What we talk about when we talk about culture

Lately, culture has been a favorite buzzword in any HR-related conversations, both at startups and increasingly in the corporate world. Companies appreciate that culture is important throughout the lifecycle of an employee — from attracting to retaining the best talent — which is in turn directly related to the bottom line.

But what does culture really mean? Is it a ping pong table, a fridge stocked with free goodies, or a list of values framed on the wall? (Hint: none of these things, although recently we have been made to think so.) Further, does a culture form organically or can it be shaped and guided, and if the latter, how do you consciously foster culture — both as an executive and as an employee?

Some innovative companies have been thinking about these questions long and hard, so we brought them together to our third HR Technology Showcase event. Here are the insights that Hired, Median, CultureIQ and Button shared with us.

Organizations take care of business differently. Simply put, a company’s culture is the way that people work together to get things done.

Culture should start with the first step of an employee’s work with a company: recruiting. Yet, this seems to still be work in progress at best. A recent Gallup poll has confirmed what many suspected: a large portion of people are unhappy with their jobs (70% of people, in fact). One possible explanation for this high rate of dissatisfaction is poor alignment with the company’s culture.

In general, employers are typically looking for people who both have the requisite hard skills and can adapt to the current team and embody or even add to the culture in place. Job candidates are looking for assurance that they will be valued contributors to their company and the products or services that they will have a hand in creating. Employers should recognize this dynamic and use it to their advantage during the hiring process.

Hired, a leading job search marketplace, suggests that employers should “remove friction” from the process at the onset. Variables such as compensation, location, and availability, — which the Hired platform displays upfront — should be addressed during initial conversations so that they do not distract from conversations around cultural fit. People departments should have a clear concept of the cultural aspects of the work environment that a candidate will be entering prior to the interview process. This way, questions can be crafted to evaluate whether candidates will be well suited for the environment in which they are expected to perform.

Speed in the hiring process also matters. The time that people take to decide their next workplace is negatively correlated to the number of offers they receive. In other words, the best people get a lot of offers, so the faster employers can evaluate a candidate and make an offer, the greater the chance of bringing that top candidate onboard.

Once you buy into the importance of understanding culture upfront and using it proactively in getting to know your job candidates, the failures of using resumes as a first decision-making tool in recruiting become obvious. Trying to understand a candidate’s culture fit based on a piece of paper is a lost cause. Instead, a better approach could be relying on trusted third-party information on a candidate’s soft skills, personality and workplace behaviors and preferences. day100 collects such information to help employers make more data-driven decisions that are based on the candidate’s traits and characteristics that really matter to success and performance on the job.

After a person is hired, the values that a company promotes should align with how individuals and teams accomplish their work. While this may seem obvious, it can be difficult to implement on a consistent basis. Median, an organizational culture consultancy company that calls itself a “culture lab”, holds that culture can be leveraged to improve operational processes. In this process, they emphasize the role of People Departments, which are increasingly going beyond simply managing hiring and benefits. Indeed, People Departments are uniquely positioned within organizations to integrate culture into daily operations. They are becoming instrumental in the process of aligning a company’s stated values with how people go about their work. As Athena Diaconis from Median states:

“The head of HR should be your new COO.”

Given the importance of integrating culture into operations, we were interested in looking into specific tools and practices that cement this into a company on an ongoing basis. Button, a mobile app e-commerce integration company, has found a method that works for them: the performance review. But this is not your old-fashioned annual performance review; rather a rebranded, unique process that they call Kaizen Conversation, named after the Japanese term that reflects the continued pursuit towards personal growth and efficiency.

The Kaizen Conversation was born after reflection on the standard questions that Button’s co-founders had been asked during quarterly evaluations at previous jobs. They realized that the evaluation criteria did not closely mesh with the values that they as a company sought to promote. As a result, the process was revamped. With input from members across the organization, Button created Kaizen Conversations. Instead of an untimely run-through of a list of check-marks, they focus on personal impact of each employee, and incorporate criteria linking directly to the principles and values to which the the company aspires.

Everything about culture starts with people-led efforts and practices, but technology can be a strong partner, offering powerful tools that help companies foster, evaluate, and track culture at companies. With a little help from technology, People Departments are accomplishing tasks more efficiently, and have a better understanding of how various cultural initiatives can be developed, scaled, and monitored.

For example, CultureIQ, a culture engagement software company, goes beyond the marketable-but-ultimately-inconsequential perks that a company may offer, and instead looks at what really matters: how culture impacts the business as a whole. They have identified ten qualities that lead to a strong workplace culture, which include innovation, support, mission and value alignment, collaboration, and performance focus. Companies use this information to shape culture by receiving feedback on these key indicators, responding to this feedback by implementing initiatives, and measuring the resulting changes.

Be warned: culture cannot be “fixed” overnight — make too many large changes and the wheels might come off. However, the ability to organize data, run analytics, and see how initiatives lead to shifts in their culture, makes gradual and continuous culture improvement more attainable.

So when you think about culture, don’t think just about adding perks. Instead think about how people are getting their work done, and how that process can be made more efficient and productive for everyone. Three tips: remove obstacles, facilitate communication, and use technology as a partner.

This article is based on our experiences at day100, as well as on insights shared at our HR Technology Showcase by Athena Diaconis (Median), Andre Charoo (Hired), Jeremy Hamel (Culture IQ), and Stephen Milbank and Stephanie Mardell (Button) — thank you all!

Don’t miss the next showcase on August 2nd, where we will be discussing “investing into talent and training with innovative technology”.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.