A healthy organization's culture is about more than just hiring the right people, or coming up with catchy core values. It’s a concerted effort by everyone, not just the CEO or upper management, to show up, engage, and work with each other to make those values real. Strengthening your culture is an organization-wide effort.
So, how do you build a strong company culture, and what does it mean to have one? This article looks at 10 elements of a strong corporate culture. It’s a list of focus areas for employers and employees alike, and it’s by no means exhaustive. Let’s take a look.
Key characteristics of an effective company culture
1. Core values
Your company’s list of core values is essentially the moral framework upon which your organization depends, and that’s exactly why putting some serious thought into your values is a must. After all, they’re the guiding principles your people look to gauge how to act within your organization and achieve the desired culture.
But they can’t exist solely as a list that new hires read once before promptly putting it out of their minds forever. Your core values should be cultural attributes that are lived, actionable, and observable at every level in the day-to-day operations of your organization. Additionally, your values should be subject to change and wiggle room as your company grows and the culture evolves.
2. How you work together
Ultimately, your core values should have a profound and lasting impact on how your people work together. Say one of your values is “Transparency.” Do people conduct themselves in meetings and their work freely and openly? In other words, have they internalized the value in the way they act within your organization?
How your people interact with each other and collaborate together is perhaps the most immediately visible aspect of your culture in action. People should be able to sit in on a typical meeting and get a decent sense of what your culture’s like, and which of your values are front and center, by the way people conduct themselves.
This should also be recognizable by the ways in which teams are organized, workflows move forward, tasks are assigned, and more. Ideally, your organization and its people have taken the time to ensure that each of your defining values exists in some real way in every aspect of how your company operates.
Another key element of a healthy organizational culture is communication. How do your people prefer to communicate—informally, formally, behind closed doors, or perhaps in public? Does it match up with your company and team-oriented values? As a leader, one of your primary goals is to cater to the way in which your people communicate most effectively. But the bottom line is that you’ll also need to set up alternative channels for people who prefer other styles of communication.
Strong workplace cultures generally emphasize open and effective communication above all else. Your organization ought to be a space in which people feel comfortable communicating ideas, thoughts, opinions, you name it. Fostering free-flowing, open communication is a must for any organization.
4. A sense of community
A sturdy culture is an engaged, interactive, collaborative culture. If your organization is siloed, isolated, or fragmented, you may need to do some community-building. Otherwise, your culture runs the risk of becoming stagnant, divided, and perhaps worse: not really there at all.
This means breaking down the walls—metaphorical or otherwise—that are affecting the way your people work and interact with each other. How you unify your community will depend on the problem you’re facing, but more often than not it’ll require mending relationships: creating opportunities for siloed teams to get together and simply learn about each other, or (better yet) work together to solve a shared problem.
Company-wide events, like in-house conferences and social gatherings, also do a great job of getting your people reacquainted with one another.
5. Unified purpose
People in organizations often aren’t on the same page because, well, they’re working on different projects or using different skill sets. Sometimes they’re siloed in their processes and ways of thinking. What the Marketing team does every day might be a mystery to the IT team, and vice versa.
But for a company with a unified sense of purpose, this doesn’t really matter. A good culture is cohesive despite its differences because the people have a shared sense of purpose. They understand, and management makes it clear, not only how their work helps achieve the long-term goals of the company, but also why their work is meaningful.
Why? Because a shared sense of purpose, and being able to locate your contributions within that purpose, shows people that they matter.
If recognition isn’t already part of your company culture, it should be. Recognition programs can look like anything from an informal shout-out for a job well done to an org-wide announcement of a promotion. When your people go above and beyond, one of the best things you can do for them and the rest of your team is to make it public.
Publicly recognizing people for their achievements has a profound impact on your culture, too. It brings positive contributions to the forefront and turns your people into advocates for one another. This brings your people closer and gives everyone an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, so to speak.
A culture where managers and colleagues are consistently recognizing each other in a frequent and meaningful way gives people a greater sense of purpose and positively impacts their employee experience.
Connection in the workplace is less about developing close, familial connections and more about relating: to people, ideas, objectives, perspectives, backgrounds, and values. If you can get your people to relate to each other even a little bit better, you’re already on the way to creating a more connected workplace.
A positive culture is one where empathy is front and center. People who relate to one another, who get where the other is coming from and understand pain points for different teams, are better equipped to step up and offer support to ensure that shared goals are achieved. This kind of connection is fundamental.
8. Office layout
Any culture auditor worth their salt should be able to tell you how your office layout is affecting your people’s relation to one another, including their perception of the culture. Are your people trapped in one grey, soulless office, or are they dispersed throughout multiple branches across a region?
Maybe your people all work remote and you don't have an office. How leaders support their employees in creating a productive home office, has a tremendous impact on your company culture.
A strong organizational culture emerges only when the work setting makes sense for the company and its people: the way they prefer to work, the amenities and design that impact their employee experience, and whatever makes them feel most comfortable or productive.
For example, the decor and design of the office described above—grey, soulless, cubicles for days—might immediately seem like a contradiction if it's staffed by hip Generation Z advertising workers. Or it might make perfect sense for them, who knows. Your office layout, whether you like it or not, should reflect your organization’s unique identity (and should avoid imitating what other companies are doing if possible).
9. Learning and development
Building a great culture is about planning and developing real growth opportunities for people: informal lunch-and-learns, more involved leadership courses, and an incentive to better oneself. Because when your people grow, so does your organization.
Coaching, mentorship, education, training: these are all ways of improving, of getting better at what we do. A culture that emphasizes the important of learning is better off because it keeps us hungry, but also humble. There’s always more out there for us to learn.
10. Listening and adapting
Organizations are always changing. As veteran employees leave and new people show up, and as your company grows (or shrinks), the culture will shift. So how do you preserve your culture?
Just like its employees, an organization with a solid culture is always iterating, getting better, and adapting to change. And this requires listening to and acting on feedback. Even if your culture seems strong at first glance, your first impulse should always be to make sure it’s working for everyone.
Creating an ideal organizational culture takes years of hard work, and guess what: it’s never over. Sustaining a strong culture requires constant scrutiny and analysis to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change.
Let's build strong organizational cultures
There’s no formula to create a culture that's perfect. How your organizational culture takes form will always be unique to your people. What matters to them may not be on this list (or any list) because the way we perceive our employee experience is vastly different from one person to the next. Keep these ten elements in mind, and see how you can expand upon them to cover what’s important for your organization.