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Office Culture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Got questions about office culture? Doodle has the answers!

It’s the buzzy phrase that’s flying around workspaces – but what exactly is office culture? How can you build it, change it, or make it work for you? In our deep dive into office culture, we’re looking beyond the buzz…

So…what is office culture, exactly?

It’s probably come up in your meetings or featured in your company-wide communications, but maybe you’re still not sure what exactly ‘office culture’ is. That’s okay! It’s actually a pretty hard concept to pin down, and different workplaces might use the concept to mean different things. But, in a nutshell, office culture is the personality of your workplace – its shared beliefs, values, goals, ethics, expectations and attitudes: it’s the behaviours that a firm encourages and accepts.

At Doodle, for example, our home base is in Zurich and we also have offices in Berlin, Belgrade, and Tel Aviv. But while each of our offices is different, they’re all places where energy and innovation are prized. When we’re in the office, whether we’re in Switzerland or Serbia, we share a common objective: to make meetings happen – as simply, intuitively, and effectively as possible.

Why does office culture matter?

Let us count the ways! A positive office culture promotes employee engagement and satisfaction, encourages cohesive teamwork, ensures higher-quality hires and higher rates of staff retention and – here’s the big one – lays the groundwork for exceptional employee performance.

Why should I define office culture?

So, here’s the thing about office culture: your workplace already has one, whether or not you’ve given it any thought or tried to define it. In the absence of a defined concept for office culture, a culture will form naturally. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but trust us: if you haven’t defined your office culture, you’re missing out on key opportunities to shape the values and atmosphere that you want to see in your workplace.  Without a defined office culture you might end up hiring employees that don’t fit, or tolerating management styles and workflows that are less than ideal.

Image shows an employee with a marker writing notes

How can I define office culture?

The process of defining office culture will look different for every workplace, and every stage of business development.

If you’re a bootstrapped start-up about to hire your first employees, then coming up with a definition might be easy. Sit down, and come up with a mission statement for company culture. Every workplace’s statement will look different, but here are some things we recommend you think about:

Objectives What’s your workplace’s collective goal?

Values What core values underpin the work you do?

Management What management style are you aiming for?

Team What skills, attitudes, and attributes do you value in employees?

Practices Think: onboarding, offboarding, leave, benefits….

Policies Do you have core working hours? A dress code?

Environment Is your space casual and colourful? Sleek and professional?

If you’re an established company without a defined office culture, things might get a little trickier. You might have to manage multiple – or even competing – perceptions of office culture among your team. Try and bring everyone on the same page by seeking feedback and conducting employee surveys around the topics of office culture and work satisfaction. Then you can set out a defined office culture.

If you’re workplace already has a clearly defined office culture, that’s great! But make sure that definition is more than just a printout in your onboarding pack. Check in regularly to make sure that the office culture you want isn’t any different to the office culture you have.

How do I build office culture?

Define If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve already completed the first step towards building a positive office culture: actually defining it.

Recruit Don’t just hire employees for their skills and experience – hire them for what they’ll bring to your office culture. Treat cultural fit as one of the main selection criteria for new candidates. Use the interview process as an opportunity to determine whether or not a candidate will gel within the workplace. If your office culture rewards initiative and independent work, it’s no use hiring someone who like being told what to do – even if theirs is the most impressive C.V that comes across your desk.

Retain Once you’ve hired the right people, keep them! High employee retention rates are better for morale, performance, and the bottom line. A flexible, positive, and respectful working environment will go a long way to ensuring that your employees stay your employees for a long time. A good atmosphere is an excellent predictor of good performance and staff satisfaction.

Collaborate Everyone contributes to forming and sustaining office culture – that’s why teamwork should be central to yours. Encourage a sense of collaboration and ownership – emphasise that your employees are part of a team, not just cogs in a machine.

How do I improve office culture?

Sometimes your office culture is thrown off-course, but with some effort it can be adjusted and improved. Here are some things to try if you feel like your office culture just isn’t working

Be Open Ensure your office culture is one that promotes transparency and trust. Keep the channels of communication open, through slack channels, regular meetings, and an open-door policy.

Reward and Recognise A workplace can’t just say they value certain behaviours, attitudes, and outcomes: they need to put their money where their mouth is. Recognise and reward the behaviours you encourage in theory when you see them in action. The form of the reward is up to you – it could be a promotion or a bonus, or simply a public acknowledgement of excellent work.

Keep Values in Sight Make sure your office culture aligns with your company’s core values on every level. Is your company ‘family-friendly’? Great! Make sure your family leave policies and flexible working hours reflect that.

Consistent Feedback In a functional workplace, feedback should flow consistently between managers and employees and throughout teams. Make sure office culture isn’t a neglected topic in your feedback sessions.

Prioritise Culture Your office culture isn’t something that happens spontaneously. And once you’ve established it, you can’t neglect it. Make it a priority to continuously monitor, adjust, and improve your office culture.

How can I appraise office culture?

Remember how we said your office culture should drive your recruitment practices? Well, the same applies if you’re being recruited: you need to gauge if your prospective workplace and its office culture will be a good fit for you. But how? The interview process might give you a glimpse of your potential new job’s office culture, but it’s difficult to get the full picture. A few clever questions, however, can help you get a handle on the theme. Here are some questions all interviewees should ask:

How long have you been with the company?

This question is a handy way to get a sense of retention rates.

Is risk-taking behaviour encouraged?

It’s good to know whether you’ll be rewarded for taking the initiative.

How is good work celebrated? How are mistakes dealt with?

The answers to this question will give a concise insight into management style and feedback processes.

How are decisions made here?

Walking through decision-making processes will help you assess levels of collaboration and the organisational structure.

What was the last significant challenge the firm/department faced? How was it dealt with?

It’s important to know how your prospective workplace approaches problem-solving.

What kind of flexible working arrangements are in place here?

Don’t ask what kind of flexible arrangements are offered – ask what flexible arrangements have actually been implemented.

What does a typical lunch hour look like here?

A snapshot of the lunch hour is an insight into the team atmosphere.

Can you show me around?

A walkthrough of the office will give you an even stronger sense of what the office culture is like.

The image shows four empolyees looking at a phone

How can I adapt to a new office culture?

Maybe you’ve made a move from a hoodies-and-sneakers type workplace to a job that doesn’t even do casual Fridays. Or maybe you’ve come from an office where everyone clocks out at 5pm to an office that does after-work drinks every other day. On top of learning new responsibilities and workflows, changing jobs often means navigating a whole new office culture. So how can you manage it?

First of all, be observant. Take cues from your colleagues – if they offer frank feedback to management, it’s probably safe for you to do the same. If everyone on your team is at their desk by 9am, you may want to think twice about coming in at 10.30am. And don’t sweat it if you make a mistake – you’re new, and everyone should be willing to cut you a little slack.

Keep an open mind. Coming from a workplace that encourages certain types of behaviours and work-styles can make it difficult to adjust to an environment where different behaviours are rewarded. But that doesn’t mean your old office culture was better, or that there are no benefits to your new office culture. Dive into a new way of doing things and you may find it has its advantages after all.

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask why things are done in a certain order, or why some issues are prioritised over others – understanding why your new workplace operates in the way it does is critical in adjusting to its culture.

Do I need to participate in my office’s culture?

Well, the short answer is yes. If you’re in the office, you’re already participating – either in a positive or a negative way – in the culture of your office. The longer answer is yes, but try and participate in a way that works for you. You don’t have to fully engage in every aspect of your workplace’s culture. Say your office is extremely social – while it doesn’t hurt to put in an occasional appearance at the group lunches or Friday ping-pong nights, it’s also perfectly acceptable to politely decline these invitations. But if more critical aspects of the office culture are rubbing you the wrong way – maybe you fundamentally disagree with the management style, or can’t fully get on board with the firm’s business objectives – then it might be time to consider whether the office culture needs changing, or if you’re a good fit for the company.

Help! I hate my office culture!

This can be tough! And it’s also a perfectly legitimate reason to look for another position with a different company. Don’t put up with a culture that prevents you from doing your best work if you don’t need to: the fact is, if you’re a team-player in a firm that values an independent working style, you’re probably not reaching your full professional potential. But what happens if quitting isn’t an option? Or if you love the job but hate the culture? It’s time to be honest with yourself. Is your open-plan office merely something that irritates you? Or does it affect your ability to fulfil your work? Sorting out the inconveniences from the genuine problems can help you get a clearer picture of what you can, and can’t, live with at work. The bad news is, unless you’re at a small company or in a high-level management position, you might not be in a position to change the aspects of office culture that you find challenging. What you can try is changing the culture in your team, by initiating more positive workflows, practices, and habits.

What kills office culture?

So far, we’ve tried to focus on the positive. But there’s no other way of saying it: these toxic practices are guaranteed to kill good office culture. Watch out for

Too Many Rules! A code of conduct is a useful thing, but only when the rules it lays out are intuitive or necessary. Strict rules hamper flexibility and creativity and can prove irksome when they’re applied in a heavy-handed manner. Try to organise your rules around your goals and objectives and don’t conflate guidelines with rules that must be obeyed at all costs.

Micro-Management There’s a difference between a hands-on management style and micro-managing. Micro-managers stifle employee growth and prevent employees from feeling a sense of ownership of, and even pride in, their work. In extreme cases, micro-managers can be so focussed on doing everyone else’s work that they lapse in their own managerial duties. Avoid this management style at all costs!

Counter-Intuitive Communication Convoluted communication channels only cause confusion, misunderstanding, and misinformation. Make sure everyone in your office is on the same page by clarifying your preferred communication channels and styles.

A Consequence-Free Environment In every professional environment, actions should have consequences. Don’t let mistakes or breaches go unacknowledged – use them as an opportunity to course-correct and provide feedback. By the same token, unless good work is acknowledged, employees will quickly lose their drive. No-one wants to feel like they’re working in a vacuum!

Is my office culture inclusive?

A positive office culture is one in which everyone feels welcomed, valued, and able to give their input. And when we say everyone, we mean everyone: that’s why it’s important to examine the biases in your office culture. If your workplace puts a positive emphasis on coming in early, staying late, and putting in lots of face-time at outside of hours events, it might not feel welcoming to working parents, for example. It’s worth putting your office culture under a microscope, to make sure it supports and welcomes employees from a diversity of backgrounds.

Okay, but I’m a remote worker: how do I participate in office culture?

More and more, workplaces rely on remote workers. And just because they’re not in the office doesn’t mean it’s not important if they feel a part of the office culture. In fact, one of the critical challenges for managing remote teams is instilling a sense of collegiality and culture that is just as coherent and meaningful as it is for onsite workers. Remember all that stuff we said about how key office culture is for employee satisfaction and performance? It holds just as true for remote teams. So, what can you do to ensure your remote team is engaged and motivated?

Hold regular team meetings with your remote team, just as you would in the office. And if your office is made up of a mix of remote workers and onsite workers, make sure remote workers have a reliable video link to all your onsite team meetings, too. It’s not out of sight, out of mind!

Set up regular feedback dates with remote workers – just because they’re not in the office doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be made accountable for mistakes or acknowledged for their successes. Try and promote a culture of feedback that’s both formal and spontaneous, by encouraging informal feedback within the team on top of scheduled sessions.

Make use of chat platforms like Slack – a Slack chat can be more efficient and intuitive than an email chain. And make sure your Slack has a dedicated ‘watercooler’ channel, where employees can go off-topic: these casual interactions are great for team building.

As part of your onboarding processes for new remote hires, make sure they have a 1:1 meeting with everyone in their team, and any other relevant contacts in the company.

If budget allows, a team retreat at a location that’s accessible for everyone can provide all kinds of opportunities for team-building and networking.

What cool ideas can I steal – *ahem*, borrow – from other companies?

Zappos is serious about cultural fit. New employees are offered $2000 to leave after their first week, if they feel the company isn’t right for them.

Google is known for demanding mental and creative excellence from its employees. But did you know they also prioritise their staff’s physical well-being? Google employees can expect to receive free, nutritious meals and snacks every day, and they’re free to make use of the gym facilities at the Google campus.

For Squarespace, collaboration is a core value: and they have the flat hierarchy to prove it! The company employs very few people in management positions – everyone else is on the same level.

At Warby Parker, they take office culture so seriously, there’s even a dedicated team devoted to promoting and improving the culture in their workplace.

Airbnb is so serious about keeping all of their thousands of employees world-wide in the loop that they hold a biweekly world meeting!

Outdoor gear company REI actually rewards its employees for having outdoor adventures by gifting them the latest in outdoor and sports equipment.

 

By Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin

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