Company culture is not free ice cream and massages : As companies consider their return to the office, new questions about culture arise

Over the past 18 months, many company leaders have been lamenting ‘a loss of company culture’ because people have not been going into a physical office. When examining the rationale behind this, it comes down to three false assumptions: 

  • “Perks are what create culture.” 
  • “People need to be physically together to build a strong culture.” 
  • “Online interactions cannot build the foundation of high-performance teams.”

I’ll explore each of these in more detail, but first, I wanted to set the broader context. When it comes to keeping employees motivated, culture matters: almost a third (27%) of staff leave their jobs due to bad culture, while 32% of SME employees say staying engaged over the coming year will be their biggest challenge. However, culture is something that most company leaders either delegate to their People team or assume will ‘just happen’. 

Culture is one of the most powerful forces determining our behaviour, actions, and perspective on the world.

Setting and maintaining company culture is about deciding and actively investing in the personality of a company: what it feels like to be part of it, to interact with it, and to contribute to it. Since culture can be such a nebulous concept, it often gets sidelined much more than it should, which is evident from this debate over physicality and the office. 

“Perks are what create culture.” 

Perks are a subset of, rather than the essence of, the culture itself. Yet in discussions around office culture, these perks often become conflated with the personality of the company. For example, a company’s culture might place a high value on their employees’ mental health. This could be based on the belief that mental wellbeing is necessary for people to do their best work. 

As a result, there might be the offer of subsidised therapy or free weekly massages in the office. These perks are not the culture itself; they are proof of the conviction that in this company, mental wellbeing matters. 

Since culture is a shared belief system, each belief or value is a rung on the ladder towards a shared destination. For this to be clear, it needs to be defined. But it’s challenging to do so. To avoid the more complex work of revisiting core values, beliefs, and mindsets, too many company leaders try to ‘solve’ bad cultures by throwing in more perks and fixating on surface-level elements. 

Free ice cream and massages are the by-products, not the ingredients of the culture.

People do not stay at companies for free barista coffee or dress-down Fridays. These alone do not create an environment that people want to work in. Instead of focusing on perks, the strongest company leaders treat those benefits as an expression of the deeper company values. 

After all, if you’re a Goldman Sachs employee making half a million quid a year and management is saying, “We’re going to offer you free ice cream to come back.” Frankly, you don’t care. (“I can afford my own ice cream, thanks. I don’t need to come back into the office to get it.”) It feels like when a parent is trying to bribe a child to do something they don’t want to do. 

“People need to be physically together to build a strong culture.” 

The truth is that culture can not only be created but can thrive in a remote setting. Many online communities have never interacted in person but have built up as powerful forces through shared goals. Some of those communities are positive, while others are more controversial. What they all have in common is the fact that they have come together virtually, which demonstrates that a strong culture does not require a physical presence to exist. 

A famous example is the Arab Spring that arose from Twitter, and another is the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, there was the attack on the Capitol in Washington earlier this year, which was all created through an online community. Most people who had never met before managed to coordinate a premeditated attack on one of the most important structures in the Western world. 

This demonstrates that a strong culture needs a clear definition of the beliefs and values that form its foundation. This is what too many company leaders fail to understand and foster. It does not matter whether people are in the office or not. What matters is that the core collective beliefs are defined and then acted out on a day-to-day basis. 

Take Automattic, which owns WordPress.com (which powers 25% of all websites today). Since before the pandemic, Automattic’s 400-person team has been WFH or co-located offices in 43 countries. They rely almost entirely on an internal blogging platform for communication and collaboration. Despite being valued at $7.5 billion, they have no physical headquarters. Instead, they bring employees together at an Airbnb listing once a month. Their famously positive culture is based on what they call ‘the Automattic Creed’

Anyone can write a creed, but the real magic begins when that creed is lived out on a day-to-day basis. This is what creates a true tribe. We are tribal beings, and well-defined company culture can signal very clearly: “This is what we believe. If you also have this shared set of beliefs, you’d be a great fit here.” 

Automattic shows that these tribes can be created within companies that decide to go remote, hybrid, or office-first. Physical presence is not a substitute for emotional clarity. The choice of where you choose to base your team and how you choose to operate it is a clear reflection of what you value as an organisation and what you believe to be true about how great work gets done. 

“Online interactions cannot build the foundation of high-performance teams.”

The best company cultures can be fostered online, with real-life interactions helping them to thrive even more. This is the magic of hybrid work, where you can still create a remote-first, strong culture with a core set of values and beliefs. The culture becomes enhanced when teams who have only ever met online then come together in person, whether it’s a retreat in Spain, a monthly drink or a weekly all-hands. 

Finance provider Uncapped is an excellent example of this. A year ago, the team consisted of ten people, and now the team has over fifty members who are located all around the world. While the team has been working together virtually, they recently held a company retreat next to a beautiful lake near Warsaw. 

This was the first time that many of them met in person. But instead of trading stories about their weekends over the table in the office kitchen, they spent the time sailing, cooking, and building campfires together. This is an example of quality time that enables people to really get to know one another on a personal level. 

It’s also an example of how your workplace strategy ends up being your talent and your talent attraction, recruitment, and retention strategy. By taking a thoughtful approach to designing a place where people actually want to work, defining the most important values to the team, then living them out, you create a place where employees want to stay.

This deliberate form of thoughtful organisation design is essential to younger employees searching for more meaning than compensation alone. A recent survey from Adobe shows generational differences between workers and that discontented Gen Z employees are the main drivers of The Great Resignation and the considerable turnover pummeling so many companies. What younger generations are actively asking for are the things that all generations value: a sense of strong connection and engagement at work. 

Through thinking about the ‘return to the office’, it’s worth letting go of the idea that you can bribe employees back to the office. Instead, this is a chance to examine what your company stands for regardless of how and where it operates. What kind of tribe does it attract? What matters to that tribe? The answers to those questions are much more important than any free stuff.