Business Culture: Find Your Vibe and Maintain It

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Corporate Traveller went straight to the expert for this article. Dianah Ward, Head of Learning at Canva, has a Masters of Organisational Psychology and has consulted for key organisations across the globe to improve their employee experience.

How can companies find their vibe?

For any company to go about understanding its vibe/culture, we first need to look at what vibe/culture actually is. Culture is the shared values, beliefs, behaviours and norms of a group of people. In its purest form, it's “how we get things done here”.

It’s essential to understand that culture is both explicit and implicit. For example, a company may communicate their values, vision, mission and procedures (explicit culture) but how these things are applied in practice may differ greatly (implicit).

There are also likely to be positive and negative aspects of culture. For example, a company may be great at creating loyalty and a sense of purpose with their employees, but this can also lead to alienation, conformity and exclusion, particularly if someone raises a concern or does something that is not in line with how people express ideas/concerns in the company.

There are multiple ways to assess company culture such as engagement and culture surveys, focus groups and interviews, but all carry limitations - are people being honest when they complete these surveys? Are there aspects of your culture they may want to hide or not disclose openly?

To get under the skin of your company’s vibe, you need to look at your culture from the perspective of behaviours, systems, symbols and language. This was something I used to do when I first stepped onto any client site. There’s a lot you can glean about a company’s vibe simply by observing how people interact, the language they use and the general “feel” of their workspace.

Let’s break this down:

Behaviours

Behaviour refers to actions usually measured by commonly accepted standards. They may behave one way in a particular environment, and completely different in another. To be accepted (part of a tribe) we need to follow a set of explicit and implicit cultural rules and behaviours. When people do not abide by that, they are outcast from the group. We see this a lot in both positive and negative cult-like cultures.

Systems

Systems are a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done (e.g. operating systems, policies, procedures, org structure). Now, this is an interesting one because you can have a principle or procedure about doing a thing that people adhere to in theory, but don’t adhere to in practice. Uncovering how things work around your organisation - what’s being done vs what isn’t - will give you an insight into what people value about your culture.

Symbols

A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract. The most obvious way to look at symbols is in the office space itself - the size, location, aesthetics and environment of the site has a symbolism. Look for things like visuals on the walls, quotes, notices and objects. How you feel when you enter the office will give you a clear symbolic feeling of what is important to the company and the people there.

Language

Finally, the language people use can tell you a lot about the general vibe - for example, positive vs negative language, whether people use “we” or “I”, formal or hierarchical language vs informal language.

Also, find out what your people love about your culture! Gather stories and anecdotes that bring your culture to life. Even writing your culture out like it was a person can help.

You can support your observations with interviews, surveys and focus groups to have a well-rounded view.

How to best communicate the business culture/vibe

The most compelling way to communicate the business culture or vibe is to demonstrate it! This obviously starts with the people who are looked to as role models in the business. These include the leaders, but also those who have influence over others - these may be relatively quiet individuals who are highly respected. These are the people who should be championed as the cultural ambassadors of your organisation.

What you say about your culture, and what is demonstrated by others should also be consistent if you want to communicate and get people aligned with your culture. Go through a Behaviours, Systems, Symbols and Language audit to see where there is room for improvement and adjust accordingly.

Your hiring, onboarding and training process should all be used as touchpoints to communicate your culture. This is vital right from the get-go. When hiring, ensure your recruiters understand and communicate your culture to potential hires, and that what candidates hear and experience is consistent.

Onboarding is the other crucial communication point for your culture - this is where you can have a real impact on how your culture is adopted and spread throughout your organisation.

Onboarding At Canva

At Canva, our onboarding process starts from the official offer letter where “canvanauts” are sent weekly emails with snippets of insights into our culture, from our co-founders personally welcoming newcomers via a video message, to our values, to a survey new starts fill out to tell the company a little about themselves (including their favourite food and most embarrassing story). One week before they start, they receive an onboarding plan which is 24 pages long. It goes into detail about our mission, values, team structure and what they can expect in their first month at Canva.

When they arrive, they are greeted with a balloon attached to their seat, Canva swag kit and a meet and greet breakfast on our ground floor where they get to meet their mentor. Every new canvanaut goes through a 2-week onboarding boot camp. We’ve weaved in numerous cultural touch-points such as a Scavenger Hunt that was put together by everyone in Canva, and includes counting how many stuffed cat toys a specific team member has, finding the meeting room with a photo of a loo on it, and taking a photo with our “Be a Force for Good” wall. We get our newbies playing with our app and creating designs in their first week during a Canva 101 tutorial, and also drawing what our values mean to them after an immersive Culture and Values session. Every cohort has a face to face session with our co-founders on Canva’s vision and values which newbies say is one of the most valuable sessions we hold in onboarding.

Visual reminders are also hugely important. We have our values placed everywhere around Canva from stickers, t-shirts, posters and as mentioned before, our Be a Force for Good (one of our values) wall that has a series of posters every group in Canva has made around a social good project we have driven and implemented. Examples include making our app more accessible to disadvantaged or minority groups, or teaching our community how to create a CV using Canva.

Finally, Storytelling! I mentioned before that you should find out what people love about your culture by gathering stories and writing your culture out like it was a person. Going a step further, develop a narrative around your culture with a beginning, problem and resolution. Get it illustrated, make it into a book that you hand your new hires or have a professional illustrator come in and design your story on a wall. Get creative and be adventurous!

How should companies maintain their vibe

The first port of call is establishing a compelling purpose and set of values that people identify with. For Canva, we have a mission to “empower the world to design”. We do this by empowering our communities, NFPs and NGOs with an accessible tool that enables them to market their business and continue to have a positive impact on their communities. Our values form a huge component of our vibe, beginning with the hiring process. We may interview the most skilled engineer in the world, but they must also be the right cultural fit before we hit the hire button.

It is crucial values aren’t just generic either (i.e. integrity), they need to actually say something about a behaviour or belief that people can identify with. Some of the values that we hear repeated at Canva are “Set Crazy, Big Goals” - so we are always challenging and supporting each other to do things we never thought we could, or “Be a Good Human” - which means respecting and valuing others, and always doing what’s best for the greater good.

The second layer is then to establish strong traditions and rituals that exemplify your culture. Identifying the unique, positive things the company did when it first started or establishing new traditions that celebrate a core element of your culture and values.

Canva has many traditions that started when we were small and have carried through to our current size of 500 people worldwide. A big part of this is celebrating success. Whenever we hit a goal, we think of the craziest and most iconic celebration possible and get everyone involved in it. When we launched our ios app on iTunes, we all had to dress up as Steve Jobs for a day. When we launched print, we had a colour throwing fight. When we launched Canva for Work, we had a plate smashing ceremony.

Find out what makes your culture unique, celebrate it and have fun with it!

What if a company has the wrong vibe - where do they start changing it?

1. Identify it – evaluate your culture through the Behaviours, Symbols, Systems and Language audit I mentioned at the beginning. Conduct culture and engagement surveys, focus groups, observations, interviews etc.

2. Acknowledge it – identify the areas that need some TLC and don’t just cover it up - actually acknowledge that it’s not working and that you want to make a change.

The most frustrating thing I see is when companies send out engagement and culture surveys saying employee’s feedback is valuable, then frame the results as though there’s nothing wrong. It sends conflicting messages about how important culture really is and comes across as disingenuous. The next thing that typically happens is nothing… Whether that’s because there is no buy-in from senior leadership or no clear path for change. If you want to turn around your culture, you need to be transparent about the issues, communicate it and say what you will do about it, then do it! Transparency and authenticity are critical. Be a person, not an entity.

3. Embed it – embed all aspects of your desired culture from the people you hire, the people you train and develop, your leaders, your performance management processes, your celebrations, your office environment etc. The more touchpoints, the better! Starting with your leadership team is obviously important for setting the tone of your new vibe, but also engaging your cultural ambassadors, role models and those on the ground who are living it every day with your customers.

EXAMPLE: A company decide on a new direction for their vibe, but some legacy employees don’t fit this new style – how do they get them onboard?

If you have a bad vibe, you also have to look at the people. Are they contributing to this? These may be the influencers I mentioned before - they don't necessarily need to be the most senior people in the organisation, but they are the people who are respected or have influence in some capacity. If they start talking negatively about your culture (and I don’t mean, just venting - I mean, consistently negative), it starts a domino effect and spreads like a contagion. You need to nip this in the bud straight away.

It’s likely that people who don’t fit the new vibe are either resistant (i.e. to change) or the new vibe is just not a good fit for them or the company any longer. If people are resistant, hearing them out is vital. Give them an opportunity to vent past grievances. Be authentic and transparent about what you are doing to change and empower them to help out with these changes. Involve them in the process as much as possible.

If you’ve embarked on a turn around with your vibe, it’s important to start a campaign around it - generate momentum and identify your cultural ambassadors. When the new vibe starts to spread, those who no longer fit the vibe will either adjust or self-select out.

If they are not getting on board and it’s no longer a good fit for either party, steps need to be taken to address this straight away. Don’t think managing them into another department or team is going to solve the problem. Take action to address the challenges through feedback, role modelling (i.e. getting them to work closely with a cultural ambassador or leader) and development. If that doesn't work, then it’s best for both parties to part ways.

Final tips

  • Be authentic, be a human
  • Be transparent
  • Have a strong purpose and set of values people identify with
  • Identify what is unique and special about your culture and celebrate it
  • Look at culture as a holistic system - it can’t just be written down and expected to be followed
  • Find your cultural ambassadors
  • Use storytelling to your advantage. Create a narrative around your culture.
  • Have fun with it!
CoT-HW-Dianah-Ward

Dianah Ward is a Talent specialist and registered Business Psychologist with a passion for applying psychology to design compelling and impactful employee experiences. This passion has led Dianah to pursue a unique career in learning experience design.

Having previously consulted with companies across a broad range of people matters, from leadership and team development, talent strategy and employee experience, she found most people programs missed the mark with a lack of focus on data, innovation and design thinking.

Dianah finally found her calling when she joined a Learning Centre of Excellence at EY in London, UK. Here she worked with companies around the world to embed new learning strategies, programs and technology that transformed traditional ways of learning. Dianah now works as the Head of Learning for Canva establishing Canva’s first ever learning & development function, Canva University. Connect with Dianah on LinkedIn.