What Does “Workplace Culture” Really Mean?

Productive organisations are those with a healthy workplace culture. But what does that phrase, “workplace culture” really mean? How can a company improve its culture?

The word “culture” is kind of a funny term. It’s a word that describes the behavior of a whole community of people. Sometimes we use “culture” to indicate sophistication (“only cultured people go to the symphony”). Other times, the term “culture” is derogatory. (You can’t blame him, that’s just part of his culture). So what do we mean when we are talking about workplace culture? Is this something real or just marketing speak used by HR departments?

Here’s my personal definition of workplace culture: “The culture of a working organisation is both the common and collective viewpoint on both the meaning and the value of work.”

There’s a lot packed into that sentence, so let me break it down:

A common viewpoint is one that appears frequently. These include positive perceptions such as (“work hard and you will go places”) as well as negative ideas such as (“unmonitored employees will be lazy”). The bottom line about the common viewpoint? Nobody goes around trying to build it on purpose. Instead, it develops organically. Some examples of common viewpoints that might exist in your company:

  • People who arrive early and stay late are the hardest workers
  • The company promotes from within, so there is always opportunity for advancement
  • If someone’s office door is open, it’s okay to come in to ask a question
  • Only salespeople have expense accounts because they are taking care of customers

Reading these bullet points you may have been nodding in agreement. The key idea is that the “common viewpoint” is the total of all of the perspectives that everyone shares without realising it.

On the other hand, the collective viewpoint is the one that we actually build on purpose. Sometimes those choices are made for us as employees—as a directive—because management selects a “mission statement” or establishes policies about the way we work. Sometimes, the collective viewpoint is produced more collaboratively. This may be done intentionally through workshops or suggestion boxes, or may occur organically as the team struggles and bonds together over time.

Again, the important component of a collective viewpoint is that it is actively defined. Maybe it’s specified by a memo (“All employees will arrive by 8AM sharp or be subject to probation”) or perhaps it’s decided collaboratively in an offsite retreat, but the point is that people are conscious of the source of the collective viewpoint.

There’s a difference too between the meaning of work and the value of work. “Meaning” is about purpose. If we have a job to do, many of us want to know why we do it. What if I perform work that is of superior quality?

Likewise, we assign value to work. The most direct form of value is in compensation. But the value of work can also be brought into focus through praise as well as reprimands. The value of work falls somewhere on the scale between “good for the company” and a “waste of time”.

Ultimately, organisations that want to become more productive, more efficient, more effective and more satisfied have to start by agreeing on what it means to work together. To build new workflow patterns, to take risks, to try out new ideas and new technologies, companies have to build an internal community of people who have the same basic viewpoint on work. If they don’t share the same idea, you can’t steer the ship in a new direction.

You’ll just have people resisting change and preventing meaningful improvement from becoming a reality.

A healthy workplace culture is one where people have consensus about what the company does and why they do it—and that agreement aligns positively with what we know about human psychology. Great companies agree to work together in ways they know benefit everyone!

About the Speaker: Robby Slaughter is the founder of Slaughter Development, a workflow and productivity consulting company. After an extensive career in IT systems development, Robby realised that the principal challenges affecting individual workers are not technological in nature, but psychological. He discovered that to become more effective and efficient at work, we need to empower individuals with authority and responsibility. His consulting practice now focuses exclusively on assessing workflow challenges, helping stakeholders to design and develop new business processes, and implement systematic, stakeholder-driven changes throughout the organisation. Robby is also the author of a new book: Failure: The Secret to Success.