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
³ http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/511More Ideas