Take a walk through any organization’s office to understand the foundation of its culture.
When guests walk into the Bonfyre office and interact with our employees for the first time, they naturally detect the personality of our organization. When you step through our door, you’ll notice a wall of photos that includes everyone on our team. My hope is that our photo wall creates an impression of Bonfyre as a company that cares about its employees almost like family. The team portraits showcase the diverse hobbies our team enjoys outside the office in addition to the fun we have working together.
Visitors also notice we have whiteboards in every meeting room and office. If our team wants to brainstorm and collaborate, we have ample space to do so. When you round the corner, you’ll notice a little lounge area with couches in the back. We created that space for our employees, because occasionally you need a change of scenery and some flexibility in your work environment.
However, fully assessing organizational culture involves a bit more than a cursory walk. First you must be clear about culture’s definition. Culture is a unifying force, connecting employees to each other, as well as the company’s mission and vision. Culture is important because it not only reflects the day-to-day interactions among employees, it also determines how organizations navigate times of change.
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Culture alignment increases momentum
Organizations are composed of individuals with a variety of perspective and experience. If you survey 10 people within any organization, you’ll likely get 10 different definitions of the company’s purpose and culture. Early in my career, I learned when you get multiple people within an organization moving in the same direction, you gain momentum and accomplish more. When you take time to assess and align culture within your organization, the company will be more productive. Understanding and assessing organizational culture is more than just a trendy thing to do in HR right now, it is significant to your company’s productivity and bottom line.
Gallup’s 2016 State of the American Workplace showed that business units in the top quartile of employee engagement enjoyed 17% higher productivity, 20% higher sales, and 21% higher profitability. Assessing organizational culture is essential to understanding where you are today and what areas of employee engagement have room for improvement.
Take a culture walk
When you are assessing organizational culture, as much as possible, try and be objective in your opinion. Take a step back. As you go through the assessment process, think about yourself as a prospective employee or business partner. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s time to take that culture walk through your workspace. Is everyone in an office or are there open workspaces? Are office doors opened or closed? Do you notice any interactions among employees? Take notice of the things you hear people talk about.
Be careful to observe both positive and negative aspects of the physical environment. Both are good indications of the type of culture an organization has and will create the foundation for questions you will ask of employees and leadership later in your assessment.
Think like a job candidate
Next, think about the questions you would ask future coworkers or the hiring manager if you were a job candidate. These might be similar to questions used in your annual employee engagement survey or based on the observations you made during the culture walk. Some questions you might want to ask include:
- What’s your favorite part of your job?
- What’s the most challenging part of your job?
- Do you have the tools and resources to do your job well?
- Do you feel your opinions matter to leadership?
- Do you understand the company’s mission and vision?
- Do you know and understand the company’s core cultural values?
- Do you know how to reflect the company’s core values in your role?
- Do you trust your leadership team and coworkers?
Use these questions to survey a few employees in every department and location in your company. The answers you receive from employees should give you a pulse on whether the desired culture is trickling down to every level.
Align with leadership
The final group to consider when assessing organizational culture is your leadership team. The key to these conversations is to make sure to your leadership team understands you want to hear their honest opinions, not just what they think you want to hear. Start with your existing purpose or mission statement. Ask leaders if they still feel aligned with that statement:
- Has anything changed with our purpose?
- Do we need to re-evaluate and make changes to it?
- Does this still make sense for our business?
One of my favorite thought provoking questions to ask leaders is “If you could change one thing about our culture, what would it be?” This often reveals the biggest obstacle leadership is trying to overcome.
Assess organizational culture frequently
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for when or how often an organization should assess its culture. Sometimes there are obvious triggers that signal it’s time to reassess culture. At times it’s more structured or expected, like when there’s a major change coming within the organization. Other times it may be more organic, if you find unexpected results from an engagement survey. It could even be based on a gut feeling, which may be as simple as “Hey, things don’t feel right with what we are seeing within the company.”
No matter the trigger, my personal recommendation would be to err on the side of doing culture assessments more frequently. Once you have a set process and cadence for assessments, it won’t be as troublesome as the first time and can a become routine part of your HR toolbox.
Culture is a living and breathing thing. It’s not something that stays complacent. New people join the organization and bring a different perspective. Culture will continue to change and evolve over time just like anything else. A good organization and good leadership team acknowledges those changes and makes appropriate assessments at the right time.