I feel like talking about culture. Well, not culture exactly, but more about the stuff that often passes for culture these days.
What stuff do I mean? Well, stuff like this:
- Ping-pong tables, foosball, dart boards, etc.
- Bean bag chairs, funky meeting spaces, open floor plans etc.
- Beer bashes, kegs, free booze, etc.
- Casual dress, especially among senior executives
- Free sodas, snacks, etc.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against any of those things per se. In fact, I think these things all have their place and we do our fair share of them here at Tech Soft 3D. I just want to make the point that they are not culture.
They might be a manifestation of culture, or they might be just a flimsy ‘culture costume’, as in ‘I am wearing this costume to seem like something I’m not’. I think most people, myself included, would much rather work at a place that is authentic – where the culture is much more than a culture costume. Ultimately, culture is all about authenticity. When that’s the case, your clothes match who you are and what you do – whereas a culture costume is what you wear when you are trying to imitate something.
- If you have ping-pong tables (insert your favorite sports equipment here), then it could indicate that you have a culture that values ‘break-times’ as a way to foster creativity, or competitive games as a way for people to bond, or as a stress reliever. If you have a ping-pong table because companies with good cultures are supposed to have ping-pong tables, then you are just wearing a culture costume. How do you know which one you are? Well, if people use the ping-pong table (including managers) then it’s authentic. If no one uses them because they know people will wonder why they aren’t doing ‘real work’, then your company may be wearing a culture costume.
- How about a big open floor plan? Well, companies can claim that it’s a way for people to collaborate but it’s been proven that these open plans are not good for productivity. When are they useful? Only when the team truly collaborates on things in real time. The word ‘team’ is vital here since it means that the group should be small. 4-6 people at the most in close proximity, otherwise it’s chaos. If you see an office which is almost entirely an open floor plan, then the company either a) doesn't really care about your productivity and comfort, b) wants to keep space costs down or c) they are just doing it because they think their company looks ‘cool’. Usually it’s combination of all three.
- If a company has beer bashes, kegs in the office, booze available 24/7, it could mean that the company trusts your judgment to know when it’s a good idea to be drinking and that the company thinks it’s good to foster social interactions within their team. If the company has this stuff but frowns on people using it, then it’s a culture costume. Side note here; many companies also confuse social time together with culture. It’s certainly a positive if people spend time together outside of work. That means they like and enjoy one another, but that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy work culture. If the get-togethers are bitch sessions about ‘management’ or certain colleagues, then it’s a negative sign about culture. If you see people mixing positively with folks they don’t normally work alongside, or if you see managers and others hanging out comfortably together, that’s a good indicator that there is cultural consistency across the organization.
- These days a company isn’t cool unless the senior executives dress as casually as their age will allow them to (let’s be honest, no one likes a 60-year old in a skull-cap, hoodie and flip flops). If this really does signal an egalitarian attitude where the trappings of status are strongly downplayed, then it matches the culture. If managers still cling to clear signs of status, or if they act unapproachable or authoritarian, then no amount of backward baseballs hats or ripped jeans can save you. Your company is wearing a culture costume.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
I would equate all of this to the city-slicker who goes to a country music bar dressed as much like a cowboy as his wardrobe can muster. Heck, he even went out and bought that 10-gallon hat, those boots and that belt buckle just for the occasion. From a distance, and especially to other city slickers, he probably looks pretty authentic. However, it doesn’t take long for everyone to see that his boots aren’t dirty and his hands are soft and pink. Ouch, he just got busted wearing a culture costume.
But why do so many companies seem to cloak themselves in culture costumes? And even worse (in the tech sector at least), the same culture costume? I think it’s very much like our city slicker friend - he knows he can’t go into that country bar and be accepted unless he’s wearing the right uniform. I think companies (tech companies in particular) are cloaking themselves in this culture costume because they know it’s the uniform people expect. Recruiting people is a competitive sport and a real challenge. If people come in for interviews and you’re not wearing the culture costume, then the recruit makes an assumption that you may have a crap culture. They aren’t around long enough to notice that you have no dirt on your boots or callouses on your hands.
In the race to look like they have the coolest culture, companies forget that it’s far more important to act the part than look the part. That’s where authenticity comes in. If you are looking at taking a new job, look beyond the costume. And more important than what the company is wearing to signal its culture, look for an authentic match between culture and costume that tell you that they know who they are and what matters to them.