What is workplace culture?
A view from Nathalie Gordon

What is workplace culture?

It's not a ping-pong table, Free Pizza Fridays or hot-desking. Culture is the mark a job leaves on people.

We talk a lot about culture – who has it and who doesn’t. But no-one really talks about what it actually is and what it is not. I think it’s time. 

Culture is not a thing like a ping-pong table or an inspirational quote on the wall. It’s not a "random chat" Slack channel. And it’s certainly not another tote bag with your agency logo on it – although they are great for moving house with. I currently have 62 in my possession. 

It’s not Wake Up Wednesdays or Thirsty Thursdays or Free Pizza Fridays. Particularly if you insist on ordering pizza with pineapple on it. Don’t fight me.

It’s not dogs in the office (which is especially hard for me to say, because pupperinos are my fave). It’s not a spa day offered to you because "you look exhausted". It’s not a quiet space (read: place for people who have pulled all-nighters to sleep).

It’s not a staff manual. Or a code of conduct.

It’s not an agency talent show. It’s not enforced fun or mandatory nights out that don’t come out of the company’s pocket. It’s not a "free company night out" that later comes out of people’s pay packets.

It’s not mandatory anything, except "don’t be a dick" and "do your best". 

It’s not "team-bonding" exercises that involve you closing your eyes and falling on colleagues you usually don’t even trust in a shared Google doc. It’s not a group ayahuasca ceremony. It’s also not an enforced sharing (read: public slagging-off) session.

It’s not an anonymous suggestion/complaints/grievance box that collects dust and eventually makes way for a new microwave.

It’s not a working-late booze-and-snack fridge. It’s not ice-cream on a hot day when you still subject people to the seventh circle of hell, aka the Tube. Also, 12 ice-creams for the office is not enough ice-creams.

It’s not a £10k sofa or a client party that is three times the budget of the office Christmas party when the company is "cutting back".

It’s probably not hot-desking. If people say they hate it – they hate it. People don’t joke about hot-desking. The only joke is hot-desking. Can you tell I was subjected to hot-desking?

It’s not a "top table". Or an us-versus-them mentality.

Culture is not found in a questionnaire. And it’s not made in a meeting room full of people who didn’t answer the questionnaire themselves. Or on a management awayday at Soho Farmhouse. 

Don’t get me wrong – some of the examples I have mentioned can complement culture, but they do not make it. They are like taking vitamins when your diet consists of 50 shades of beige.

These things can make where you work "fun" and "different", but they can often be plasters for larger problems. Problems that ultimately decide whether you are being fulfilled, whether you are growing or learning and ultimately whether you are at the right company for you.

If you believe where you work has a good culture and you look around the office and see a dodgem car or a shed as a meeting room – trust me, the good culture was not made by having wacky spaces to talk about something that could have been on an email. 

But if you believe where you work has a problem with its culture and a cake has just been wheeled out to soften the blow of the latest round of redundancies – something is going horribly wrong.

Culture is the mark a job leaves on people.

It’s what people say about where they work when they leave at night. And when they leave for other companies.

It’s the way that where they work makes them feel. And the type of person it turns them into.

It’s letting the people who work with you breathe. Explore. Develop. Live. And just generally caring about who they are and where they are going. 

It’s caring that they are happy but also that they are not. As much attention needs to be given to mental-health days as wedding days. 

It’s about letting people have lives and being flexible. And recognising that not everyone has children but everyone still needs to go home early sometimes.

It’s lifting everyone up. It’s magnifying the "little people" and putting the spotlight on those often in the shadows. 

It’s about crediting people who are responsible for good work. Not the people who most loudly take credit for good work. 

It’s about creating an environment where people like what they do. And an environment that cultivates praise and positivity. Even when shit hits the fan. 

It’s about being in the shit together and staying as a team even in failure. 

Culture is asking difficult questions and listening to the answers. Really listening. And sometimes being uncomfortable with what you hear. 

It’s fostering an environment of inclusivity. And accountability. And transparency. And respect. 

It’s consciously avoiding your biases. It’s working hard to make "never" into "normal". 

It’s equal pay and equal rights. 

It’s being fallible as a business and as individuals. And no matter what level you are, being able to hold your hands up and say "I don’t know" or "I’m sorry" or "That’s not OK".

It’s everybody asking: "How can this be better?" 

It’s trust. Trust in each other. Trust in each other’s time. Trust in the intentions of your company. Trust in the people at the top and the people at the bottom. 

Ultimately, culture creates itself. And it’s not one size fits all. It’s not tangible. You can’t point at it. It’s amorphous, much like the people who crave it so much.

When we foster environments where people feel like they can truly be themselves, where they can express and create and flourish, they begin to imprint. Happy teams ultimately build themselves. 

Culture grows from daftness and spontaneity, but you cannot have either without the right foundations first. Foundations built on praise and empathy. Care and compassion. Growth and giving a shit. 

Culture is how a company communicates, how it treats its employees and what it values. And when that is right, you don’t want to go home. Which is why "culture first" agencies are often the most successful and have the highest employee and client retention rates.

Their culture is built from the very values of what their company stands for. And in 2019, how is it that we are not all operating with as clear a vision as that?

Nathalie Gordon is a freelance creative lead

NB To collect these examples, I contacted friends and strangers on Twitter and LinkedIn to ask about their experiences and how their workplaces have combated culture issues. I got 150-plus replies in 36 hours, 90% of which were private