What is Company Culture Really About?

a boardroom with staff members seated

I’ve been hearing about “company culture” quite a bit these days, and about how important it is, especially within today’s challenging work environment. I’ve never been quite sure what the term really means — and I’ve been even less certain about how any company can build and maintain a company culture with so many employees working off-site.

I asked Tom Gimbel, CEO and founder of Chicago-based LaSalle Network, a national staffing, recruiting and culture consultancy firm, for a quick lesson in company culture. It’s something Gimbel has been focusing on since he started the company in 1998 — far before “company culture” became the buzzword it is today. Here’s what he told me:

Q: How would you describe company culture? And is it something big corporations as well as small independent enterprises must cultivate?

A: As company culture became a buzzword over the last 10-plus years, many companies have made the mistake of confusing it with “perks.” They believe great cultures are those that give employees farm-to-table catered lunches, have Ping-Pong tables and gaming rooms, or nap rooms. These are all perks. Culture is the intangible feelings created by tangible actions. Culture is leadership building relationships with staff who are layers below; it’s providing training and career growth opportunities to staff, and it’s investing time to do these things. Culture will look different for each organization and even as a company grows, its culture will shift as well.

Q: Why is it so important to have everyone on the same page where culture is concerned?

A: If you care to retain talent, then you should be concerned that your culture is aligned across the organization. The main reason talent leaves a company is because of their manager. Company leaders need to spend time developing their middle managers because that’s where a big disconnect exists.

Leadership may want the organization’s culture to be one thing, but it’s not being trickled down to staff from middle managers correctly. One way to prevent this from happening is what I’ve called “corporate grand-parenting,” where a leader will spend time building a relationship with an employee who is two layers below.

For instance, a CEO building a relationship with the CFO’s direct report and so on. Beyond effectively training your middle managers, this is another way to ensure the values of your organization aren’t being forgotten or misrepresented as new hires join the organization.

Q: How can a company build and maintain the kind of culture they strive for when not everyone is working in the office now? And what role do the employees have to play?

A: The organizations that focused on flashy perks as culture are having difficulty in a remote world. Kegs, catered lunches, bringing your dog to work, unlimited PTO — those things may not matter as much anymore. No one is in the office to enjoy the keg or lunch, everyone is with their pets at home, and most Americans aren’t traveling too much so unlimited PTO doesn’t seem like that much of a perk. The organizations that knew culture is at its best when it affects how people FEEL are thriving right now.

To maintain culture virtually, it takes an investment of time from leadership, but, with so much technology to assist, it’s easier for leaders to “spend time” with staff. I’ve called at least five staff-level employees daily on video since the start of quarantine in mid-March, as has our C-suite, just to check in and ask employees how they are doing. It’s something easy that all leaders can do.

Now, more than ever, employees want to know they are cared about, listened to and heard. They want to know you are on the same team, working toward the same goal. They need transparent communication, they need to have some wins, and they need to be recognized for their contributions. These things were important in the office, and they are equally important with staff working remote.

However, culture isn’t just leadership’s responsibility — it’s a shared responsibility across the entire organization. Working virtually, its important leaders reiterate to staff that the culture, and perpetuating it, is shared. It will require work from all parties — and it starts with how you show up for your co-workers each day.


(Article written by Kathleen Furore)