Where Do Perks End and Where Does Culture Begin?

What is company culture really?

The culture of a workplace is an ongoing, ever-evolving, open-ended system. This system is made up of the personal and relational expression or manifestation of several cultural attributes. These attributes can be anything from the sorts of conversations people have while they eat their lunch, to how meetings are run and decisions are made.

Cultural attributes ≠ perks (necessarily).

They aren’t tangible objects, artifacts, plans, or perks alone — like a ping pong table or calendar of events — but the intangible and unseen ways in which people use, participate in, and talk about that ping pong table or events on the calendar. Cultural attributes are the practices, behaviors, interactions, mindsets, communication patterns, and power dynamics that are in constant play with the more concrete objects and elements. These attributes also aren’t necessarily unchanging or unchangeable.

How about an example:

Consider meetings at your organization. Right now, those meetings probably happen in similar way each time, with varying degrees of productivity depending on the topic or the people present. It’s really easy to fall into routines with the way that we share information and communicate with one another. For example, I’ve coached teams within multiple organizations where the cultural norm was to prepare a slideshow for every single type of meeting they had — including one-on-ones. This norm contributed to a culture of planning and perfection that was overly formal, risk-averse, and slow to react, change, and adapt. My role in these situations was to help people learn to communicate, think, and explore together without a Powerpoint leading the way.

It’s easy to take for granted the way meetings happen, and to feel that they’re unchangeable. Although there will most likely always be meetings (as much as you might wish otherwise), they don’t always have to unfold in the same way. All it takes is for someone to try a different way of running a meeting, or even participating in one for a new expression of culture to emerge. That means exploring a new way of communicating and sharing information.

There’s no culture (or change) without people.

Culture largely emerges through the taken-for-granted ways of being and working in organizations. Enabling a new manifestation of culture means shifting attention to these elements and intentionally changing them, both for ourselves and in relation to others. When we focus on the human aspects (ways we already practice our culture daily), they can inform how other elements (space, events, office amenities, perks, plans, etc.) can best support the people. In short, to get at culture, we have to start with the people who are manifesting it.

So let’s look at how and why people work.

Understanding what makes culture is a complex task, so to make it more manageable, let’s break it down, starting with some fundamental cultural attributes. First, it’s important to understand how and why people work, and how connected people feel to the organization they work for and with. Once we have a sense of the how and the why, we can delve into the meaningful connections and holistic growth that people seek through their work.

How motivated are people by the work itself?

Following Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s research, we know that when people work because of play (curiosity, pure enjoyment, problem-solving), and for purpose and potential (the outcome or impact of their work), they are working from the most powerful, intrinsic motivators. Their reasons for working are actually tied directly to the work itself, and not more destructive outside (extrinsic) motivators, like social or economic pressure. This makes for a generative, energetic, and connective culture. When employees share intrinsic motivations, they’re also more likely to share a strong cultural connection to the brand and purpose of the company, and a more mutually supportive atmosphere.

Can people actually get work done, and feel empowered to do so?

The ways that people organize around and do their work, both individually and with others, has a huge impact on the culture that emerges. You can have the most incredible job description, but if actually getting your work done is a challenge, if it means you have no decision-making power, or if you’re not able to think for yourself, you’ll probably start to feel pretty frustrated. How people work together and get their work done has a huge impact on motivation, accomplishing work, and feeling successful. All are vital to culture.

How ‘meaningfully connected’ do people feel to each other?

Millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. They’re seeking meaningful connections at work and want their colleagues to be like a “second family.” This boils down to personal fulfillment, showing up authentically everyday, and feeling seen, heard, and understood. Whether people feel meaningfully connected depends on whether they have the opportunities to bond, if their conversations are real and go beneath the surface, how trusted they feel, and how scheduled they feel. Interpersonal communication from all sides is key to connection — the quality and depth of communication, as well as how communication happens, the types of conversations people have, and how authentically everyone is able to show up and share with colleagues, teams, and leaders. Giving people the time and space to feel connected to themselves as well as others is key. A culture of self-care, feedback, and honest communication is what we’re aiming for.

How much are people growing — and in what ways?

Today, personal and professional growth can’t be regarded as separate — they are intimately entangled. Work is deeply personal, whether we want to admit it or not. We are asked to bring more of ourselves to bear on our work, even in cultures that don’t encourage bringing your whole self to work. In our rapidly changing and accelerating global economy, everyone is challenged more and more to show up with innovative ideas, to self-manage, to demonstrate higher degrees of personal responsibility and self-direction. These skills aren’t just required for executive leadership anymore. These skills require continued growth and development well into our adult years. Expecting people to be able to figure it all out because they’re smart doesn’t support culture growth and development over time. We believe self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a clearly articulated set of organizational strategies, paired with shared culture guideposts (like actionable values), are crucial for growing and developing people today.

To create change, we need to understand our culture.

Countless cultural attributes are brought to life by and through people at work. They’re often subtle, unseen, or taken for granted. This is why culture can feel so nebulous and hard to pin down. When defining and understanding culture is so difficult, it’s tempting to fall back on superficial or symbolic approaches. People tend to focus purely on the inanimate, supporting stuff, and as a result ignore the ever-present—and important—human aspects. If we turn our attention to these everyday attributes, then we can bring these elements into the conversation. We can use them to better steer and adapt during those inevitable moments when our plans change. By identifying the cultural attributes that make up such important parts of our company cultures, we can better determine the ones that we need to intentionally shift to make the changes we want to see.