You hear a lot of talk about company culture today. And, for good reason. The environment in which you work has a pretty big—dare I say huge?—impact on how you feel about your career and the organization you work for.
But, do we all actually have a good handle on what this concept even means? What exactly is company culture? Well, if you boil it all down, I think it’s best described as the general vibe or personality of a company. This can include everything from what it’s like to work in the office as part of their team, to the organization’s mission and basic core values.
However, let’s be honest, “culture” has become a bit of a buzzword these days. And, for most of us, it has morphed into a phrase that’s simply synonymous with “perks.” Beer fridges in the breakroom, free catered lunches, and dogs allowed in the workplace—those are all things we think of as elements of a great place to work. Those stuffy offices with strict business professional dress codes that have traditional water coolers in place of innovative kegerators? Needless to say, they don’t quite fit that same “cool” mold.
When it came to my very first job, I’ll be the first to admit that I was way less concerned with these perks, and far more focused on just finding a position that would allow me to pay my bills (and my student loans). So, I accepted a gig as a marketing assistant for my local Convention and Visitors Bureau. I know—the word “bureau” alone doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of beanbag chairs, ping-pong tables, and slides between office floors.
Yes, for all intents and purposes, this place didn’t look like it had much to offer to me. Our office was housed in the lobby of a 70-year-old events arena and really wasn’t much to look at. The staff was small, and the office was even smaller—meaning we all spent our workdays pretty much sitting on top of each other (as well as boxes of copy paper and other necessary supplies). Since we were representing the entire community, there was a pretty formal dress code. Occasionally (and I mean very occasionally), we were allowed to wear jeans on Fridays.
There was no free swag. There were no unlimited vacation days. There were no adorable puppies tumbling around our conference room. We did, however, have a basic coffeemaker with free, bulk-purchased Folgers Classic Roast that we could brew to our heart’s desire. Talk about perks.
Listen, I totally get it. If you’re looking at a company’s culture solely through the lens of what awesome benefits and bragging rights it can offer you, you’d likely venture to guess that I was absolutely miserable in that position. How could I possibly enjoy working somewhere that seemed so dry, dull, and rigid? What kind of self-respecting Millennial could like that? How would I possibly humblebrag on Facebook?
Twist: I truly did enjoy it. And, it actually served to teach me something that I had previously neglected to realize.
Of course, those fringe benefits and amazing add-ons all help to make an organization seem that much cooler and more desirable. And, I won’t even try to deny that they can definitely play a big role in culture in general.
However, I think it’s important to realize that they don’t make up the entirety of a company. They’re only a piece of the puzzle, and there are so many other components that are equally—if not more—important.
What do I mean?
Well, I may not have had access to a never-ending amount of organic snacks and Vitamin Waters. But, I did get to work with a boss who valued my opinions and truly wanted to see me succeed. Maybe I wasn’t able to lounge on a couch while working on my free MacBook Pro. But, I did get to lead the charge on challenging projects that made me feel like my work made both a difference and a large contribution to the big picture.
And, most importantly, I worked in an office that lived and breathed by an open door policy. I got to collaborate with a great team of people who were fun, intelligent, and always willing to pull together to help another employee when he or she needed it. This office’s true culture selling point was its people, and that became more important to me than anything. Believe me, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way—if you’re stuck working with a team that you simply can’t manage to mesh with, no amount of catered salads or free tech loot will help you turn a blind eye to that tension and awkward dynamic.
Looking back, I know that I would’ve completely missed all of these crucial cultural elements had I based my employment decision only on those fun, creative, and brag-worthy perks we all have the tendency to hone in on. But, the values and ethics of this company ended up far outweighing the lack of any foosball tables or free smoothies. And, beyond that, they were components that took work and commitment on behalf of my employer. They had to be fostered and encouraged—they couldn’t simply be purchased and hauled into the office like a keg or a lunchtime chef.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of organizations out there that have both of these things—solid values and working relationships, as well as awesome perks. And, that’s great! If you can navigate your way to one of those employers, consider yourself incredibly lucky.
But, if you’re someone like me? Someone who lives in a small town, where those “cool” offices are few and far between (or virtually nonexistent)? Well, don’t get so bent out of shape thinking that you absolutely need those wild additions to find an organization with a great culture. You can definitely still find a company that you absolutely love working for. And, in the end, whether you’re doing that work from a cushy beanbag or a standard office chair really doesn’t matter all that much.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. In addition to writing for The Muse, she's also the Career Editor for The Everygirl, a columnist for Inc., and a contributor all over the web. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her rescued terrier mutt or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author