In HR circles, for quite some time now, culture has been a big buzzword. Most companies understand the importance of having a positive company culture and probably have an idea of what they want their culture to be.
Yet culture is actually defined as, “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively over time.”
In other words, culture is the sum of what you collectively have now—not a vision of what you one day hope to have or something you hope to build by sending a companywide email to “make it so.” Think of culture as past tense, created and defined through actions and behaviors that have already happened.
How to Build a Corporate Culture
Influencing the future
Unless you are employee No. 1, you most likely didn’t have a big influence on how your company’s culture started. But that doesn’t mean People Ops and other stakeholders can’t play a large part in influencing what your company’s culture will
Company culture is something that is always evolving. As your company grows and more people come on board, things organically change—including organizational needs. The best company cultures come from a place of authenticity, develop from an understanding of what the culture already is, and build on that existing foundation.
The first thing any People Ops professional can do to build a corporate culture is to know the culture you already have and your history.
Understanding company culture
At Imgur, the first thing People Ops did to support the organization was to learn as much as we could about our existing company culture and its history, the thought process of how we work, how we make decisions, and what we value.
Once you understand what has already developed naturally, you can pick out existing cultural strengths and leverage them to further develop and influence your corporate culture in an authentic way.
To really understand what strengths your company’s culture already has, put yourself out there! Talk with a diverse group of people across multiple functions and departments, learn what they love about what they do, what fulfills them about working at your company, and what drives them to come to work everyday.
Spend time with company leaders to understand how the company evolved. Learn how the company communicates, how job functions interact and what collective purposes drive everyone to push forward. Common themes will begin to surface, illuminating what makes up your culture’s foundation.
Defining the “why,” “what” and “how”
People Ops can help develop corporate culture by creating ways to reinforce strengths.
Common themes that define our Imgur culture include connection, respect and honesty. Because connection to our peers was already a strength, we decided to reinforce the “why”—why the company produces its product and why it solves problems or pain points.
We also clearly defined the “what” of the company—what are we making here, what our mission is.
Another connection component is “how”—how we do things, how our company strategy will help us win in the market or with customers.
In other words, communicate the company’s vision whenever possible.
Only when there is good, open and transparent communication around a company’s north star can employees understand how they contribute to it and feel a strong sense of personal connection to it.
Finding your company’s north star
Another cultural strength we picked up on was the importance of honesty and transparency.
How we maintain and build on that sense of transparency as the company scales is a challenge. Not only does leadership need to go the extra mile to #communicateoften (one of Imgur’s core values), but we also need to create an environment where transparency and honesty flows both ways.
We use a variety of tools to foster transparency, including a lightweight peer review conducted every six months. The reason this tool is embraced and valued is our focus from Day 1 on having a shared understanding of the purpose of feedback, which begins during everyone’s onboarding orientation. This helps us to be self-aware of how we work and grants us insight into how we can improve, growing in our roles and careers.
Other tools we use are in both push and pull format. We use Reflektive for real-time feedback, maintain a virtual suggestion box, solicit both anonymous and in-person questions, push a pulse survey out biweekly for questions and feedback, and provide “office hours” with members of leadership and other functions.
Feedback in all forms, being humble enough to praise others, and being strong enough to have difficult conversations, allows Imgur to maintain honesty and transparency as a cornerstone of our culture.
Optimizing your company strengths
One cultural strength that we’ve recognized at Imgur, my favorite one, is respect. Having respect for colleagues doesn’t mean you have to admire or be friends with them, but it does mean you understand where they’re coming from and what challenges they face.
Respect for individuals often comes from having a personal relationship. Think about your morning commute. How would you react if a complete stranger bumped into you? Would you react differently if that person was someone you knew? Knowing someone personally helps understand context and intentions, which ultimately makes for much better communication.
At Imgur, People Ops works hard to provide opportunities for employees to get to know each other on a personal level. Often this involves events, both constructive and fun. We’ve competed in scavenger hunts, brainstorming breakout sessions, color wars, trainings and cornhole tournaments. We’ve also held orientation graduation happy hours, and food and drink tastings.
Each event is meticulously planned, from how we mix and match cross-functional team members to how we strategically seat them to encourage chatting and relationship building. Company leaders play a huge part in these events, too, leading by example by participating, having fun and most importantly getting to know everyone on a personal level.
As cliche as it sounds, team building events create trust and understanding, which leads to respect. That’s why these events are a big part of the People Ops playbook—they work.
Most people already understand that creating a positive company culture is not from having a kegerator, a ping pong table, lunches and snacks, and a roof deck. Those things are nice (and we have them, by the way), but they are just things.
The real way People Ops can play an influential role in an evolving culture is to embrace the culture that has naturally grown with the company, and use its existing strengths to build upon.
Jill Kelly is the Director of People Ops at Imgur.