s not an easy thing to change. A company’s culture isn’t mandated from above; it is formed organically by the staff. As a result, management can’t definitely fix a company’s culture by putting “resources” into fixing it.
  • It’s difficult to measure the effect of culture on an organisation. As with many things that are difficult to measure in a company, it is often ignored.
  • There is unlikely to be a Head of Culture in your company. Because it’s not specifically someone’s problem, it becomes nobody’s problem (depending on the culture 🙃).

And that’s it for Part 1! In the next part I’ll talk about what I think we can do to improve culture in an organisation, and outline a few experiments from my experience.

What do you think about culture? Get in touch!