Every workplace has its own microculture as a result of its sector, its location in the world and the diverse range of individuals who make up the workforce. Culture isn’t just a case of ethnicity, though, it’s a way of thinking and acting. At an individual level, we might define culture as being the way a person thinks, acts or speaks based on their experiences and background. At a group or company level, however, the culture can generally be seen as the historical experiences and collaboration of the people that make up the group.
Unlike an individual, who we assume has some control over their experiences, thoughts and general way of thinking, corporate culture is often guided by group guidelines and rules. Another, potentially larger, influencer on corporate or group culture is internal hierarchy. The ‘higher ranked’ or ‘louder’ parties of the group often sway the culture to follow their experiences and beliefs. The opinions or thoughts of the ‘lower ranking’ or ‘quieter’ members of the group are often deemed less important by the group en masse. This, ultimately, also becomes part of the group’s culture.
This discussion regards corporate or group culture and how establishing, both actively and subconsciously, a company’s culture can impact external and internal perceptions of that company. In particular, we are looking at the differences of a cold ‘corporate’ and perceived professional company culture versus a more relaxed, warm and approachable, business model.
Of course, everyone who works anywhere always strives to be professional – that’s how it should be. However, some companies seem to believe that being professional also means being cold, unapproachable, target-driven and competitive rather than being supportive, approachable and co-operative.
Is this the right way to drive up profits? Does a cold, competitive environment achieve targets at the expense of workforce morale and happiness? Is it sometimes worth losing staff members if, at the end of the day, they’re merely seen as dead weight because they can’t keep up?
The answer is that it depends…
Cold and professional and warm and approachable work best in different industries and sectors. The financial sector, for example, is best served by an unemotional, facts and figures-driven workforce. It’s also important to meet targets and to break barriers and this can only realistically be done if everyone’s focused on the job rather than organising their next potluck meeting.
A similar culture has to prevail in a company that’s innovating, disrupting or making big changes. Amazon is probably the best example we have right now. The fast-paced, unforgiving workplace culture there, from the warehouse floor right up to Bezos himself, is legendary. The culture in Amazon is described as ‘gladiatorial’ which is what you need if you’ve decided to take on every retailer everywhere in the world and change the way they’ve always done things forever.
This approach still needs professionalism, however. Amazon isn’t a swashbuckling pirate but a well-organised, fine-tuned and exquisitely well-informed machine. No real room for feelings there. You might see this as cruel, hard, unfair or wrong, but Amazon will simply tell you you’re in the wrong arena…
What about warm and approachable?
Where do pictures of the harbour bridge, posters of Thai celebrities cute puppies and fluffy kittens fit in? Apparently, according to Japanese researchers, ‘kawaii’ helps people to get the job done and done better. Interestingly, the 2012 study found that photos of adult cats and dogs improved people’s focus and diligence only slightly. It’s almost as if people have a need to nurture; well, actually, they do.
In some industries and companies, warm and approachable will get the best results which leads to increased professionalism and profits. Of course, in some places if you were caught staring at kittens in order to improve your performance, you’d be out on your ear for time wasting.
Other companies, however, like Netflix, see kitten-staring, chatting about issues and taking whatever time off you fancy as time invested, not wasted. This company sees nurturing and developing its people as the key to its profits. Oddly enough, it seems that giving people a bit of leeway and letting them set their own targets and have a gripe at the boss also works. People at Netflix are also professionals. Hmmm…
Similarly to how a ‘colder’ culture may enforce both internal & external trust and confidence in a financial company, a ‘warmer’ culture should allow for greater exploration of creativity. Artistic based industry; design, marketing, photography, musical, creative, etc, are probably more likely to see an increase in productivity and efficiency in a more relaxed, emotional environment.
As a Director myself, and as I write this article, I’m finding myself analysing my own company; what our culture is and what I’d like it to be. I own a small digital agency in Bangkok, Thailand. As a creative company, I’d like to think we fall more on the warm, approachable side of the scale. That’s definitely the side I’d like to sit on at any rate. We don’t wear suits to the office, we don’t have punch cards, we listen to music, drink way too much coffee and love a good chat.
Can you be warm and professional at the same time? I’d like to think so. We’re fairly relaxed and I’m fine with that for my type of business. Of course, that isn’t to say we don’t have systems and methodology. It isn’t to say we don’t have rules and guidelines and it certainly doesn’t mean we aren’t professional in the business we conduct. In our case, the warmth and approachable vibe we convey is helpful to the type of service we provide. Design and marketing is a personal thing, different to each of our clients and I think we wouldn’t be able to do our job as effectively if we were teetering on the colder ‘professional’ side of the cultural fence.
Where do you find yourself and your business? Is it what you want to portray? Is your company culture the best for your clients and staff?
Ultimately you can take your pick, it seems, because both models work. Be advised however, the larger and older the company, the harder it may be to change that company’s culture. How you may want to appear and act, and how your staff and clients see your business may be two different things.