The importance of cultural design

21st November 2016

Business is good, profits are rising, the company is growing fast and there are exciting times ahead. This sounds like the kind of company we would all want to work in, however in most cases growth like this is at odds with consistent company culture – this also holds true in the opposite case, where things are hard, the company is losing staff and each day is a struggle. The interesting thing is that cultural design can help in both cases.


Firstly, let’s understand why company culture is so important? Is it really something that deserves a place on the strategic agenda?


When we talk about culture what we are really talking about are the ideas, customs and social behaviour of the company. The reason why a company’s culture is so important is that it unites people in a common agenda, a common goal, a shared vision. There is huge value in employees buying into a shared vision and working together to achieve it. Business priorities can be made relevant to every single employee and if the culture is strong enough each team member can make decisions based on how they ‘know’ the company should and would act in any given situation. This in turn drives consistency and as humans we find comfort in that, it also provides a big part of the corporate support network, and if you buy into Google’s research on the subject, this is the single most important part of successful teamwork.


Many well known and successful companies have such strong company cultures that people who are neither employees nor clients will recognise it intrinsically. It has become part of the company’s brand. The culture plays a vital role in attracting and retaining employees, clients and investors. Culture is a way to differentiate your business from others in your industry and in this point alone we see the huge value of an effective company culture.


We have seen the press report on companies that are considered to have poor company culture – Ryanair, SportsDirect and Amazon have all featured on ‘worst places to work’ lists. In 2014 Ed Miliband attacked Sports Direct as a ‘terrible place to work’ because of it’s high use of zero hours contracts and paying below the minimum wage. Amazon has been described as a brutal place to work. Workers are deemed to be treated poorly, morale is low and staff turnover is high. All this will naturally affect staff productivity which is bad for business and a company with a poor reputation will struggle to attract talent and positive PR.


Conversely a company with a positive reputation will attract talent, investors and positive PR. It is certainly worthwhile looking at companies appearing in lists of best companies to work for for ideas, but above all (and something these culturally successful companies have in common) it is critical to develop a culture that is authentic to your business. As Richard Branson says; ‘What works for one company culture may be unsuitable for another. The key is working out what’s best for the team and creating something unique in order to be able to deliver even better performance’. We are big believers in this approach.


Google has been synonymous with good culture for years, and sets the tone for many of the cultural perks and benefits start-ups are now known for. Free meals, employee trips and parties, financial bonuses, open presentations by high-level executives, gyms, a dog-friendly environment and so on. Googlers are known to be driven, talented and among the best of the best.

As Google has grown and the organization has expanded and spread out, keeping a uniform culture has proven difficult between headquarters and satellite offices, as well as among the different departments within the company. The larger a company becomes, the more that culture has to reinvent itself to accommodate more employees and the need for management.

While Google still gets stellar reviews for pay, perks and advancement, there are also some employees who note challenges that you’d expect from such a huge company, including the stress associated with a competitive environment. Expecting the best from employees can easily become stressful if your culture doesn’t allow for good work-life balance.

Successful companies and brands will understand the importance of changing with the times and keeping current but not keeping hold of the company’s founding values and purpose will be detrimental to business. Herein lies a huge challenge for many companies. How do we retain our culture and identity but also grow?


Reaching the point where a company can no longer operate entirely informally is a significant milestone for a growing business. What is the tipping point when active management of your culture becomes necessary? When a company reaches a certain size, more planned and formal communication ensures that everyone gets the same messages from the top and prevents the core elements of what you’re all about becoming diluted.


Arguably a company with a strong culture will find it easier to retain that culture whilst they change and grow, but it is not without effort. In a previous role in London I spent 6 weeks in the newly opened Sydney office sharing documents, policies and processes. The value of spending time in a new office is that you are able to share stories that become woven into the fabric of the company. People will look to you to role model values and behaviours of the home office.


Typically the culture will be created by the founder(s) of a company. They will have a vision of how they want their company to be and will lead and role model behaviours. Leaders should play an active and visible role in driving culture. The management team also have a valuable role to play in living the company values. The influence of a role model is often underestimated and few people recognise that role models are not necessarily the most senior people in a company. We learn a lot from our peers and more junior members of staff.


Culture is typically embedded in a company by ‘the way things are done’, be it working hours, shared systems and documents, and management policies and procedures. These should be made public and accessible to all. The company culture can be embedded into all aspects of people management, from recruitment and induction to performance management and reward.


Also to be considered is your work environment; the physical workspace which includes spaces to work, create, socialise and, not to be forgotten, quiet spaces allowing for thought and rest.


If you are not actively managing your cultural maybe you should be asking yourself why not – it makes you better as a business, a more likely choice for new talent and ultimately a more rewarding and less stressful place to be for a large portion of your life!


Sarah Byrom

Associate People Strategist.