Why Culture Is Important in Business

April 27, 2021

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately as here at Deem we’ve been celebrating two awards from Comparably for Best Company Outlook (Top 50 in SMB) and Best Company in the Bay Area (Top 25).  On reflection, those awards seem like validation and the culmination of a years-long collaborative effort on the part of leadership, the People & Places team, and all of Deem employees to create a great company culture — something certainly worth celebrating. 

At the end of 2019 I joined Deem as the VP of People and Places, and one of the first imperatives I was given was to help guide the company through a culture refresh. Deem had recently been acquired by Enterprise Holdings, had a new vision and strategy, and there were other new executives that joined the team at the same time that I did. As a leadership team, we all recognized that we had to ensure our company culture aligned with our vision and strategy in order to have any hope of succeeding; after all, Peter Drucker has long been attributed as saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and I believe that as well. 

Fast forward to today and we’ve got a set of company values that are embedded in our people processes, we’ve had a remarkably favorable employee engagement survey, and we’ve now won two “great places to work” awards. Does that mean the culture refresh is done? Do we get to tick that box and sit back and congratulate ourselves and move on to other “projects?” Obviously, I’m leading the witness here — the answer is clearly no. But how should we think about it, then? When is culture work “done,” and how do you know when you’ve got it right?

What is business culture, anyway?

We talk about culture a lot in the workplace, especially in leadership and HR circles, and there are so many models to dissect and analyze it. Many organizations use the Competing Values Framework, which categorizes culture as internally or externally focused and either stable or flexible. I’m particularly keen on Johnson and Scholes “culture web,” which analyzes culture based on six dimensions. But the reality is most of us think about culture in a much simpler way.

In the most basic terms, culture is how people in an organization interact with each other and work together, or as McKinsey is known to have described it, “how we get stuff done around here.” Some also refer to it as the personality of an organization, which feels really close to being a solid working definition. At its essence, culture really boils down to how employees experience the company they work for. In other words, when you think about working for a company, how do you feel about the experience?

Why is culture important in business?

When you think about the companies you’ve most enjoyed working for, what was it about your experience that was positive? Though we’re all unique individuals with our own personalities, motivations, and goals, there is actually a lot of general agreement on what makes for a positive culture:

Collaboration

Most employees want to feel like they are part of a team that can work together to solve problems and get things done. Collaboration promotes problem-solving, spurs innovation, connects teams to the bigger picture, and boosts learning and skill-sharing. At Deem, we believe that our collective intelligence is stronger than any one individual and we celebrate winning together.

Transparency

Do you trust that your manager or your executive team is telling the truth and sharing information even when the messages are hard? Secrets or lack of transparency creates a culture of insecurity and uncertainty, but when team members feel that they know where they stand and where the company is headed, they feel more confident and part of the team. “Trust and Transparency” is one of our core values at Deem.

Belonging

Humans are social animals and biologically driven to be part of a group. But we also need to feel like we can be our true selves and still be accepted. At Deem we believe that our differences are our strengths. We are deeply committed to ensuring all team members feel they can bring their whole selves to work and can expect to be welcomed and respected.

Growth and development

Most employees want to work in an environment that will allow them to learn and continue to grow professionally. Are employees allowed to try new things? Work on tasks or jobs they haven’t done before? Is it ok to make mistakes? Cultures that truly support growth and experimentation create an environment that unlocks the passion and drive of their employees.

Employee engagement and culture

However strong the company culture, the reality is when companies grow — and Deem is quickly growing — subcultures will develop. This can happen within teams or geographies, or other groups that identify more with each other than with others. That means that experiences employees have with the company can be different, and sometimes dramatically so.

This can be tough for leaders and HR professionals to get their arms around. It’s easy to assume your own experience of the company is the complete reality if you don’t deliberately seek out other perspectives to understand the experience of others within your organization.

At Deem, when we did a deep dive into our engagement survey results from October we could see there were different stories unfolding depending on the team. Looking at our company level results, our employees are very engaged and you could extrapolate the culture is very positive: With a 95% participation rate, a favorability score of 79% was definitely something to be celebrated.

If we stopped there we’d pat ourselves on the back and focus on maintaining our great culture. Digging deeper, however, we could see that some teams had a lower favorability ratings than the company average. Reading the comments from these team members almost sounded like they were working for another company — this group’s experience of the company culture was markedly different from other parts of the company.

That didn’t negate the more favorable feedback from other teams, but it showed us where there was still room for improvement, and that we should dig deeper to make sure we understood the unique experiences of these groups. Clearly our work on refreshing our culture was still a work in progress.

Maintaining a positive company culture

Given our overall employee engagement scores and our positive reviews and awards, it would be tempting to call our culture “good” and be done working on it. But the truth is, culture isn’t static. As you bring new employees into the company, they bring their own perceptions and ways of working that influence on the culture.

Having a strong set of core values that people — and especially leaders — regularly demonstrate can help maintain a positive culture. But we also can’t ignore those subcultures that might not be aligned or feel as positive. We have to keep asking hard questions and looking at the reality of everyone’s experience; finding ways to ensure we are walking the talk, addressing inequities, and listening to our employees.

So the answer to my initial question is: Culture work is never done.

We’re certainly going to celebrate our awards as a team, but we’re also going to keep working to ensure that all Deem Team members have a positive experience and that we’re living our core values as we grow. And we can’t wait to welcome new team members to join us on our journey.



Interested in joining our D(r)eem Team? Check out our currently available jobs on our site.

Author

Michelle Denman
VP, People & Places

Michelle is responsible for developing Deem’s global HR strategy and leading all areas of HR including talent acquisition, talent development, total rewards, and HR operations. She has a passion for building and sustaining a culture of engagement and belonging for all employees, and for bringing global teams together to solve tough problems in innovative ways.

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