Culture: It’s Not What I Thought, It’s Probably Not What You Think Either

by Katherine Warren

I’ll likely never forget this meeting for the rest of my career as a “culture keeper.” My intentions were good, trying to come up with new and creative ways for our offices to spend more time together with coworkers and with our awesome clients, bonding, just having “fun.” I presented my idea to the leadership team, a Summer Culture Scavenger Hunt – run around, do fun things with coworkers and clients, take pictures, win prizes. Boom.

The response from the leadership team? Crickets. I finally broke the ice, “clearly this is not as good of an idea as I thought it was.” That opened the door. The group agreed, “we don’t need more ‘things’ to do together, we need more time to do what we LOVE.” Lesson learned. We moved on and I continued to ponder this thing called culture.

“Ok, so that’s the leadership team’s opinion,” I thought. “But what about those not on the leadership team? Don’t they want more fun things to do together? Isn’t that what 9 out of 10 culture blogs tout daily?”

Those that know me know, I think through things left, right and sideways. Oftentimes the only way I come to a conclusion is to ask brilliant brains around me. And so I did, in the form of a culture survey to our entire team. I compiled a list of 19 “culture considerations” and asked the group to rank them from “not at all important” to “extremely important.”

Out of NINETEEN options that ranged from a 401(k) to working remotely to having coworkers honor your preferred method of communication, guess what came out on top? The number one most extremely important culture consideration for our team is…” Getting to work on projects that are meaningful/exciting to me.” And what came dead last, number 19? “Fun office activities at my location.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

So here are my top three learnings from that survey, for now. We’re still working with this data, and it’s still fresh, so I’m certain I’ll have more learnings to come. (Fair warning: be prepared for more blogs.)

Know thyself. There are likely as many office setups in this world as there are stars in the sky. To think culture blogs and experts are the key to getting it right in your office, in your environment simply doesn’t cut it anymore. You must gain a feel for your people and what they truly want. The best way to do that, in my humble opinion, is to ask them—and keep asking them. In fact, ask them again and again, in a variety of ways, with a variety of questions. I did a culture survey last year, and the results did not lead me here. I must not have asked the right questions. And I had a different team at that time with a variety of hires and transitions. So I had to keep asking, and I’ll ask again.

The WORK is fun. I have my coworker to thank for this great quote: “The beautiful thing about the advertising industry is that our work is fun.” We may not need as many perks beyond giving people the time and space they need to do great work for people they want to work for. We are very fortunate in that respect; every single person on our team can completely geek out about marketing, advertising, creative, etc. That I can assure you. For them, doing the work in a meaningful, collaborative, respected and respectful way, there is simply no better feeling than that—not even the feeling after a great KidGlov yoga class.

Balance is everything. The next three culture considerations that ranked “extremely important” in the survey might seem a bit contradictory at first:

  1. Having enough work for each day
  2. Having time to mingle and chat with my coworkers
  3. Ability to work remotely

So, people want to be busy, but have time to chat, but have flexibility to work alone? Aren’t those three things diametrically opposed? At first glance, yes, but thinking a bit deeper, absolutely not.

Life, work, everything, is about balance baby. And there is nothing more balanced than a healthy, full plate, a little time for community and a little time for focus and reflection. That is the lesson I’m learning from these considerations and that I hope to find more and more ways to give to my team—the gift of balance, the space to do what they love with projects and people they love. All with the comfort and support in knowing that we hear them. And when the time comes, we’ll ask and we’ll listen, again and again.