6 tips to build a strong organizational culture, according to Asana leaders

May 10th, 2021
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At your organization, you’ve probably thought a lot about the product you’re building, the way you’ll win customers, and the people you’re hiring. After all, these are critical ways to run your business smoothly. 

Equally important—but often overlooked—is organizational culture. But what if we told you that great company culture is the secret sauce that takes your team from good to exceptional? 

Good culture is achievable—but it takes a committed team of leaders focused on building culture to make it happen. At Asana, we’ve dedicated time and investment into building our culture—in fact, our co-founders like to say they approach company culture with the same intentionality they bring to developing the Asana product. This led to decisions like hiring our Head of Diversity and Inclusion when we had less than 200 employees and spending five months interviewing our Head of People Operations to make sure she was the perfect person to drive our culture forward. 

Why are we telling you all of this? Because we believe that organizational culture is the key to unlocking a great business, a great team, and ultimately, a great mission. In this article, we’ll walk you through what organizational culture is, how leaders at Asana have approached building company culture, and the six things to focus on to develop a great culture at your company. Here’s how.

What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is the very core of a company. It refers to the practical and pervasive implementation of norms, best practices, ideals, and shared values within your company. Your culture defines and shapes your work environment. Ultimately, developing your organizational culture is about building people programs to help you achieve your business goals while remaining in-line with your company values.

Anna Binder, Asana’s Head of People, likes to say culture “is not beer on Fridays.” Instead, culture connects the three crucial parts of any organization: 

  1. Your organization’s business goals. What is your organization trying to achieve in the marketplace, and how will it get there?

  2. Your company values. Everything starts with the values held by company leadership and how well they walk the talk.

  3. Your people and people touchpoints. Think of all the programs, communications, and organizational behaviors within your organization. These hundreds and thousands of touchpoints make up your organizational culture—anything from your budget to the language you use in job descriptions to how decisions and business objectives are defined and communicated.

Why company culture is important

Investing in organizational culture and leadership where team members can thrive, engage with work, and feel supported is exactly what contributes to business success. By leveraging your company values, you can regularly and intentionally improve your business engine, customer support, onboarding, recruiting, internal processes, and nearly everything else about your organization. 

Good culture drives employee engagement and increases retention, because your team feels supported and able to do their best work every day. With strong culture and values you can:

  • Build team-oriented practices so your team can get their best work done.

  • Reduce friction so team members can identify and execute high-impact projects.

  • Ensure all team members feel welcome in your organization, regardless of gender, appearance, race, and identity. 

  • Connect everything back to your organization’s mission, so everyone understands why their work is a critical piece of the puzzle. 

  • Establish standards for teamwork, collaboration, and team building across your organization.

For us, it’s mission-critical that our culture enables our employees to do their most impactful work as effortlessly as possible. This supports the business, enables us to achieve our mission, and ultimately enhances employee satisfaction and growth.
Read: How we’ve designed a culture that fuels our business results

When to begin developing organizational culture

The bottom line is: as soon as possible. Truth is, your culture will develop with or without you. The difference is, without actively developing and shaping your company culture, you risk having a disorganized and ambiguous framework. Instead, take the time to nurture your desired culture. A strong culture comes from intentionality—rather than letting culture happen.

At Asana, organizational culture was one of the first things our founders thought about—and as a result, it became an integral part of how we do business, show up to work, and support each other. 

Be persistent; if you defer this work because it feels hard and distracting now, you’re just setting yourselves up for a much harder (and eventually perhaps impossible) problem to solve later. Culture reinforces itself and becomes more rigid over time, so it’s important to nudge it in the right direction as early as possible.

6 factors that shape company culture

So, how can you get there? Every company’s organizational culture is different—and part of what makes your culture unique is what you bring to the table. With that in mind, here are the six main factors to consider when developing your company culture. 

1. Build shared values

Building shared values—and living those values—is the bedrock of good corporate culture. An organization’s core values describe how group members should treat one another, how employees can expect to be treated, and what central values everyone at the company shares. 

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t just create top-down values, but instead give your team an opportunity to co-create cultural values. Just like your company itself, your company’s values should be living, dynamic ideals that your team members believe in. 

Sometimes, this can mean re-thinking or refreshing your values—especially as your company grows. A values refresh is a powerful way to refine, re-define, or build new values based on the stage your company is at. In fact, we went through a values refresh a few years ago at Asana to do just that. Here’s what we landed on:

The nine Asana values: mission, clarity, give & take responsibility, mindfulness, do great things fast, co-creation, reject false tradeoffs, be real, and heartitude

2. Invest in diversity, inclusion, and belonging

A key part of organizational culture is making sure your team members feel like they belong—and that starts with diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Building a diverse workforce isn’t just the right thing to do—it actually gives your team a competitive advantage. Research shows that companies with more diverse teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more effective at achieving their financial goals. 

So, how can you invest in diversity? There are a few great ways to embed diversity into your current culture, including:

  • Inclusive hiring and onboarding practices. To build a diverse culture, begin at the beginning: with hiring and onboarding. Train your hiring managers to create an inclusive environment during the hiring process. Aim to attract and source candidates from underrepresented groups. Focus on creating an inclusive candidate experience. Finally, equip your human resources and talent acquisition teams to be advocates for diversity and inclusion at every stage in the hiring and onboarding process. 

  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERGs are trusted, safe spaces for underrepresented groups and allies. These spaces build a sense of community and belonging for all team members. Though ERGs are typically set up at the company level, they’re usually led by team members who want to shape workplace culture. 

  • Real talk events. To make your team feel welcome and like they belong, make sure there’s a safe space for them to be their full selves at work. For example, at Asana we host ‘real talk’ events to discuss hard, often uncomfortable topics, such as experiences around identity and workplace challenges. These candid, open conversations allow team members to be their full selves.  

  • Inclusive spaces. Another way for team members to be their full selves is to make sure they’re comfortable simply being in your space. This can include dedicated mother’s rooms for working moms, prayer rooms, gender-neutral restrooms for all identities, and accessibility for all bodies. 

Together we’re building a better way to work, and showing the world that it’s possible to create both a product and a culture that supports transparency, trust, and inclusion.
Read: Asana’s approach to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

3. Ground your culture in mutual trust

An inclusive culture must be centered on trust at its core. Employees have to feel safe to be themselves, experiment, take chances, fail, and ultimately, succeed as individuals and as teams. Part of building your organization’s culture is creating a space where employees, regardless of title, team, or tenure, feel welcome and encouraged to share ideas and thoughts. 

To support mutual trust, create clear avenues for team members to engage and be honest. There are several ways you can build this into your company culture:

  • Hold open forums with company leadership. One way to show your team members that you trust them is to provide access to company leaders and ask questions that are on their mind. Whether you bring in your entire executive team or do monthly ask me anything Q&A sessions with different company leaders, showing your employees that you’re open to answering their questions builds reciprocal trust. 

  • Solicit feedback at every level. The flip side of being open is accepting feedback from your team members. Disagreement is actually key to good team collaboration, and constructive criticism can help you build closer connection with your team members. Learn how to give and take constructive feedback in our article.

  • Increase visibility across projects, processes, and decisions. Sometimes, team members just want to know what’s happening or why a decision was made. Where possible, keep information public, or share out important decisions in a central source. Naturally at Asana, we use Asana to stay in sync and share the big picture.

4. Distribute responsibility where appropriate

At the core of building trust is giving team members ownership over parts of the decision-making process. There are a variety of ways to do that, but one of the best ways is to distribute responsibility. Instead of your teammates feeling like cogs in a machine, they can feel like valued contributors.

When everyone on a team is empowered and trusted to manifest their full potential, each person becomes capable of so much more, which makes the company capable of so much more. Our experience is that, with the right team, distributed authority results in organizations that are happier and more effective in accomplishing their most ambitious missions.
Read: How to distribute authority to everyone in your company

At Asana, we do this through a system called Areas of Responsibility (AORs). AORs distribute responsibility for each area of the organization to the best team member for the job. With the AOR system, team members who aren’t in direct management roles have opportunities to grow as leaders and to own important decisions—even as new hires. 

5. Increase clarity, reduce silos

Clarity is key for a good working environment and, as a result, a good company culture. Too often, work is siloed between teams and tools, making it hard to find. Without a clear understanding of what you need to do—and why it matters—it can feel like you’re spinning your wheels without really going anywhere. 

If you don’t already, make sure you have a clear, tangible way to connect daily work to company goals. According to recent research, only 26% of knowledge workers have a very clear understanding of how their individual work relates to company goals. That’s because setting goals in a slide deck or spreadsheet that gets checked quarterly isn’t a strong enough connection to regular, daily work. 

Instead, increase motivation and provide clarity by tracking company goals where work happens. Look for a goal management software that connects daily work to the projects team members are working on. That way, team members can clearly see which goals they’re contributing to and how. 

If you’re leading a team that is part of a larger organization, one of the most important things you can do is to help everyone on your team understand how the larger organization is impacting the world, how your team is critical to the success of the organization, and how their individual work is important to the success of the team.
Read: How to lead with clarity of purpose, plan, and responsibility

6. Build great hiring and onboarding processes

Organizational culture starts the moment someone interacts with your company—like seeing an ad, taking a recruiter call, showing up for an onsite interview, or arriving to work on their first day. Making sure your team members feel welcome, clearly understand your hiring and onboarding processes, and have access to the information they need to succeed is critical to building a strong, inclusive organizational culture.

Hiring

There are a variety of ways to build inclusive hiring processes that lead to strong company culture. 

  • Evaluate pay equity and accessible compensation. It’s no secret that there is a wage gap between different underrepresented minorities. A key part of inclusive hiring and healthy culture is ensure you’re paying team members equally. If you don’t already, regularly evaluate key compensation-related metrics at your company by gender and race. If necessary, conduct a more rigorous pay equity analysis to ensure all team members are being compensated fairly.  

  • Train hiring managers about unconscious bias. Everyone has unconscious bias—these mental shortcuts are how our brain processes information quickly. But without proper recognition, unconscious bias can lead to skewed judgments and reinforce stereotypes. To avoid this, hold training sessions for hiring managers and team members to recognize and combat unconscious biases in the workplace.

  • Stop evaluating culture fit. A lot of times, you may hear a team member say “I liked them, they’re a strong culture fit.” But this statement can be misleading. A lot of us use cultural fit to describe good feelings or positive vibes we got from a potential hire. The problem is, we’re more likely to feel that way with people who are similar to us. Evaluating for fit is important—but train your hiring managers to use more precise language to describe how you feel about potential hires. Does this applicant embody your organization’s values? Which ones do they embody, and why? Do they align with your mission? Explain precisely how. Using more specific examples and language can help you properly evaluate applicants.

  • Clarify how important diversity and inclusion is up front. Let any job applicants know that building an inclusive culture is a priority for your company. If you haven’t already, consider adding a blurb to the end of your job description announcing your commitment to inclusivity. For example, here’s the one we use at Asana: 

We believe in supporting people to do their best work and thrive, and building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive company is core to our mission. Our goal is to ensure that Asana upholds an inclusive environment where all people feel that they are equally respected and valued, whether they are applying for an open position or working at the company. We welcome applicants of any educational background, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, age, citizenship, socioeconomic status, disability, and veteran status. 

Onboarding

Once you’ve hired a new team member, build an onboarding process that reflects your company culture. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Let new hires know inclusion matters. A simple way to make new employees feel included is to emphasize diversity and inclusion during the onboarding experience. Sharing your company’s commitment to inclusion, such as through a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) onboarding session, can let new hires know that this is important to you and that the attributes that make them unique matter to your company.

  • Create support and structure. It’s easy for new hires to feel overwhelmed in their first few ways. One easy way to build support and make new hires feel welcome is to implement a buddy system. Pair every new hire with a longer-tenured employee—notably, not their manager—to show them the ropes. Having a buddy, in addition to their manager, can help new hires ask questions to a peer and get through their first week more comfortably. 

  • Make sure new hires have the materials—and time—they need to succeed. Part of creating an inclusive onboarding experience is recognizing that not everyone takes in information the same way. If your new hires are attending onboarding sessions, give them access to the presentation decks and information so they can review them in their own time, as well. Additionally, give each new hire the time and space to digest all the new information about their role.

Onboarding is a pivotal moment for making employees feel included from day one. It sets the tone for a person’s tenure at your company, laying the foundation for their knowledge of and experience working for your company. This is why building an inclusive onboarding experience is so important to creating an inclusive company culture.
Read: Inclusion starts on day one: 10 ways to build an inclusive onboarding experience

Good culture starts with commitment

Building organizational culture takes time and dedication—but a good culture can enable your team members to do their most impactful work.

High-performance cultures don’t happen organically; they’re designed, architected and built with intention: your intention.

If you’re just getting started, use the tips above to build a solid foundation for a stellar organizational culture. Remember: your team members will shape company culture as well. When in doubt, lean into honesty and transparency.

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