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“It’s like Vegemite” – Why the business world has a love-hate relationship with culture

When it comes to business, culture is something of a ‘vegemite’ word: you either love it and embrace all that it stands for, or you hate it and avoid it at all costs.

At Atomic 212°, we are tremendous believers in the virtue of strong culture, which we try to live by remembering that our colleagues are people first.

It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but as more of our communication is reduced to ones and zeroes, it can be easy to forget that you’re actually working with a brilliant group of people you trust, respect, and whose company you very much enjoy.

Great people make for strong culture

It crept up on us so slowly that many people may not have noticed, but most open-plan offices sound like libraries these days, because everyone is communicating via digital means.

Think about walking into that office on your first day, perhaps fresh out of uni – you’re already trying not to rock the boat, so if no one’s talking, you’d be petrified to be the person who breaks the silence.

An atmosphere where people are actually scared to ask a question isn’t healthy, at least not in our industry.

It’s part of the reason we implemented the Talk First initiative, where we banned internal email to encourage staff communication and productivity.

And it does lead to higher productivity – a 2012 study from the University of California, entitled (in part) ‘Work without email’, found that emails increase stress and by spending less time worrying about them, people were more productive.

We want an office that’s buzzing and full of life. That might not be right for your business, and that’s fine, but find the atmosphere that is – you may want a model that’s a bit quieter than ours (we do have a tendency to hit the higher decibels), but acknowledgment of and interaction with your work colleagues is the foundation of a strong workplace.

Spreading the good word

What’s more, the upswing of strong culture is a message we’re trying to spread via a number of initiatives.

Each Tuesday we hold ‘Yoga on the Wharf’, which is open to anyone in the industry. While there’s more than a few handy yogis who turn up, showing those of us who may have said yes to a few extra donuts over the years how it’s done, it’s an environment built around fun and positivity. And that naturally seeps into how Tuesdays play out – when a big group of the team come in with big smiles on their faces, full of energy from a great workout, you better believe it’s going to be a great day!

We also open Tony’s Barber Shop once a week. And yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: we’ve got a dedicated space for a barber where, each Wednesday, anyone in the industry can come into our Walsh Bay offices and get a free trim from the best damn barber in Sydney.

Best of all, this was an entirely staff-inspired initiative. Looking for a way to express the creativity we aim to inspire and live by every day, we asked the team what would be something cool and different they would like in the office.

The winning idea was Tony’s, and the fact our humble barber is booked out every week would suggest it really is a winner. And we love that it was such a strong reflection of our culture, that came from one of our own members of staff, rather than being decreed from on high.

How do you mend a broken culture? 

Coming back to the idea that culture is a bit like vegemite, I’d clarify that by saying personal opinions on the importance of culture tend to be a reflection of the business where you work – whether you’re an employer or employee.

One of our regular freelancers told me he didn’t buy into the idea of culture, because at the last place he was employed full time, it was the word his boss loved to pull out when people worked big hours for no reward.

“It’s a buzzword – it doesn’t actually mean anything,” our freelancer said. “It’s like when someone tries to tell you their business is so chill because they’ve got a pingpong table. Every office has got a bloody pingpong table so they can look cool, but they all just gather dust until Friday afternoon drinks.”

In that regard, he’s definitely got a point. Far too many business leaders think that culture starts and ends with the furniture. And that’s the kind of thinking that shows the employers don’t care, and therefore the employees won’t either.

Because what’s in your office is the last thing you should be worried about – it’s all about who.

And that starts at the top.

The Origin of culture

I won’t harp on this, but in all the finger-pointing that followed New South Wales managing to lose to Queensland in State of Origin (again), one message really cut through the noise.

Phil Gould, NSW’s most successful coach of all time, said the series loss could be boiled down to a single factor: leadership.

“Leadership creates culture. Culture is what endures,” Gould wrote for Nine.

“Culture involves many things. It is basically the standards you accept in your organisation, for everything. It is the respect that everyone in your organisation has for these standards. The standards are pursued with a relentless honesty and integrity.

“Who or what sets these standards? Well, leadership sets these standards.”

It’s perhaps the most important message for those at the top of the tree to remember: you set the tone and create the culture of and for your business.

If you don’t like it – or, just as importantly, your team doesn’t like it – then things need to change.

That change will start and be coloured by company leadership.

A great place to start

At Atomic, our values ultimately boil down to treating one another with respect, trust, and integrity.

I’m not going to pretend that’s a thoroughly unique line of thought – it’s ultimately a variation on a variety of familiar themes, such as ‘what goes around comes around’, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’, or even the old sporting adage, ‘be the player others want to play alongside’.

But there’s a reason it’s a way of thinking that’s permeated across religions, creeds, colours and sporting teams – it’s just makes sense!

And it’s the way to lead culture at your place of work. When someone comes to you for whatever reason, simply ask yourself: what would I do, or want done for me, if I were in their shoes?

The right answer to that question will be easy for anyone working in a company with strong culture.

About the author

Jason Dooris is the CEO and founder of Sydney-based creative media agency Atomic 212°.

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Jason Dooris

Jason Dooris

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