The expression ‘company culture’ is so much overused these days, often wrongly or misleadingly applied, that you might well wonder whether the term has any real value. However a recent report from Forrester Research points to a genuine correlation between company culture and business results. The market research specialist concludes that the company’s success is distinctly favoured by a combination of a customer-centric culture and employee well-being.

Company culture: the necessary values for a well-functioning organisation

So how can we define corporate culture? The most usual basic definition is that company culture is a system of values that guides the way a given organisation functions. In an interview conducted by Jean-Philippe Denis (video in French), Editor-in-Chief of the Revue Française de Gestion (French Management Review), Maurice Thévenet, a professor at both the French educational and research institute CNAM and leading business school ESSEC, who has authored a work entitled ‘La Culture d’entreprise’ (Company Culture), pointed out that “the company culture manifests itself in the way decisions are taken, the content of those decisions, the way in which the organisation responds to those decisions, and also in the tools made available within the organisation and the strategic approaches it takes.” According to this view, company culture is closely bound up with the history and traditions of the organisation. It is also shaped by the core business of the enterprise: a construction firm is likely to have a very different corporate culture from a computer software publisher.

"The company culture manifests itself in the way decisions are taken..." - Maurice Thévenet, professor at ESSEC Business School

Company culture is also shaped by corporate values, i.e. the sum total of shared opinions and attitudes towards the company, plus also its symbols, including dress code, office layout, logo and graphical system. Last but not least, what Maurice Thévenet describes as ‘rituals’, such as celebrations or meals, also help to build and maintain the company culture over time. So, even before we try to judge to what extent the corporate culture is linked with the firm’s financial success and reputation, we can conclude that it forms a sort of DNA, the embodiment of a common image with which employees can identify, which is vital for the very functioning of the organisation. However, the rise of digital tools and methods and the consequences of their use, which have led to a re-shuffling of the cards in the employment market, are now posing a stiff challenge to the notion of a company culture.

Both workers and businesses seeking greater flexibility

The proportion of freelancers in the overall workforce is constantly increasing. A survey conducted by UpWork and Freelancers Union reveals that 55 million US Americans, equivalent to 35% of the working population, are now self-employed. California-based accounts software and services specialist Intuit expects this figure to reach 43% by as early as 2020. Moreover, on the fringe of the self-employed movement, we are now seeing the emergence of a new species of worker: digital nomads.



are self-employed

This community of people who like to keep on the move is growing all over the world. The latest research shows that 63% of all freelancers in the United States become self-employed by their own choice, although this figure stood at just 43% only two years ago. It is highly likely that the freedom to work wherever you wish and to work flexible hours plays a big part in people’s choice of jobs, and this trend has been on the rise for several years now, according to the Gallup polling institute. The working population is becoming more independent and is beginning to free itself from the traditional 9-5 format and the classic career of 25 years spent working faithfully for one and the same organisation.

One reason for this may be that the appeal of attaining seniority at a company appears to have become less obvious. A survey carried out by LinkedIn highlights the growing appetite for job-hopping among young graduates. Men and women who graduated from a higher education institute between 1986 and 1990 changed jobs on average two or three times during the ten years following graduation, while those graduating between 2001 and 2005 switched employment around four times during the same period. Meanwhile college graduates from the classes of 2006 to 2010 polled by LinkedIn had already worked on average at three different jobs within five years. In addition to flexibility in working hours and the need to change employers regularly – or at least not to become too attached to one single employer – this generation of employees are looking for a flexible workspace, even a number of different workplaces. And this desire is increasingly understood by company bosses. A survey by California-based collaboration technology specialist Polycom reveals that 48% of all US companies encourage their employees to work remotely and on any type of information and communication device. Meanwhile the flexi-office, an approach which means employees are no longer allocated a fixed workstation and the company workspace is used differently from one day to the next, has become common practice not only at startups and the Internet giants but even major established corporations. The office of the future may perhaps be more a place for meetings and dialogue than simply a workplace.

Is Hyper-FLexibility really a solution?

And what if companies did not have any offices at all? Clearly, this approach would not suit every type of company but it is perfectly possible to envisage a situation where the official company premises are not the employees’ main place of work: they work instead at home, in cafés or other third places. The company of the future will be characterised by ‘hyper-flexibility’ at work, both in space and in time. In a report entitled Liquid Workforce: Building the workforce for today’s digital demands, Accenture foresees that companies will be making increasing use of freelancers and ‘on-demand’ workers. In the medium term, within about ten years, the consultancy even sees the advent of ‘liquid companies’. The only permanent employees of these new-style companies will be the CEO and a small number of direct reports – the CMO, CFO, COO, making up the C-suite – while the rest of the workforce will be composed entirely of freelancers.

Accenture may be deliberately pushing this tendency but nevertheless new approaches to work are undoubtedly already in motion. The employment market is increasingly becoming an ‘on-demand’ marketplace and major corporations will have to adjust to this trend. The lines are already becoming blurred. Freelancing is no longer the exclusive province of young - and no longer quite so young – tech companies. As the Accenture report points out, P&G has already conducted a successful pilot project in partnership with UpWork, a platform that puts freelancers in touch with companies.

"If fewer and fewer employees come together at the same place to work, then, yes, the company culture could potentially come under threat."

Against the backdrop of these movements towards hyperflexibility, how is the notion of a company culture holding up? Sam Stern, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, who specialises in company culture and employee-experience, underlines: “If staff turnover at a company increases, and if fewer and fewer employees come together at the same place to work, then, yes, the company culture could potentially come under threat. If staff no longer actually have a common basis that they can hold on to, if there starts to be a lack of continuity, or if those people who would normally pass on the torch are less often there, then there’s a real danger. That’s because it will become hard for employees to define what it is that makes the company culture so unique or so right for the organisation.” So if companies of the future are to be composed of a considerable proportion of freelancers plus full-time employees who mainly work outside the firm’s headquarters, how will they be able to avoid jeopardising their company culture?

Collaborative tools enabling staff to feed the company culture

Sabrina Bouraoui, a former Business Partner at HolacracyOne, sees company culture as “the result of an ongoing process infused by all the company’s players. Consequently, I’m always a bit perplexed when it’s established in a top-down manner by a small group of people. If we want to carry this train of thought a bit further, it would be interesting to examine the mission and purpose of a company, which is precisely where the company culture finds its expression.” In order to give all the members of an organisation a voice, a company needs to create a space where employees can express themselves and exchange their thoughts and ideas. And if firms wish to maintain and sustain their company culture as flexible modes of working become more and more common, they ought to be encouraging communication and transparency among all staff. This aim is greatly aided by the appearance of a large number of online platforms designed to enable organisations to promote information sharing and collaboration between their employees, whether they work at fixed stations or remotely. Slack, Yammer and the Emplify mobile app are all good examples of these new tools, which are already in widespread use at many startups and even some major corporations. These collaboration platforms help to overcome some of the problems due to the lack of physical interaction between fixed-workplace employees and their mobile colleagues.

Collaborative tools are essential to company culture


Quite apart from their purely functional benefits, these new tools can also help to consolidate company culture by giving all staff the opportunity to share and highlight the successes achieved by their joint efforts. Explains Sam Stern: “These tools are where employees go to highlight the team’s successes. So they’re creating a collective memory which helps to build the company and its culture. These stories and anecdotes serve as examples to be followed, they are representations of projects accomplished in accordance with the company’s values. These details of day-to-day reality are something that really breathes life into the company culture.” A range of new technologies are now making it possible to train and on-board new staff smoothly. When a new colleague joins the firm, s/he can not only be quickly provided with all the necessary information to start the job but also infused rapidly with the values and expectations of the organisation. Mixed Reality, a technique we described in a recent article, is one way to expedite the training process and the transmission of knowledge and also to enable the newcomer to feel at home in the company.

HR and line managers well-placed to ensure the continuity of company culture

Any organisation that wishes to ensure the continuity of its company culture must encourage this process of sharing information. The Human Resources department of course has a particular responsibility here. Sam Stern points out: “Human Resources has an important role to play when it comes to providing access to information upfront so as to make newcomers fully operational.” Of course, HR must be properly supported in this task by the line managers. Whatever work format is used at a particular company, it is the team leaders – who maintain person-to-person relationships with staff – that are their main points of contact with the organisation. “The process of inducting new staff and exposing them to the company culture must first be enabled by the HR people and then taken further by line managers,” underlines Sam Stern.

Holacracy: a way to maintain company culture at ‘flexible’ firms?

Meanwhile some companies are now completely rethinking their approach in order to take account of the workforce’s desire for flexibility. HolacracyOne and HolaSpirit are pioneers in this field. Co-founded by Philippe Pinault, HolaSpirit works according to the principles of Holacracy, a method which does away with traditional hierarchies, replacing the classical top-down structure with an approach in which every person works in a small group that takes its own responsibility for a number of areas, rather as if every employee were a manager. Philippe Pinault insists that this way of working tends to strengthen the company culture, which will become absolutely crucial for success in the years to come. “In a future environment where people no longer work just to make a living, the purpose and mission of the organisation will be the primary drawcard for recruitment. The match between the personal goals of the worker and those of the company will be paramount. And the activities and tasks to be performed as part of the work will need to be aligned with these goals,” he argues. T

The match between the personal goals of the worker and those of the company will be paramount.

Philippe Pinault, HolaSpirit 

This view of things is very much in line with the principles of Holacracy, under which the goals of the organisation provide the destination towards which everyone seeks to steer. Pinault explains: “This basic purpose is what forms the company culture of any organisation that is based on values, on certain ways of doing things, which are not merely slogans that look nice on the wall.” He insists that a company which places emphasis on values such as excellence, respect, modesty, sharing, etc, will find it easier to attract talent. “People are going to become increasingly sensitive to the overall framework and values which an organisation projects when it comes to deciding whether to join. And after that comes the work you do. I’m not trying to say that the work is less important but nowadays it changes so quickly that you’re in any case in a permanent learning process. And we all know that it’s easier to learn to carry out new tasks than to change your own personality,” says the HolaSpirit founder.

HolaSpirit has not only espoused the Holacracy philosophy but creates and sells tools to facilitate the implementation of the method, alongside other HR and management practices. Philippe Pinault is firmly convinced that working remotely or flexibly will not undermine the company culture as long as the employees buy into the mission, purpose and values of the organisation, which is by definition the way holacracy works. Stéphane Kasriel, CEO of freelancing website UpWork, tends to agree, underlining the importance of ensuring a good fit between a job applicant’s personality and the company culture, both during the recruitment process and throughout his/her period of employment with the firm, with regular checks on alignment with the organisation’s common values. He explains: “Whenever we hire a new person we check that he or she shares the values that we espouse. And we follow the same approach in work appraisals. It’s not just a matter of knowing whether the work has been carried out but also how it was carried out and whether the process was in line with the company’s values.” However, it would be wrong to think of holacracy as a miracle recipe that can be applied in all cases and will cure all ills. Online apparel store Zappos, having tested out the holacracy approach for three years, revealed in 2015 that 14% of its employees gave negative feedback on the model. Online publishing platform Medium found itself in a similar situation and abandoned the model in March 2016. These examples demonstrate that holacracy does not always prove to be a panacea which meets the needs of all types of company.

Embracing freelancing without losing the company culture

the force of 'liquide force'

So if a company does not wish to undergo radical transformation, how can the firm adjust optimally to the changes taking place in the jobs market and still preserve its essential DNA? Stéphane Kasriel argues that the ‘liquid workforce’, to use the Accenture term, does not mean that a company has to sub-contract out all its tasks. It does however imply that organisations will have to make strategic decisions about which activities can be handled externally and which tasks ought to stay in-house. The firm will also need to be able to draw on a network of tried and trusted self-employed providers who have a good knowledge of the company. “Instead of sub-contracting to external firms, it’s in the company’s interests to create a pool of talent made up of freelancers – former employees, friends and members of the wider family of the company or perhaps self-employed people who show great interest in the company. The idea is to be able to call rapidly on a group of people who can back up the company’s full-time workforce. There’s no notion of ownership here. The idea is rather to maintain close relations with a group of available freelancers rather than sub-contracting entire areas of activity out to other firms,” he explains, pointing out that the use of freelance workers who are already familiar with the company will help to prevent the dilution or disappearance of the company culture.

Quite apart from its core business working with the freelance world, UpWork is in itself in many ways a model of future work practices. As is the case at Buffer, HolacracyOne and among the Mangrove digital nomad community, UpWork staff are encouraged to go on ‘retreats’ – whereby people working on a project meet up for some quality time together to focus on the production phase. These highly intensive work sessions may take place in the countryside or in an exotic location, to enable the workers to get away from the daily routine that is the norm at most companies. Says Stéphane Kasriel: “We organise work sessions abroad. Groups of 10 to 20 people meet up in a place of their own choosing, rent an apartment on Airbnb for two to three weeks and try to make some real progress on a project.” Such retreats serve multiple purposes: besides enabling the team to focus hard on project delivery and meeting very precise targets, these get-togethers help to strengthen cohesion within the working group. They help to create reference points and good memories linked to the company, which also helps to maintain and boost the company culture. It is however quite important to organise such get-togethers on a fairly frequent basis, especially if colleagues never meet outside these sessions, as is the case for example at HolacracyOne. Underlines Sam Stern: “The organisation must ensure that personal meetings take place quite regularly so that during those periods when the employees are working remotely they’re already looking forward to the next face-to-face meeting.” So it seems that a flexible approach to work among company staff does not necessarily jeopardise the company culture. It is however up to each firm to use the available tools in such a way as to preserve, or even boost their company culture.