So what is work culture really?

The other day, I overheard an employee talking to her friend about her company’s awesome work culture. “They give unrestricted Internet access, I get to use Facebook and Google Chat! My boss is so cool – he is my Facebook friend. We have such fun in the office!” It was obvious to me that this employee was someone who might have started her job, less than two years ago at an age when the office appears to be an extended college campus. I wondered what her sentiments would be once she completed five years in the same company. Would she be happy about getting to network on Facebook, or unhappy that she didn’t get a chance to make her resume stronger?

So what is work culture, really?

Culture, as a generic term, represents the collective behavior of a community of people and their collective response to external and internal situations.

To understand this better, let’s draw a parallel between family culture and work culture.

A family is a group of different individuals brought together through marriage and child birth. A company is again a group of individuals brought together for business reasons. What then makes them successful?

Leading with purpose

By leader, I don’t mean a patriarchal head. It could mean both parents working together with a united sense of purpose and steering the family towards that purpose. How does the child learn to make his own decisions? By sounding off his thoughts and feelings to his parents and understanding the possible outcomes. His parents are his compass and he looks towards them to understand which way to go. In families with single parents, the single parent has to play the role of a responsible leader who steers the way ahead.

An organization has to indicate and communicate a strong sense of vision and purpose that echoes in everything they do. While cafeterias, unrestricted Internet, camaraderie might help in attracting employees for a while, it’s the feeling of working for someone, and towards something big that truly excites and motivates them. Everyone loves being part of a big dream, a vision – even the skeptics!

Moral values and trust

Every child learns moral values like ethics, integrity, and respect from parents. Do my parents show respect towards the less fortunate? How do they respond to temptation? Do they exercise their vote? Are they sensitive about the environment? Do they treat the lesser-privileged with respect? It’s not what the parents say, but how they respond and behave. Do they keep their word, or do a volte-face when it’s the time of reckoning?

Does the leadership walk the talk? When employees complain, does management take them seriously by at least hearing them out? When customers are unhappy with their products, does the organization do what is right for the customers? Companies that let managers talk rudely to their employees can be rest assured that these employees may not treat their customers well. Such managers may look smart on the company’s portfolio, but their unhappy teams slowly stop performing and finally get disengaged from the company. Demonstrating integrity takes a lot of courage. Deep down we are idealists. We respect warriors and the brave who take courageous decisions.

Opportunities to learn and grow

Their children’s education is one of the highest priorities in every parents’ lives. Ensuring quality education, a conducive learning and supportive environment at home, and opportunities for overall development – these are the core driving factors parents consider while educating their child. Good food, gifts, a comfortable car, or a tutor – parents are willing to spend so long as they can ensure the child gets motivated and encouraged to study well.

Investing in an employee is more than providing incentives, or free Internet. Is there is a growth plan for them? What future roles can they grow into? How can employees be developed for these future roles? How do we motivate and inspire them to grow? How can we encourage them to give their best? Each of us craves for opportunities to do something new and exciting. Continuous learning opportunities combined with a long-term and robust self-development plan almost always ensures your star performers stay and help in creating more successors for you!

Unity in diversity

It’s rare for a family to have individuals with exactly the same personality! Egos clash, conflicts arise, tempers fly, resentments flare. It’s okay. As long as there is understanding, trust, respect, and acceptance and a sense of long-term purpose, it’s okay. Understanding and respecting each other’s differences helps a family bond better.

Employees do understand and would easily tolerate a leaky air conditioner, a nasty customer call, a poor product, or even an occasional bad boss, so long they believe the leadership will listen to their problems and fix them at the earliest. In times of adversity, employees look up to their leadership to see how they bring everyone together, motivate them, and help them deal with the situation.

A sense of belonging

It’s said that a family that prays together, stays together. Some families dedicate an hour every day where they eat dinner together and talk. Some of them go out for a movie once a month. Laughing together, eating together, or even cleaning the house together promotes a sense of shared purpose and belonging.

How often does leadership communicate with the employees? Is it through impersonal emails or face-to-face address? Does the leadership create an environment where they interact with their employees informally? Does the organization create opportunities for employees to walk up to top leadership to share their ideas and suggestions? Do managers roll up their sleeves and work with their teams or at least be available and approachable when employees struggle with challenging tasks?

Emotional security

“How was your day?” “How are you feeling?” “Let me help you with your homework”. These questions let the child know that he is loved and cared for. In return, the child takes efforts to support his parents and take accountability of his responsibilities willingly. The most important point here is there is no expectation on either side. The support and care is unconditional. This is true even when there is more than one child. Do parents compare siblings and spark rivalry or promote healthy competition by appreciating their differences?

Do managers at all levels take time to ask employees about their families or their insecurities? Do managers recognize their people and willingly give the right ones their due credit? Does the company promote team work and encourage credit sharing? The point to be noticed here is tying compensation to recognition is like gifting a smartphone to only one of the siblings who scored better grades. It may make the system of rewards easy, but causes deep and lasting emotional damage. We like being recognized and noticed – not necessarily with money! Being genuinely appreciated and recognized, encourages employees all the more, and you no longer have to worry about whether or not the job will get done.

Culture is not HR’s responsibility alone

Every child learns at a very young age on what is an absolute No-No. Parents may be forgiving about many things, but even the most liberal of them have certain mandates or non-negotiable rules. No lying or cheating. No disrespecting others. No foul language, please.

It’s not possible for one individual or department to take on work culture as their responsibility. The top leadership has to define the policies and code of conduct. They also need to live the values they propagate in their interactions with one another, or to their employees. HR can be a vehicle to drive and implement culture, but it really is the onus of the steer-leaders of the organization on what culture they manifest before their employees. It’s not only how top management talks during public address, but also during informal occasions.

Companies that take work culture seriously will have employees as their staunchest advocates. Such companies don’t have to work hard to find talent outside. They will find them within, consequently saving on huge costs of hiring and retaining employees. These employees in turn will work with complete dedication and accountability, and think like entrepreneurs and stakeholders of the company during all interactions with customers and the general public. Such companies also have ex-employees willing to join them back. The feeling of goodwill and positive word-of-mouth can be contagious and have far-reaching benefits like employee loyalty and customer loyalty. Like one of my friends pointed out to me, the 26/11 attack at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai is a case in point. At the risk of their lives, the hotel staff and the General Manager did whatever they could to protect and shelter their guests trapped during the terrorist attack. Many perished in their attempt. They had the choice of fleeing from the situation or leaving the job of rescuing their guests to the security agency. Nonetheless, they laid down their lives for their customers, because of their high sense of commitment, ownership and belonging to their employer.

Work culture cannot exist in silos. Like ripples in water, culture of an organization spreads from the top management and percolates down to all levels. It may sound like a sentiment, but the effects of a strong work culture can neither be ignored nor undermined. While the sales figures might dip or peak over the months, work culture is that simple yet nebulous aspect that can take a small company from mediocrity to great heights.


2 thoughts on “So what is work culture really?

  1. Geeta, I liked the way you gave examples of a family and explained the same logic for people working in a company. The concept of Work culture is very clear for me now. Thanks for sharing.


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