Tracking the intangible: how do you measure the culture you’ve created?

‘Company culture’ – that dreaded buzzword used to buff out job ads lacking real benefits or proper pay. But the definition is changing. Startups are taking it seriously, baking in healthy and rewarding cultures from the start and tracking them like they would sales or sustainability. But how do you track something you can’t plot on a graph?

No matter how egalitarian an organisation is, there’s always a hierarchy. An order of who does what. A people-made structure of how things work.

Groups of humans will always exhibit group-like behaviours. These might be collaborative, they might be competitive. Working offices can become riddled with politics, hiveminds, toxicity, rivalry. They can become siloed and uncommunicative. Or they can become happy, productive, and mutually beneficial. 

Guess which is harder to achieve. 

To navigate the choppy waters of working life, humans look to the people with more control or experience for guidance – whether that’s a higher-up or not. They are influenced (and enabled) by people who impress them. Behaviours repeated by staff members, whether positive or negative, become accepted and then entrenched. Ways of thinking and speaking become habitual. Monkey see, monkey do. 

That’s how you end up with a culture, whether you intended to or not.

The importance of creating a healthy culture has been underscored several times in permanent marker by the pandemic and ensuing remote work revolution. Employers that want people in the office, are facing the stiffest competition of all time: the comfort of their employees’ homes.    

In Part 1, we looked at how the personalities of Explorate’s founding team influenced the entire culture of their workplace. Here, we’re going to look at how you track it.

How do you create a measurable culture? 

It’s become pretty clear what good company culture is not. If anything, previously accepted definitions of culture are now seen as anti-culture – cheap tricks designed to keep you working longer and for less.

Google is notorious for masquerading stay-at-work incentives as cultural benefits. Offices are dog friendly – great, you don’t need to leave early to care for your dog. Shuttle buses are provided – with Wi-Fi and charging ports for those who want to start work before they reach work. Dinner is on the house – but only past 8pm. Might as well stay on those extra 2 hours for some free food. 

Company culture is not:

  • A pool table
  • Social events or away days you’re pressured into attending 
  • Basic freebies (tea and coffee, branded stationary or t-shirts)
  • Dress-down Wednesdays

Culture should be built not on meaningless perks or singular personality types, but on shared value systems.

Every one of your core values must be something employees can get on board with, as well as your customers. Thinking of your employees as customers is a good place to start.

A simple branding exercise is to write down the words you regularly use to talk and write about your company. Pick three that stand out (too many confuse the message). Use them as a backbone for developing your culture. In other words, turn your daily descriptives into your story. 

If your staff feel like: 

  • They’re part of something
  • They’re being treated well by you and by their colleagues
  • They’re doing good for the world,

you’ve got a huge head start on a healthy culture of mental well-being. No beer pong Fridays necessary. 

Company culture is like an elastic band

A culture has to be flexible. It must adapt with time and new hires. But if it’s too open-minded, you might find your offices full of people feeling lost.

Rigidly enforcing values and behaviours gets you into murky (read: dictator-y) territory real quick. Push people too hard, and the band snaps.

There has to be lots of space for autonomy, feedback, individuality, and diversity. A culture shouldn’t police the daily habits of employees; it should be an overarching value system that reminds them why they’re there (besides a paycheck). Money is the reason they show up every day, but having goals to accomplish and a mission to contribute to will be the reason they perform. 

The downside is that the more variable and responsive your culture is, tracking it becomes high-on impossible. It’s hard to measure up your goalposts if they’re constantly moving.

This is why culture should always be traceable back to a common goal – not a prescriptive list of how the founder thinks people should live. These must be unwavering, overarching commitments people can see the value in. They must go beyond your company’s interests, and they must be active rather than passive (think carbon negative rather than carbon neutral). 

Taming the beast

Building a culture is like building a brand. You can never have total control over its perception.

Your company culture can take on a life of its own in a wonderful or terrible way. Influential figures or budding cliques within your organisation can alter its trajectory with terrifying speed.

The other side of this coin is that although a bad company culture can breed like bacteria in a poisoned well, a good company culture doesn’t build itself. It has to be intentional, and it has to come from the top down. 

Utilisation of value

It’s famously painful to be asked the question “Why do you want to work here?” in an interview. The glib response that springs to mind is “Because I need money, idiot”. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, money isn’t the only thing that can benefit us. 

We like to think we’d snap up a high-paying, low-engagement job in a heartbeat. But the truth is, jobs that under-utilise us get old real quick. We feel undervalued and struggle to take pride in our work. We start to dread Mondays. We get bored. 

No matter how well paid a job is, under-utilisation is devastating to job satisfaction and employee morale. Making your employees feel like their time is being used well plays into a healthy culture. The ideal employee is someone who wants to do well. The ideal employer is someone who lets them.

Giving staff a seat at the table

After you, the next closest people to your business are your employees. But employees across corporate Australia will generally not bother to provide useful information to their bosses. This can be for myriad reasons but most boil down to: why should I?

Many workers are jaded or burnt out. They don’t believe their feedback will effect change, or they don’t see why they should do their bosses a favour by giving it. Some fear sticking their neck above the line. Some fear negative backlash (or looking like a suck up). 

Multiple assurances combined with cheap tricks like “always open!” signs on your office door won’t reach the worker types with a head-down-and-get-on-with-it mentality. Same with surveys and suggestion boxes – they make more work for people, they’re impersonal, and they’re pointless if you’re only doing it once a year. 

More importantly, anonymous feedback can never foster an environment of openness or ownership.

The freedom to speak must be baked into the culture, and the rewards of doing so visible and consistent. 

One of the most difficult moving parts of this will be your emotion. Some days you’ll be able to take blunt feedback in your stride. Other days, you just won’t want to deal with concerns that feel a lot like criticism. 

Always validate and show gratitude for your employees points, and schedule a time to discuss them if they come knocking at a bad time. 

How do you measure the culture you’ve created? 

This is going to be a much shorter part of the article, because the answer to whether you can track culture isn’t yes or no, but… kinda.

In the shift from tangible metrics (KPIs, OKRs, satisfaction scores out of ten) to intangible ones (culture, workplace harmony, general wellbeing), we lose trackability. These are things that can be shaped, monitored, and evaluated, but not presented as empirical data to shareholders. 

Ask yourself not “how can I track my culture?”, but “why am I trying to track my culture?”. Am I trying to make a point? Am I trying to gather data I can use for my benefit externally (marketing, recruitment, shareholder schmoozing?).

If your employees are largely happy, healthy, and talking openly at work, you don’t need black-and-white proof of your cultural success. 

The proof lies not in a pool table, but in a peaceful and productive team.

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