It’s easy to get bogged down in business jargon – empty buzzwords like ‘Corporate Competency’ and ‘Synergy’ are constantly being created. They’re also likely to turn off employees. In a survey conducted last year by Animal charity SPANA, seven out of ten office workers indicated that they will simply switch off if a more senior colleague starts using them. There is one phrase which is worth paying attention to however.
Company Culture has been a favourite topic in the industry for some time now. Unsurprisingly, it’s a little hard to define. This is sort of the point: company culture may be defined in a mission statement, but it evolves organically, being as much a result of shared values among employees, and the unpredictable decisions that can arise from them.
For Linsday McGregor and Neel Doshi at Harvard Business Review, it’s ultimately about employee motivation. Creating cultures formed around play, purpose and potential, rather than emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia (purposeless working) has been identified as one of the keys to the success stories of modern companies like Twitter and Zappos.
Much of company culture could be summed up as identity. Having a vision or an unofficial motto gives employees an overall purpose for their work (Airbnb’s ‘Belong Anywhere’ is a brilliant, concise example). Narrative could be considered as an elaboration of this, often describing a journey (starting in a garage, offering the world affordable furniture) which creates an emotional connection with a company for staff and customers.
Company values and practices are closely related, offering guidelines which drive employees and allow them to make the right decisions (especially important given the hundreds of unguided choices we make every day).
Rather than simply preaching a top-down message however, McGregor and Doshi recommend cultures based on transparency. Giving employees the opportunity to observe the impact of their work is essential to motivation, as are models of working which encourage collaboration. Innovators in this field include Salesforce, whose employees share ideas and analyse data in real time via an app called Chatter, avoiding the office cubicle-mentality which email can encourage. This relates to the idea of play in job design. Giving employees the opportunity to be creative with their time has well-documented benefits. Gmail and Google News both famously resulted from a policy of 20% time, in which engineers could spend a fifth of the working week on personal projects, and many similar versions of this can be found in every industry.
I’m aware that most of my examples have been from new and exciting tech companies, many of which were former start-ups. What about businesses in other industries? I’m not a Harvard Business researcher so I may not have the best examples, but I can offer my own experience at Connections Recruitment. Having joined the agency recently, I’ve been impressed with the company narrative, built around its very real origins as a thirty-year old, family-owned business with a great deal of personality and respect for its employees and clients. I’ve been offered plenty of freedom in my role as social media executive to explore new ways of representing the company, and been listened to in meetings with the Director. Being honest, these are all reasons why I’m still here. It’s easy to disregard the working practices of billion-dollar companies, but these cultural ideas are universal, and they work.