In the first part of this two-part series I gave a definition of culture, and explained why it is an important but also overlooked part of a company.

In this part I tackle a more difficult question: what can we do to make sure we end up with a good culture?


What is good culture?

You spend a lot of time at work: you’ll be at work for roughly one third of your time awake[1], so it’s important to be happy at work. This leads to a good definition of good culture: an organisation has a good culture if the people in it are happy. This also makes sense from an employer’s perspective: hiring employees is expensive, so it makes sense to keep your employees happy because then they will stick around for longer.

A natural follow-up question is, “How do we make people happy at work?”. Let’s recap the ingredients of job satisfaction from 80,000 Hours, and also my highlighting of the attributes relating 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

So there you go - as long as your company culture is engaging, supportive, free of major negatives and fits in with your personal life, people will be happy and you can describe your culture as good.

However, there is plenty of wiggle-room in these statements: the appetite for job variety differs from person to person; what is considered supportive to one person might be an annoyance to another; and everybody’s personal life is different, so how can a company’s culture fit in with everyone’s personal life?

This leads us to a refined definition of good culture: a good company culture encourages everyone in a company to be happy, despite their differences.

This definition implicitly explains why there are no hard-and-fast rules for a good company culture: because everybody’s different, one size does not fit all. As a result, our question changes from “what can I do to make people happy?” to “how can I find out what makes people happy?”.

Changing culture

Finding out what makes people happy is really easy: ask them if they’re happy. If they are, ask them why they are. If not, ask them why they’re not. Do it in a survey, or do it down the pub, or get someone else to do it. But ask: after all, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Next, do something about it. Trying to avoid a cliché (and failing), the first step towards changing culture is starting a culture for change. Once a group sees the culture as something that is talked about and changed, they start being more open about the things they’d like to see and happier to try new things out to see if they work.

At Trussle, we’ve formalised this into a retrospective, an idea shamelessly stolen from agile software development. It’s a regular meeting where team members get together to discuss what went well and what could be improved since the last meeting. Anyone can suggest changes for the future and, if the team likes it, those changes will happen.

We really like retrospectives here. We have team retrospective sessions every fortnight. We have whole company retrospectives every few months. Some people even do personal retrospectives privately to improve their own behaviour. It’s one of the key ways culture changes here, and we think it works because of the reasons above: everyone starts talking about culture, so it becomes something that people want to change.

How can I change the culture?

“But I’m not a manager: I’m just part of a team. How can I change the culture of the organisation?”.

As mentioned in the first part of this blog series, managers don’t dictate the culture of an organisation: it’s a shared set of values and behaviours, so it’s everyone’s responsibility. This is beneficial because it means everyone can start a culture change.

Your enthusiasm to change something is an incredibly valuable resource, so it’s important that there are no barriers to stop you. Here are some tips to avoid barriers:

  • Start small. The bigger a change is, the more people you need to buy into the idea, and the more likely someone is going to resist it. So start with yourself or a small group, and work your way outward: good ideas will get bigger, and bad ideas will die off.
  • It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. By the time you’ve received approval from your manager, all your enthusiasm will be gone, so just do it. (You have my permission 😉)
  • Change the environment, not the people. Trying to change the way people behave is almost impossible. Instead, try changing the work environment to encourage (or discourage) behaviours. You could put an ideas board in a prominent place to encourage people to contribute. Or you could discourage interruptions by hiding away in a meeting room.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part series and have a bunch of ideas about what to do in your office. I’d encourage you go and do them and let me know how you do! If you’d like to listen to me talk about culture some more, then please click on this shameless plug.

Was this useful, or just interesting? I’d love to hear your feedback, so please get in touch!


Footnotes

  1. “One third of your waking hours are spent at work” is based on a 40-hour working week and 16 waking hours per day. (40 working hours vs. 112 waking hours = 36% working)