In recent years, the term "culture" has been used in the vernacular of business. It’s been used to describe a company’s values, attitudes, vision and community spirit, as well as a company's inner workings, such as how people are hired, their benefits, business procedures, the layout of the office, client treatment, even the clothes they wear and how they decorate their desks. Or not. Simply put, corporate culture is “the way things are done” in a business, both the intangibles and the practical.

But does corporate culture actually exist or is it just another buzzword, like "paradigm" or "synergy"? Does the culture of a company have an actual effect on how a company is run and whether it succeeds? And, if so, how can Alberta businesses and organizations create more positive culture in order to ensure and improve the viability of their operations?

According the Alberta Branch of the Chartered Professionals in Human Resources (CPHR) every single business/organization, no matter how big or small, has a culture. Every single decision and business operation - whether it's from management, executives or employees - is influenced by it. Each business’s culture is unique and can develop organically based on the traits of the people the company hires and keeps.

In fact, data from a ten-year survey by Queen's University Centre for Business Venturing found that organizations that possessed an engaged culture had significantly less employee turnover, and absenteeism, and much higher productivity and customer satisfaction levels.

In other words, a company's culture isn't just fluff - it affects the bottom line, which means that a positive corporate culture can become a key competitive advantage.

Building Culture

Robots & Pencils is a 10-year-old app, software and technology development company founded in Calgary. Begun with only a few employees in 2009, it now has over 200 employees in six offices and a client list that includes Westjet, Warner Brothers, Nike, Shaw and many other major corporations.

“We have what we call the three M's, and that's meaning, money and morale,” says Jason Tate, the Managing Directory of Canadian Client Services at Robots & Pencils.

“Meaning is that we want to do jobs, we want to take on customers and enter into partnerships that provide meaning to our team, provide meaningful outcomes for the community and drive meaningful business engagement. And meaning drives into our morale. When the talent is happy and working at their best, when they feel that they have meaning, there's meaning to their work. When they have the correct morale, everything else just flows. As for money, we need to maintain profitability so we can continue to drive meaning.”

Even small companies with fewer than 25 employees have a culture. Jacek Chocolate Couture, for example, is a chocolate producer and seller in Sherwood Park with three storefronts in Alberta and 40 retail partners across Canada. Depending on the season, the company can have up to 19 employees.

Jacek fosters an open environment in which employees are involved in chocolate design, along with their path in the company. “We're a small, dynamic business. We're changing constantly,” says company founder Jacqueline Jacek. “So we've had a lot of people who have started off in one role, but then they saw an opportunity somewhere else and created a role for themselves. In fact, most of the people here have done that.”

Jacek Chocolate Couture also holds Joy Days, special events to bring employees and others joy. For example, one Joy Day involved taking all the employees to Calgary and giving each of them three boxes of chocolates that they had to give away to strangers in the downtown area. Some employees experienced reluctance, as people were suspicious of people giving away something for free. Other experiences were different.

“One group gave their chocolates to a homeless man,” explains Jacek. “He just stared to cry because he hadn't received a gift from anyone in 12 years.”

All companies - and cultures - are different. So, how can a business foster a unique positive culture of its own? Here are a few of the basics.

Have a Vision

Have a straightforward vision/mission statement that defines your business. Just a few words - like Disney’s “To Make People Happy”, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”’ or Ben and Jerry’s “Making the Best Possible Ice Cream, In the Nicest Possible Way” give purpose to a company and guide its values.

Determine the Values

While the vision provides purpose, values are the guidelines for the behaviour and attitudes needed to achieve that vision. These values must be clearly communicated to all within the company, even to those outside.

Practice What You Preach

Values mean nothing if they aren't part of a company’s practices. If one of your values is to foster creativity and openness, you must allow for creativity and openness. A company’s values must be part of its daily life.

Hire the Right People

Hiring people who share the same values as the company or are willing to embrace them helps build and reinforce that corporate culture. Employees who find meaning in the vision and the values of the company find meaning in their work and usually do their best work.

Build a Story

Each company has its own narrative, be it the history of the company, the life of the founder, or the development of its product or client base. That narrative should be known throughout the company. The people in the company also have their own narratives, and these should be shared as well. As the company grows, the story should continue to grow and be shared.

Find Your Place

Where a company is located, not just in which city, but what building or what part of the city, as well as how the workplace is laid out and designed, has a direct impact on the values the company builds. Place isn't just about being in a certain city or part of town, or even having a fancy office. It's more about fitting into the company's image and place within industry, be it a well-respected institution or a scrappy startup.

Finally, corporate culture isn’t a constant. It is always evolving as companies develop, mature and react to a changing world. Keeping it positive involves staying on top of the vision, values and practices that support it.