What Is Company Culture?

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Updated March 23, 2023

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Company culture is not the office foosball table.Paul Spiegelman, author and speaker*

Company culture is a description of the traits and behaviors of people at an organization; it is defined by the set of behaviors that are tolerated, encouraged, or discouraged. Culture may or may not be founded on a set of company values, and company culture and an individual team’s culture may differ.

A section about culture in remote companies could quickly become about, well, everything. Culture is a notoriously permeable phenomenon—with different incarnations across different organizations—and it impacts and is shaped by nearly every aspect of how people within an organization interact. To help think about fostering a healthy remote culture in your company, we suggest thinking about culture in three ways: what you value, how you communicate and enact those values, and how you get together.

Edgar Schein’s Culture Framework

In the 1980s, MIT professor Edgar Schein developed a framework for making sense of organizational culture:

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.*

Schein’s framework identified three levels of company culture:

Artifacts are the visible symbols of a culture that people can easily see or identify. They can include anything from the style of people’s dress and the tools or technology they use, to the types of offices given to different members of the organization.

When people talk about culture, they often discuss artifacts, such as a foosball table in the break room, free lunches, or whether or not a company has an open-office plan. But artifacts also encompass the type of documentation companies produce—such as handbooks and onboarding materials—and the types of tools they use.

Company values (or company core values) are the foundational beliefs that are meant to guide a company’s behaviors and decisions. They often reflect a set of goals, strategies, or philosophies about how the company should operate.

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Values can vary widely across organizations. The values of a publicly traded corporation might look very different from the values of a city council or a military organization, though there may still be some shared values among all three.

Assumptions are unconscious beliefs that often are taken for granted. Assumptions are most commonly the underlying drivers of an organization’s values and artifacts, and are related to things like the nature of time and space, and human behavior and relationships.

Figure: Schein’s Three Levels of Culture

Schein’s Three Levels of Culture

Source: The Leadership Centre

Although Schein’s model was developed prior to remote work becoming common, it remains relevant as a lens for remote leaders to understand their company, its culture, and the underlying norms and behaviors of employees. When unexamined individual assumptions don’t line up with a company’s stated values, for example, friction can arise, and that is even harder to deal with at a distance. For this reason, it’s critical that remote organizations establish and document their values early.

Start With Values

The terms company values and company culture are often used interchangeably to refer to a company’s beliefs about the world and their “way of doing things.” But they are not the same. Having a clear set of company values is tremendously important to the success of a business. These values guide decision-making in all parts of the company, whether high-stakes strategic decisions, ethical decisions, or smaller day-to-day decisions (which, in aggregate, are just as important). Clearly stated values also provide a structured way to resolve disagreements.

cautionCulture without values puts you in the dangerous position of repeating patterns and behaviors that do not line up with how the company wants to see itself or what the company wants to accomplish. It’s worth noting that a company without explicitly defined values will still have a culture—just one that stems from the personalities and behaviors of its leaders and early employees, rather than one having any careful thought, design, or purpose. This can breed similarity of thought, behavior, and demographic makeup, none of which are good for a company’s business or employee retention.

It’s also worth noting that explicit values won’t prevent the development of toxic or unhealthy cultures. For example, a company might create a toxic culture by prizing overwork and self-sacrifice “for the greater good.” Uber’s culture was infamously tied to a set of well-documented and regularly reinforced values.* A company whose stated value is, say, “move fast and break things” might not expect cultural behaviors like asking questions, seeking input from all sides, or documenting process.

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