Workplace Culture: Through the Eyes of an Ethnographer & Designer

The struggles behind the 9–5. What it means when something that used to stable becomes unfamiliar and weird.

Yuri Zaitsev
Jan 15 · 12 min read

There was something wrong in the way Amber spoke about seeing her friends. Amber had organized a little Zoom get-together with her workplace buddies, but even though there were drinks, snacks, kids, no work, something felt hollow. It was late October and Amber would have been organizing decorations and costume parties in the office. Not this year. This year all parties were online.

It was several months into lockdowns and quarantines. Businesses had started to slowly reopen, albeit many of them remotely. Amber is an IT Manager at a large(ish) office. Amber was trying to get morale back up in her team because something felt wrong even though the work was getting finished. Her efforts left her with a deep sense of melancholy.

I recognized her expression because I had seen it before on Lesley, an HR manager in Texas, Tyler, an art director in California, and my brother-in-law, a senior engineer in Massachusetts.

Amber said the thing she missed most was getting tapped on the shoulder by passerby who needed help.

The work was getting done but the culture was wrong.

What many will tell you is that workplace culture is this environment of shared values, beliefs, and behaviors that all of the employee’s exhibit. Many self-aggrandizing CEO’s and VC firms will tell you that the founder of the organization sets the tone that is then emulated by everyone else.

“When hiring someone new you look for talent and if they are a ‘good fit.’”

“One time we tried to hire a new CEO and they just totally ruined our culture. Had to get rid of ‘em.”

This is a little too simple.

A more in-depth take on the situation comes from Tricia Emerson, a really keen author about culture and business. She notes:

You’ve felt it. Engineering believes sales overpromises. Supervisors roll their eyes at management. Operations thinks HR is a waste of time.

You are one company, but why aren’t you one team?

Tricia Emerson is referring to the subcultures that appear in an organization. Subcultures are the little groups that form. Maybe it’s because certain people happen to get coffee together, or run into each other during smoke breaks. Maybe they sit in the same section of cubicles or around the same end of a long table if the business is open space.

Amber’s team is a subculture.

Again the common belief is that the leader is the conduit of the overarching culture of the company. The flag bearer of common values that everyone can get behind. The subcultures exist within the environment the leader grooms.

It gets closer to the truth but it still brings up a lot of questions and it’s hard to act upon.

I work with human behavior and complex systems, and I think there is another frame. One that is actually pretty effective. Too often when asked to describe a work culture, or even just discuss it, the conversation quickly turns into a dead end. “It’s complicated.” Too often when implementing something across a team there are a lot of unintended consequences. Too often, culture will come up as an issue but with little agreement on what exactly culture is and what exactly is the issue.

Too often a sudden change shifts the culture. It feels weird. Suddenly, a spark that used to be there is gone and it’s not clear how to get it back.

What exactly does a “strong and vibrant culture” mean?

Let’s take the perspective from C.A.S. : Complex, Adaptive, Systems. But if we twist it with some subculture research, then we can do some pretty useful work that will help unravel cultural, Zoom induced, melancholy.

The most important example from C.A.S. that is useful right now is a flock of birds.

Ages ago, scientists used to think that there was one single alpha bird that the rest would follow. Turns out though that there isn’t one. The birds all react to each others moves according to a set of rules (there is an entire field of math that is dedicated to studying these rules).

The point is that there is no leader. It is a collection of organisms that adapt to one another to produce a great effect. Each bird follows complex patterns and adapts to it’s neighbor birds. Let’s apply this to humans.

To combine Tricia Emerson’s idea with C.A.S. it turns out that every group is a subculture. Everyone. Including the people in leadership. Suddenly this creates something really interesting.

First things first, everyone has a certain job. This job that an individual does is a role. Everyone in a society agrees to what roles are. Everyone intuitively agrees to what a doctor is, as much as they agree to what a CEO is, or what an intern is. People in their roles, acting effectively, make the world go round. If people did not agree about what different roles do, our entire society would come to a screeching halt. A business is a collection of people in different roles working together.

There are a lot of business meetings about how to have the different roles work together best and that is what strategy generally is. In fact we wrote an entire article about Org. Structure which is about designing certain roles to perform best together. People with leadership roles have a direct influence over strategy and over other roles.

That said, roles have nothing to do with culture. That is what the “Everyone is a Subculture” frame is all about.

Subcultures are the thematic opposite of roles. If roles help integrate everyone together in society, subcultures are what set people apart. Subcultures are formed when people give some aspect of society a little twist and then form a group around it. Contraculture is the most extreme version, when a group is formed around a conflict against a certain part of society.

Open space offices were made by a contraculture of office workers who did not like the plague of cubicles in corporate America. Wearing t shirts and baseball caps is the fashion part of a contraculture found in corporate America that goes against suits and ties.

Engineering, HR, Operations, Management, C-Suite Executives are all roles. A lot of shared beliefs help them work together. Engineering, HR, Operations, Management, C-Suite Executives are also subcultures. Roles and subcultures are different.

For example, a teacher is a role in society. It’s a job that everyone, for the most part, understands to some extent. Teachers as a subculture however is a more secretive thing that teachers get to be a part of that is distinct from their role. They may have exclusive meetings, go on strikes together, share some common feelings about particular policies, etc.

People in subcultures have symbols that define them. Some have uniforms. Some through costume parties during Halloween in the office.

So what is a good workplace culture?

Is it a really optimized configuration of roles who all can produce something together? No.

That is like the USA having a NBA All Star basketball team in the Olympics. Sure the team is probably going to do well for a while, but it will be full of internal conflict and lack of chemistry among the players. This is a Vox article discussing this exact problem during the 2000, ’04, ’08, and ’16 Olympics.

So what is a good workplace culture?

A “good” workplace culture is one where all the subcultures can create a shared meaning among themselves. This idea immediately helps create a super effective frame around workplace culture.

If a workplace is seen as a complex system of subcultures, then you can directly analyze culture. This is the fundamental backbone in figuring out how to get the cultural spark back.

The first thing you can do is examine how complex systems of subcultures create shared meaning. The next useful example from C.A.S. is bees, and how they communicate. In order to create consensus across the hive, bees buzz while doing this little waggle dance. It’s an intricate show as the hive is making a decision. The bees each have a complex waggle dance, and they adapt to the neighbor bees as they listen to each other.

Humans are slightly more complex than bees, especially when grouped in subcultures. Subcultures create consensus among themselves in really specific, particular, ways. Some subcultures do this through word of mouth, online forums, some over phone calls, others use in-person meetings. Sometimes this could be a large scale publication, like a magazine or blog, and sometimes it’s a combination of particular communication methods.

The extent to which a person is involved in a subculture can be seen by how important this type of communication is to the individual, and also how frequently that individual participates in this type of communication.

You could have a group of mechanics working in a machine shop who all go on smoke breaks together. The ones who go the most often and find the smoke breaks really important are going to be the most invested in that subculture. There could be a mechanic who also finds it important, just doesn’t go for a smoke break as frequently. That mechanic won’t be as influential or as invested in this group.

A “good fit” in a subculture is a person who finds that particular method important and communicates in that way frequently.

Hahaha look at Rachel trying to get into a subculture. Rachel knows this is important, but she clearly does not do this often. If the other two women had the power to hire Rachel into their smoking club, they probably won’t by deciding that Rachel is “not a good enough fit.”

The next thing to examine is how several subcultures create a shared meaning together. The thing about subcultures is that as much as they are unique in methods of communicating within the group, they are as unique in how they communicate to other groups.

Any two subcultures will have a totally unique way of communicating.

Many workplace CEO’s wrongly believe that the leadership team are the conduits of culture. When a leader or controller blasts out a message to the rest of the organization, they usually only affect roles. They can fire certain roles, make them work faster or smarter, fund roles etc.

But this tactic rarely affects culture, nor is it an effective way of producing culture because that is not how subcultures work. A shared meaning and value does not spread through company wide emails or blast messages. The meaning is communicated a thousand different ways between subcultures, each time looking different. In fact the value itself could take a different shape depending on what subculture it’s in.

If a company determines that it needs to be “transparent,” the C-Suite executives will act transparently, but that will look different than an engineering team acting transparently. The way “transparency” as a value is going to get communicated between the teams will probably involve many strange, formal, and informal channels.

In a nutshell, if a hive needs to move, then the bees start waggle dancing at each other. Each type of bee has a slightly different waggle dance that the other bees respond to with their own little dance. As soon as the bees have a majority consensus about where to go through all their collective waggle dancing, then they move.

Here is when it gets really useful. A few paragraphs ago I wrote that there is a field of math that studies C.A.S. These mathematicians and other scientists have figured out ways to map these complex systems. You can abstract a beehive into a map. You can also map the internet. You can even map a financial economy. These maps shows you what message goes where, how, and why it spreads. Specifically the maps the mathematicians create are lines of communication across nodes in the map.

This is what the Internet circa 1999 looks like after a lot of math. Source.

Workplace culture can be mapped the same way. This would be a map of different subcultures. It won’t be as complicated as the internet map.

On the map you would note how a subculture communicates within itself, and then connect it to other subcultures in the workplace to create a web. Each of these strands represents a unique line of communication. Control comes from understanding and predicting using this map.

One last piece we have not really discussed yet is the A in C.A.S. Everything up till now has been about C. A stands for Adaptive.

These lines of communication on the map are evolving constantly. They are also vulnerable to sudden changes that cause them to shift irreversibly. In systems science this effect is called a fragile interdependence. Understanding particular workplace cultures means staying on top of how the map changes and why it changes when it does.

On a more abstract level, these changes look like cultural appropriation. By appropriation I mean when one subculture takes a symbol that another subculture relies on and gives it a new meaning. Both subcultures change and this tends to create a new dynamic between the two.

On a really physical level, it could look like an internet black out in a certain area that causes a group of people to not be able to talk to one another or the outside world, like in Italy in 2003. Or it looks like a pandemic that forces people, who used to speak in person, to communicate online. What suffers is culture, because it has wrecked the dynamics between so many subcultures.

During the pandemic that begun in early 2020, I have designed for many clients, CEO’s, Directors of Technology, and the biggest complaint is people floundering from the sudden change. As people spent longer in lockdowns, things just started feeling weird and different.

Many organizations had functioning communication between subcultures, but they didn’t realize it. A lot of management seemed determined to recreate previous lines of communication online. If they weren’t working, then clearly they just had to do them more often. Unfortunately, that is not how subcultures work. The map has shifted irreversibly. There is a reason why having drinks with coworkers over Zoom does not feel as good as having them together in a bar.

The subculture’s communication within itself and to it’s neighbors has been thrown off kilter. The shared meanings, symbols, and stories that the subculture relies on don’t spread. The waggle dance has been ruined.

Fixing it is not easy. But it’s possible. When a complex system, like our flock of subcultures, changes suddenly it is not simply a matter of fixing the broken thing and going back to how things were. In this situation there is a concept called hysteresis which means that this system will probably never return to the way it once was. As in the case of the Arctic marshes in Hudson Bay.

The Hudson Bay lowlands are austere plains covered in moss, grass-turning-into-peat, and permafrost. The lowlands are on the edge of an ice-covered sea that connects Canada to the Arctic circle and Atlantic Ocean. During the few months that resemble Summer, Beluga whales make the surrounding waters home as the frost softens to be replaced by dense fog. Snow geese graze in the Hudson Bay during migration, but between the 1980’s and late 1990’s the snow geese population grew from an estimated 5000 pairs of birds to 44,500 pairs.

The Southern coast of the Hudson Bay was becoming overgrazed and the vegetation was not having a chance to regrow. Over those years, the Hudson Bay coast became barren. Scientists ran a study where they built fences to keep the snow geese from coming in. Even though the snow geese were not grazing anymore, some experimental sites never recovered because the exposed soil became salted from the surrounding seawater. The only way the researchers could help some sites begin to grow vegetation again was by carefully cultivating the soil, tracking tidal and fresh water shifts, and seeding new plant life.

The dynamics between subcultures adapt constantly. Designing new ones takes careful effort and a lot of understanding. But with time and consideration, subcultures will establish new lines of communication and create new meanings.

That is what a strong, vibrant, culture looks like.

Footnotes:

Here is an additional foodie article about adapting during the pandemic.

This article is a Q&A for developing empathy for the non-obvious and misunderstood.

Yuri Zaitsev is an ethnographer who designs for communities around the world to become resilient and take control of challenging situations. He teaches about empathy, needfinding, and flow in certain universities and workshops.

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