Office Culture: Ordered or Organic?

Don’t call it a buzzword – discussions on “company culture” have only just begun! But with so many companies, both big and small, turning their focus toward cultivating a culture that’s both attractive to employees and productive for clients and customers, the questions arise: How do we cultivate a company culture? Is it something ordered by the company or is it organically defined by its employees?

The most successful office culture will call for a little bit of both. It should be the responsibility of leaders in the organization to identify what they want in an office culture, and this vision can be supported by many things, such as hiring decisions and planned engagement opportunities. But, for employees to truly acclimate to a company culture, it has to have the flexibility to allow for their influence.

There are ways that this balance can be achieved.

The first step for any company to have an influence on its culture is to clearly communicate what the vision for the culture is. Whether you are a brand new company or one that has been cultivating a culture for decades, it’s important to put the vision down on paper.

In 2015, our firm produced a “culture book.” The leadership team at Obsidian spent months compiling an abundance of information that explained and showcased our culture – what Obsidian is, what we stand for, how we function and what it’s like to work here.

Over the years, we developed a number of protocols and processes that we follow, and we had bulleted lists that outlined the various elements of how we function as a firm. These are all things we explained to new hires and interns, but we hadn’t ever really sat down and put all of this together into one document.

We also took time to ask the team for their input to help explain our culture, and we not only included their quotes in the culture book, but we also used some of the words we were hearing over and over to create a word cloud that gives a snapshot explanation of Obsidian’s culture.

Once the vision has been identified and communicated, the company should create a culture plan to implement the vision. A culture plan should include ways that the culture can be played out in the organization – through processes, protocols, events, even taglines and hashtags that can be used in talking about the culture.

Want to be a place where employees can give back to the community? Schedule days where employees get to spend the morning or afternoon volunteering at their favorite local charity.

At Obsidian, our team does this on a quarterly basis. We call it Off the Rock. We choose which charity we want to volunteer for and we do it together – our office closes for the afternoon (or morning); that’s how important it is to us! Also, participation is mandatory for everyone – even our interns.

Making these events mandatory definitely falls on the “ordered” side of this discussion, but by giving the team the freedom to choose what they are going to do and when, Off the Rock has become much more of an organic affair.

For example, when we first kicked this program off, we had a good number of dog owners/lovers on our team – in fact, we used to have “bring your pet to work” days at the office often back then – and we would volunteer at various nonprofit animal shelters. However, now that we have a team member who is deathly afraid of dogs, we won’t be walking dogs anymore. And, everyone is perfectly OK with this.

It’s important that employees are allowed to impart their influence on the company culture, and that can be achieved by asking for their input and feedback regularly.

I’ve already mentioned a couple of ways that we initiate input from our team on Obsidian’s culture, but those are only a couple of the many ways we gather insight from our team on how we are doing as a firm, how things are going in their day-to-day work experiences, and how they are enjoying (or struggling in) their position.

We conduct annual surveys, hold biannual retreats and execute monthly one-on-one meetings, as well as consistently put ideas in front of them for feedback and engage them in the operations of our firm a number of ways.

While our firm has a clear leader in its owner, the company as a whole is very much influenced by everyone who works there – even our interns are invited to participate in discussions about the workings of Obsidian. This purposeful transparency allows for a culture that employees can claim as their own – one they helped cultivate and enjoy on a daily basis.