If you ask most people what company culture means, they typically start rattling off different types of perks.
But the truth is, there's more to company culture than a kitchen stocked with fresh avocados and an in-office keg. There's more to it, even, than free massages and happy hours at the coolest bar. And there's definitely more to it than posters in the office and an eloquently worded manifesto.
No, culture is much more intangible. It's things like the vibe and the values of your organization and the way people work and interact with each other. It's also likely the #1 thing that makes you like your job—or not.
And one of the biggest misconceptions about culture is that it's 100% the job of the organization and its HR department to foster and uphold it. In truth, you and your co-workers influence it much more than you probably realize (a pretty awesome responsibility, if you ask us), so here are some ways you can get involved and help shape it.
First, Define Your Company's Culture
Contributing to culture is difficult if you struggle to define what exactly it means for your organization.
There are typically four categories of culture: beliefs and values (i.e., your company's overarching vision); structures, processes, and norms (“How things work around here"); symbols and language (office acronyms and slang); and habits and expectations (like the dress code and email etiquette).
You should be able to define key elements of culture in concrete terms—and without falling back on inspirational phrases like “be a team player" that you might have found on a poster in your kindergarten classroom.
There are two simple ways to wrap your head around the basics:
If you're already an employee, read your company's handbook, career site, mission statement, blog, social channels, and anything else that may help clarify the whos, whats, whens, and whys of company culture—and how you can be an impactful part of it.
When you're reading something like the handbook, explore not just what's written , but how it's written for signs of the company's culture and personality.
If the language is stiff, vague, or overly prescriptive, it might be a sign that your company's culture isn't clearly defined (an opportunity for you to help shape it), or frankly, isn't that great (your chance to make it better).
Some of the less formal elements of company culture can be found just by watching what's going on. When you first join a team, pay close attention to how management and your colleagues abide by the “values" bucket of company culture—especially how the company's vision is articulated nonverbally.
Then, Get Involved
Volunteering to lead the toy donation initiative over the holidays is a commendable first step toward becoming a culture contributor—but it's far from the whole picture.
Sam Hauskens, who heads up leadership development at Caesars Entertainment, suggests employees take larger company goals and find nuanced ways to make them their own. For example, at Caesars, the company's culture centers around "inspiring play." Employees can often be found playing games—anything from doing silly jumping jacks to shooting balls through a mini basketball hoop—before hitting the property floor to interact with guests.
Hauskens acknowledges that doing the Funky Chicken before a shift isn't everybody's cup of tea—but that doesn't mean you should roll your eyes at it.
"Perhaps the silly jumping and dancing game isn't your style, but we want you to find a way to have fun here at work," he says. So, finding opportunities to innovate upon existing traditions is just one way employees can take an active responsibility for culture. (In this example, an employee might introduce their favorite card game as a substitute.)
And just as every friend group has its own vocabulary (e.g., your college buddy who refers to his apartment as his "sitch"), so does every workplace. Sam adds that a simple way to become an active culture contributor is to get the hang of the language used around the office. When employees begin to adopt this vernacular, it nurtures camaraderie. Even a motivational phrase that at first seems meaningless may ultimately prove unifying once employees see actions attached to the words IRL.
You'd be "amazed" at what happens to a room, says Sam, when employees get on the same page over a mantra. "The phrase 'Inspire Grown-Ups to Play' wasn't around a few years ago; but boy, everybody knows it now," he adds.
Take it Upon Yourself
Culture needs to be contributed to, so take matters into your own hands and help plan outings or encourage ideas that focus on key aspects of the culture.
If your company values wellness, get a few work buddies together to try an acroyoga class. If you work for a startup that makes highly technical software—even if your role is in marketing—subscribe to an IT publication and read one article every morning to learn the ins and outs of how your company's product fits into the big picture. Have a rotating "lunch and learn" session that allows different teams to teach others about specific job-related skills.
If, as with Caesars, "play" is emphasized, pay close attention to what is happening during your "play" time outside of the office. Did you take a trip to a wonderful hotel with great service? Think about what made it so great and bring that idea back with you. Remember, innovation is everywhere, you just have to find it.
If your company's culture is still being defined, find ways to help mold it. Take advantage of team meetings or town halls by posing round-table questions to solidify culture, such as: "What makes this workplace different from anywhere else you've worked before?" Or, suggest an anonymous question and answer session during the next company-wide meeting, allowing everyone the opportunity to have their questions answered. And don't forget to add a question of your own!
Culture Evolution is Real—Embrace It
One of the key truths about company culture is that it's ever evolving. While some of the most foundational elements of culture—beliefs and values, for example—are likely to remain static, others will likely change over time.
For example: A 10-person startup may have one very distinct type of culture, but when that startup morphs into a 300-person organization, its culture inevitably shifts to accommodate new priorities and long-term goals. Similarly, established corporations' cultures evolve over time, since they're subject to the shifting tides of industry trends, societal norms, and global expansion. Sometimes, in the event of a disruptive change (a new addition to the C-suite, for example), this evolution happens quite rapidly.
The first step is to be open to it, and show your manager and peers you can easily adapt. But if the new change doesn't feel right try joining (or starting) a culture committee or talk with your manager about brainstorming solutions to keep culture strong.
One of the best benefits of being a culture contributor is that it gives you control over what your company is and what its future looks like—and when you shape the company you work for, you're far more likely to enjoy going to work every day.