Is workplace culture overrated?

What is workplace culture?

So what is workplace culture? How can an office, or any workplace within a larger society, have its own culture? Many workplaces include people who bring cultural diversity—in language, belief, goals, and attitudes.

People talk a lot about workplace culture these days, but is it something you can measure? Turns out there is substance behind the buzzword for both bosses and staff, as the infographic below from commercial real estate agency TheSquareFoot shows.

Workplace culture plays a role in attracting talent and retaining employees, in addition to boosting employee performance and, in turn, the bottom line. Employers should know that companies with happy employees outperform their competitors by 20 percent, and workers who are highly engaged are 38 percent more likely to have above-average productivity

Taken as a concept separate from our working environment, culture is a term used by anthropologists to define the customary beliefs and attitudes of a racial or social group. It includes shared knowledge, language, habits, and artistic expression. Some definitions go further: culture is what distinguishes one group of people from another.

The workplace is generally a physical space where a group of people come together for a common purpose. True, some may be there just because they need a way to pay the bills, others because they are pursuing a career path, and just a few because they really love doing what they do. But all of them work to further the aims of the company. It is this commonality that is the foundation of a workplace culture for individuals who may all be very different. And so the goals, procedures, and values of the company will shape the office culture.

How can you influence workplace culture?

Workplace culture is a vibrant living thing, just as are the individuals within it. In societal cultures, change is brought about by great innovators, by newcomers from other cultures, by the rise or fall of great leaders, or by changes in the wider world. So too with office culture.

HR consultancy ERC points out that virtually everything about your workplace may influence its culture, such as:

1. Leadership

How do your leaders interact with employees? Do they communicate a vision for the future? What do they celebrate and recognise? What do they expect? Are they trusted? How do they make decisions?

2. Management

How is your organisation managed; what systems, hierarchy, procedures, or structures are in place? To what degree do managers empower employees to make decisions, then support and interact with them? Do they provide a consistent example?

3. Workplace practices

How does your company handle recruiting, on-boarding, benefits, rewards and recognition, training and development, promotion? Does the company actively promote a sustainable work/life balance?

4. Policies and philosophies

Are there clearly stated policies on attendance, dress code, code of conduct, and scheduling? What about organisational philosophies such as compensation, pay for performance, and internal transfer and promotion?

5. People

From the small family business to the multinational corporation, the people that work for you will impact the environment at work. Each one has their own personality, set of beliefs, values, skills and experiences. How do all these unique employees interact with each other (collaborative or confrontational, supportive or non-supportive, social or lone player)?

6. Mission, vision, and values

How inspiring are the mission, vision, and values of your organisation to your employees? Are they widely communicated and continuously emphasised?

7. Work environment

What do common areas look like? Depressing or upbeat? Classic or modern? Clinical or comfortable? Consider what people place on their desks, what the company hangs on its walls, how space and offices are allocated. Do employees care how their immediate environment looks?

8. Communication

Do leaders/managers and employees communicate frequently and freely? By what means? Face-to-face, or through technology? To what extent is sharing information and making decisions done transparently?

All of these factors can work together to make your company a great place to work—or not.

Guiding your workplace culture

With so many influences at work, can you actively promote a healthier culture for your company? Writing for Entrepreneur Asia Pacific, Sujan Patel points to several major companies that do just that.

In a list of ten companies with “fantastic” cultures, Patel highlights some diverse positives that make for a great working environment. Some have a quirky management style (Squarespace; Facebook). Many have seemingly endless perks and benefits (Google). And Adobe provides specific challenges to its best workers, but also gives them the freedom and trust to carry them out without micromanaging.

Many such larger companies are culture-conscious when hiring. Zappos starts with a cultural fit interview, which may be the greatest determining factor in whether the candidate is hired. This strategy promotes the company culture and leads to happy employees, and ultimately to happy customers.

These success stories have only come about because company founders put a lot of effort into creating, and then promoting, a culture that suits their business goals.

Susan Heathfield writes for The Balance, “Trust this, though, employees don’t just get it. They will get part of it or a skewed version of it that suits their needs. To reinforce what you’d like to see, culture must be carefully taught and modeled.”

When immigrants to a new country focus on positive aspects of their adopted culture, they may integrate more successfully into the community. Likewise, new hires to your company need to see what is unique and valuable about your workplace to feel like they want to fit in and contribute.


Too often workplace culture is allowed to grow randomly. Yet it can be controlled and guided. The collective values of a group working together can slowly shift as individuals come and go. Without guidance, that process can morph the personality of the company itself. Being conscious of what influences the work environment, a savvy business leader can exert a deliberate and positive influence on the workplace. The benefits of a healthy office culture will be reflected in the business’ performance.


workplace culture