Category Archives: Organizational Culture

Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Editor’s Note: We first published this article in 2016, long before Covid-19 realities pushed so many more of us into remote working.

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.



² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015


More Ideas

Reimagined Healthcare

April Kyle's Keynote Address

Reimagine is one of those words that marketers have latched onto that probably should be reserved for solutions that are important, real and seriously proposed. 

Because reimagine is the right word for what has happened to healthcare at the Nuka System of Care in Alaska. Imagine a system where patients are owners, and preventing illness is as important as curing illness. 

Smith was a proud sponsor of the 2021 Aspirational Healthcare Conference. The CEO of Nuka, April Kyle, was the keynote speaker. Her presentation is an inspirational and informative explanation of how Nuka has actually reimagined healthcare.  

More Ideas

Can we still be friends?

Toward a fresh offboarding paradigm.

Why is it so hard to stay friends once you’ve moved on? You share so many memories and values and mutual friendships. It just seems natural and smart to keep a connection that can be valuable to both of you. And there is always the chance, slim as it may be, that you’ll get back together later. 

“When organizations eliminate a position, they tell the individual contributor that it is not personal, it is business. But when an employee resigns and takes a manager by surprise, it sometimes is taken personally—how could you leave, why are you leaving, why didn’t you tell me, how will I keep from over-burdening the team in your absence, how will we transfer all of your knowledge, etc.? 

Change can be difficult, especially when we’re not expecting it or prepared for it. Departures create a unique opportunity for the forward-looking manager. 

Treat the change as a celebration (of their contributions and future of their career) and an overall positive experience. Remember, they will influence the perception that others have about the organization. 

Additionally, the departing employee may learn valuable skills and want to return at a later time. The way the organization handles the departure will certainly influence whether that person would consider returning or not.”  

Allison Artnak, Smith Partner, Creative Director and Senior Consultant

The Wheel Turns

A fresh approach to offboarding hinges on a simple reality—employees rarely retire from the same company where they began there career. According to 2020 data, the average U.S. worker changes jobs every 4.1 years. Recognizing the transient nature of employment can help us create strategies to both decrease the frequency of employee turnover and leverage the change when it happens. 

“We had something to learn
Now it’s time for the wheel to turn” 

Todd Rungren

The wheel turns. Individuals, organizations and jobs change. Not all at the same rate. An employee who wants to learn, improve and try their hand at something new is a valuable asset. Maybe your organization can’t use them today. But that could change. The costs and risks associated with recruiting, rehiring and retraining a former employee are considerably less than with a new hire.

Even if they never return, ex-employees carry with them memories, relationships and testimonials about your organization. Often these connections remain public in the form of LinkedIn pages and other social media content. Rate and review culture is here to stay. We want employees, past and present, to think and speak highly of their experience with our organization. 

The Open Door

Business consultants are often more willing to leave the door open to former employees than other organizations. When a consultant leaves, most firms prefer to retain a relationship because those connections affect future success. 

Former employees understand your firm’s services and the quality of the work you provide. They often become your greatest customers. Former employees know the business inside and out. They’re in a unique position to refer qualified people that they think will fit your business. Sometimes, they come back themselves.   

“When you work closely with a person for a few years, and then they leave your company, sure that’s hard. But if you stay in touch/stay connected, it can turn that sour moment into a stronger and more vibrant working relationship later.

I’ve had a couple employees leave the organization when they were still early into their careers.  You couldn’t really blame them as they didn’t know what it was like to work at other places and felt the urge to find out. Once they learned the grass isn’t as green on the other side of the fence, we were able to recruit them back. And, when they came back, they did so with gusto—appreciating the opportunity to return with a renewed vigor that came with a long-lasting loyalty. Had we not stayed in touch, we would have lost the opportunity to bring a talent back that was better than when they left.”

Don Sanford, Smith Partner and Senior Consultant

Win Win

Many employers are creating and participating in what are commonly called “Employee Alumni Networks.” These are organized to facilitate networking among former employees. And to keep them in touch with the company. Alumni networks are proving to be positive experiences for employees, with measurably constructive outcomes for the organizations.

According to research, former employees in alumni networks remain positive about the company. They’re more likely to recommend their former employer’s services or products. They’re more likely recommend their former employer as a good place to work. 

Participants in alumni programs benefit from ongoing interaction in many ways:

  • Continuing mentoring relationships with trusted former coworkers.
  • Getting career guidance from a network of people with similar, but greater experience.
  • Staying up to date on industry trends.
  • Sharing job, educational and other opportunities among members. 
  • Tapping into a great source for references.
  • Giving back and sharing hard-earned wisdom. 

Organizations who build and facilitate these programs also benefit:

  • Alumni become brand ambassadors.
  • Alumni often invest in the company.
  • Alumni are a source of institutional knowledge.
  • Alumni are conduits for content marketing.
  • Alumni aid in recruiting efforts.
  • Alumni offer valuable insights into your workplace. 
  • Alumni may return as even more valuable employees.

Leaving the light on

The word alumni suggests graduation—a positive, empowering, forward-moving transition. That is the way to look at offboarding. When an employee is graduating to something new and greater­­­, the response should be,“We, the organization, support you in your future endeavors.”

Communicate your intention to keep the door open. Design an Offboarding Program that goes beyond signing a few legally required documents. The options available are endless. Your organization can turn a departure into an event for everyone. Or it can be a more private, boutique experience. Formal or casual, saying goodbye should be sincere.

Clearly layout the organization’s commitment to the future with a print package that imparts value and appreciation. It should contain valuable information, such as contacts and any benefits the former employee might be eligible to maintain. Make sure to formally introduce the employee into your employee alumni network. It would be great to have an active alumni member willing to connect immediately. Then utilize email, newsletters and social media and organized events to keep all parties current and connected. 

To maximize the value for the organization, use social media listening techniques to learn more about what this important group thinks. These insights can help you make your workplace more attractive and accommodating to current employees. 

Treating departing employees as alumni will change your organizational culture. Remaining employees will experience the value your organization places on them and their work. Demonstrating an approach to human capital that appreciates the entire life cycle of an employee’s career tells employees that their importance is more than transactional, it’s actual. 

Read more:

Cultivating Ex-Employees. Harvard Business Review

Corporate Alumni-programs Mean Never Having to Say Goodbye. Society for Human Resource Managers 

More Ideas

Breaking Bias

Helping employees recognize and mitigate unconscious bias.

In 2019, a client sought Smith’s help in rolling out an unconscious bias workshop they had purchased from the NeuroLeadership Institute. (It’s a powerful and practical course and worth looking into.) Our job was to adapt materials to the client’s brand, promote the course and reinforce key learnings over time. In this post are some of the tips and insights we took away from that experience.

We’re Fighting an Unseen Adversary

Unconscious bias is just what it sounds like — bias that affects our decision making but is outside of our awareness. A key challenge was getting employees to realize unconscious bias is real and has real-world implications. In the workplace, these biases affect how we hire, assess talent, allocate development opportunities, staff projects, prioritize our time, and much more. 

Following are some examples we used in our communications to facilitate this realization among employees. Each highlights a different type of unconscious bias, making it easier to discuss and tackle it.

The YouTube Example

When YouTube launched its video upload app for iOS, nearly 10% of the videos uploaded by users were upside-down. The problem, though, wasn’t users; it was the app’s developers. The design team was almost exclusively right-handed and they created an app that worked best for themselves. They didn’t consider that, when held in the left hand, the phone’s screen would rotate 180 degrees. 

The Guardian Commercial

Above is a television commercial for The Guardian. Every time the video dips to black, hit pause, ask yourself what you think is happening or about to happen, and then resume playback. Watch it through to the end and consider what you got right or wrong and why. For best effect, keep the video muted. 

Two People on a Park Bench

Look at the photograph below and take 30 seconds to describe what you think is happening.

What is going on here?

Got it?

No matter what story you came up with, you did so with no information or context. Your brain filled in the gaps with your own world views and experience, and it did so almost immediately.  

Knowing Is Only Half the Battle

Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts. They can cause us to discount or ignore certain kinds of information while relying too heavily on others. To understand how powerful unconscious bias can be, consider this. The processing abilities of the unconscious mind are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. In comparison, the conscious mind can process about 40 pieces per second. This is why it’s so important to first help employees recognize that unconscious bias exists and then give them tools and techniques to fight its grip on their decision making. Combining communication with workshops, guidelines, policies and other tactics is essential.

Personal Realization Is Key

Take a look at the image below. 

Did you spot the hidden baby?

Recognizing unconscious bias in ourselves is a little like finding the baby in that picture. To really deal with unconscious bias, you have to see it for yourself, but simply telling you it’s there isn’t always enough. That’s why our communication strategy for this client, sought first to do this:

With some thoughtful creativity, we can help our colleagues, our friends and our neighbors break our unconscious biases so we can work toward real change in our organizations — and in our world — with every decision every day. 

More Ideas