Workplace breakroom

The Business of Corporate Culture: Part I

June 20, 2023

How much does a cup of coffee and a bagel cost? Perhaps the more important question to ask, especially for a company is: how much does the absence of a cup of coffee and a bagel cost? And how about a smile? How much do smiles cost? And how about frowns?

The same questions can be asked about corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), learning and development (L&D) and employee resource group (ERG) efforts, mentorship programs, team building activities and monthly celebrations involving formerly marginalized groups of employees—what is broadly referred to as “corporate culture.”

On the day I was hired as office manager in Chicago I was told that my two most important challenges would be to provide the administrative support to ensure my colleagues had the opportunity to do their best work and to elevate office morale. Sure, I’d have to pay the office bills and coordinate events, schedule meetings and order team lunches and supplies, interface with our IT department and our building’s security and management teams, but I’d need to do it in a way that elevated spirits and hopefully kept them up. I was also told to be mindful of following “best business practices.”

My first exposure to the term: “best business practices” occurred in graduate school, while working as a paid intern for IBM Austin in their Technical Education Department. I was actually working on a master’s degree in film production at the time, so my job was to produce, direct and shoot short in-house videos on everything from the continuous-flow manufacturing process to the importance of implementing a limited flex-time policy to foster good will, creativity, and harmony (and hopefully increase productivity) in our engineers. If it worked this idea would become a best business practice, at least for the IBM Austin site. It proved to be a very successful idea on all counts. Although I didn’t realize it, this concession to our engineers was probably my introduction to what has become known as “corporate culture.” It also touched on an important corollary to best business practices and that is what I call: “best human practices.” Some might disagree, but I’m not sure the two are separable. It seems to hold true that companies that value both best business and best human practices are generally the most successful. At the time, (the mid-1980s) IBM was already getting wise to the importance of listening to employees, fostering a healthy work-life balance, and creating opportunities for individuals and teams to interact with each other and share ideas.

Although there are many definitions of “corporate culture” and many elements that should be considered when crafting one, I found a pretty decent version in the newsletter “Ascend” in The Harvard Business Review from December 3, 2021. In the context of evaluating a job offer Vasundhara Sawhney provides her definition:

Company culture is often overlooked—and yet it is among the most important criteria for evaluating a job offer. Simply put, culture is an organization’s DNA. It is the shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that characterize a workplace. It is reflected in how people behave, interact with each other, make decisions, and do their work. It impacts everythingincluding your happiness and career.

Whether you’re entering the job market for the first time or switching roles to find a more suitable work environment, take the time to learn about the culture of every company you apply to. You’ll be spending the majority of your waking hours at your job. It makes sense to give some thought to what kind of place you will thrive in and the kind of people you will most enjoy interacting with.

APCO prides itself on its culture and for good reason. There is an openness to removing the barriers to substantive communication about work-life balance, there is a willingness to listen to new ideas and often to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations that drive the necessary changes that benefit and include everyone. Along with a commitment to honor DEI initiatives and celebrate our shared humanity, there is also a commitment to making the office environment hospitable and conducive to optimal collaboration and performance. This has become especially true as we venture further into what has been termed: “the hybrid workplace.”

Mindfully creating a positive corporate culture would be a worthwhile and even noble goal in itself, even if the business case metrics were marginal or inconclusive, but the data is actually becoming clearer and suggests that healthy commitments to positive corporate culture actually increase productivity and profitability along with employee well-being. In the February 13, 2023 issue of “Great Place to Work” Ted Kitterman, using data gleaned from many reputable sources, makes the business case for a strong corporate culture stating that: “when you invest in workplace culture your business is more profitable.” One of the most compelling data points involves stock market returns.

Read Part II of blog post here. 



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