As company culture goes, outdoor clothing firm Patagonia is pretty radical. “We have a policy that when the surf comes up, you drop work and you go surfing,” the firm’s founder Yvon Chouinard explained in an interview.
A love of the great outdoors – and a genuine appreciation of the products it sells – is integral to the firm’s corporate culture. As is having the freedom to rearrange work around the weather. For the C-suite at Patagonia, it doesn’t matter when their staff do their work, as long as the job gets done.
Corporate culture drives employee engagement, which in turn drives productivity and innovation, as well as being a draw to attract the best talent. But establishing a culture, conveying it to new recruits and preserving it when under pressure to deliver profits is easier said than done. This is where technology acts as a powerful enabler.
Indeed, some would see establishing and continually reinforcing company culture as the very purpose of technology.
A collaborative and agile culture
Culture may come naturally – and even subconsciously – to a small band of like-minded individuals with a vision, but it becomes much more difficult when that small company scales up. For large multinational firms operating across many different countries with flexible employment and working models, the complexity of establishing a unified, purpose-driven culture is enormous.
The risk is that internal silos develop and that subcultures – often built around the leadership of a particular manager – are allowed to flourish.
This is where the purpose of technology comes to the fore as the engine of increased collaboration and communication.
Many of today’s best-known tech tools are driving more flexible and collaborative working. These include virtual messaging services such as Slack and Skype for Business, file-sharing services such as Google Docs and Dropbox, or video conference applications such as Zoom and Whereby, which provide interactive meetings, screen sharing or remote access to co-workers’ computers.
A collaborative and agile corporate culture empowers employees to share information and align their activities and programs with corporate purpose. It can also help strengthen external and internal relationships, foster new partnerships and encourage greater collaboration. For example, by delivering a greater degree of customer-centricity or improving vendor and partner relationships, thus driving growth.
Many firms are also using such collaborative technology as a way to foster more flexible working, which in turn becomes a key part of the company’s culture. Computer giant Dell was a pioneer in this area, harnessing the power of technology to allow flexible working. There are many benefits aside from increased collaboration, with the company saying it has saved $39.5m over a five-year period, while also reducing CO2 emissions by 35,000 tonnes a year.
Driving trust and engagement
Trust, transparency, and openness are key components of the corporate culture.
Transparency has been shown to drive belief in a company’s purpose and objectives, as well as fostering a sense of ownership among employees and increasing motivation. It can also improve the relationship with both shareholders and customers.
Digital technologies serve as an important enabler in facilitating a culture of transparency. For instance, the social media management platform Buffer lists ‘Default to Transparency’ as one of its 10 values. That may sound fairly straightforward until you realize that Buffer embraces everything from a transparent email system – where each employee can see their co-workers’ emails – to full disclosure of all salaries and the pay structure.
This level of transparency demonstrates deep trust and commitment from the leadership team and encourages everyone to act in a similarly trustworthy way.
Delve a little deeper into that idea of open access to emails, and it becomes apparent that it is the technology that makes it more workable than it sounds. Any employee can search with keywords for a relevant email conversation. In addition, advanced filtering and labeling help optimally organize conversations while avoiding a deluge of unnecessary mail.
Learning on the job
Finally, many companies strive to instill innovation and continuous learning as a central pillar of their culture.
Twitter has been vocal in its commitment to the ongoing learning of its staff, wanting them to know more at the end of the week than at the start. To this end, it has developed its own online university to train engineers and spread tech training in a more inclusive way. Similarly, the ‘Googler to Googler’ (or G2G) training program encourages employees to teach each other new skills. And an estimated 80% of Google’s training takes place in this way.
It is technology that has the power to multiply such efforts exponentially, be it through open-source learning, online-training modules or remote peer-to-peer coaching connections.
The purpose of technology: Staying true to corporate culture
In conclusion, it is almost impossible to underestimate the importance of company culture.
Tony Hsieh, the founder of the online shoe retailer Zappos.com, which was bought by Amazon, summed it up like this: “Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own”.
It is also something too crucial to neglect, as Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky have warned: “The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.”
Companies have recognized that in this age of globalization, rapid innovation and disruption, company culture, values, and purpose are the true differentiators that set them apart from the crowd. Although purpose varies across companies, the unifying factor is the power of technology to drive these cultural imperatives forward.