Is “Culture” everything? – Defining the soul of an organization

In my previous article, “The secret sauce that makes ‘Flexible work arrangement’ actually work”, I talked about the importance of the “People” element.

There was a comment accurately pointing out that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast. A company can have the best written HR policy and best idea in place. If the culture does not demonstrate or in alignment with what it says it will do, then it is better off not trying to follow the trend”.

I cannot agree more! I felt that the comment hit the nail on its head in calling out the cultural readiness of an organization and the risk of the organization chasing a trend that could backfire despite the best of all intent.

Perceptions plays a huge part in clouding our judgement when we look at an organization’s treatment of employees. More often than not, the industry uses the same yard stick in measuring the what’s good and bad. We have awards that that recognizes “Employer of choice”, and we often do not stop and ask the question, “Who’s choice?”.

More often than not, we see organizations with certain type of culture or image do better than others.

What we need to recognize is that, different organizations employ different profile of employees. We all at one point or another would have had also participated in the multi-generation-workforce debate. We generalize employees into the different age group, segmenting them into Baby Boomers”, “Gen-X”, “Gen-Y”, so on and so forth.

Since we all acknowledge that all employees are different. They come with their unique needs and wants. The collective demand of that workforce and the ability of the organization to provide defines the mood and culture of that organization.

Regardless of what that demand is, if that demand is met, that organization becomes an “Employer of choice” to its employees.

While many of us would believe that it’s the “People” in the organization that defines its culture. However, does “structure determines behavior” or does “behavior influence structure”?

I guess that’s a million-dollar question that many organizational development gurus had tried to address.

We need to look at an organization from its 3 different layer, “People”, “Process”, and “Infrastructure”.


People Layer

The “People” layer can be one of the most complex and mind numbing layer to understand and analyze. There are just too many considerations and one can only “guess’ what the employee. How many times have you ask your employee what they wanted and you get the most diplomatically correct answer?

We can look at the “People” layer via the following factors. (Do note that it’s not all encompassing and I’m sure we can all think of more factors that we can add to the list!)

  • Mindset – What’s on the mind of the employees? What do they really want and how open are they in discussing, and asking for it?
  • Sub-culture – What’s the sub-culture in the different department and teams? Are some managers more liberally and some more conservative? How different are the different sub-cultures from each other?
  • Peer Pressure – It is common for employees to compare with one and another. We also need to acknowledge that peer pressure exists within the organization.
  • Workload – How often have we seen employees not being able to utilize the benefits set out for them due to their workload?

Process Layer

Many of us would refer to this as the organizational level interventions. A couple of factors that we should look at are as follows:

  • Policies – Do we have the right policies in place? Many a times, it’s the policies that lay the foundation of what’s “allowable” and what’s “not allowed”. Thus, having the right set of policies would be a good start.
  • Ease of Administration – Is it easy to administrate? For example, if it takes multiple level of approvals, or like the story in my previous blog, going on flexible work arrangement is on an ask-per-use basis, that benefit becomes hard to utilize and administrate. Thus, having it is as good as not having it.
  • Benefits – What are the actual benefits in place? What’s the utilization rate of these benefits? It would be interesting to measure the utilization rate of the benefits, and even do a simple comparison between the “perceived value” vs. “actual value” of the benefit.
  • Other Programs – It’s not just about the benefits. A lot of us identify with our organizations via the social responsibilities programs they participate in.

Infrastructure Layer

We can look at the infrastructure via the following factors:

  • Physical – How’s the office setup? Do the employees have their own space or do you do hot desking? How’s the pantry setup? Coffee machines? While this may look like small details, but it’s the little little things that set the mood in the office.
  • Virtual and Technological – Does the organization leverage technology such as video conferencing, mobile email, instant messaging, shared calendar and other collaboration technology? As more and more technological solutions are made available for us to work virtually, we need to also understand the different employees utilizes these differently. We cannot take for granted that once we buy it, they will use it. Like the example in the previous blog, the manager makes her team stays back in office for a video conference meeting, where the technology is available for employees to take the call from home! How are we helping employees leverage and use this technology effectively?

While we all acknowledge that understanding of “Culture” is essential to any organization’s bid to creating an ideal work environment, we also need to be aware that “structure does determine behavior”. Thus, it is also critical to take a wider look at efforts at past the “People” layer.

Have a fantastic weekend!


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Eric Wong is APAC Head of Talent Acquisition Leader at Fitbit. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.

The secret sauce that makes “Flexible work arrangement” actually work

The topic of “Flexible Work Arrangement” had been one of my favorite one. Being a huge advocate myself, I’ve been blogging, speaking and championing the initiative relentlessly in multiple forums. Coupled with the numerous engagements with the many HR practitioners, consulted with folks to help formulate the official policies, and seen how many of such arrangements work or not work, I realized that it is actually not as complex as what many of us thought it to be.

Instead of making you read this whole article to figure out where I’m going with this, I will just say it here! The secret sauce to making “Flexible Work Arrangement” work is, “People”

As I sit and reflect on my first encounter with having a flexible work arrangement, the year was 1998. I was an intern working on building an intranet web portal on the then very new and exciting oracle 8i platform. The ask was simple. Deliver a site that does A, B and C by the end of my internship. I turned up on the first day and was being given a quick orientation. I was provided with what I needed, a desk and a laptop. So, off I went and began working on the site.

Being in my teens, I didn’t really care about much of what’s going on at my workplace. Whether the coffee was good or the pantry was well stocked didn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t think I remember how the pantry looked like. Naturally, the concept of flexibility didn’t really resonate with me at that very point in time.

However, that soon changed. It’s called the flu bug! Being a kid at work, I didn’t know we were allowed to fall sick. Being an intern, we weren’t told that we’ve got medical insurance or health benefits. Feeling extremely gungho, I turned up at work only to be told to go home and rest the moment I stepped into office.

My very kind and understanding supervisor, followed up with an email explaining that work/ assignment is not the be all end all. He’s measuring my performance which determines if I pass my internship based on my output, and not my attendance. In his very words, “I don’t care if you code the site from Timbuktu, just make sure we’ve got something to demo in 6 weeks’ time!”. Well, I had to do an “Altavista” search on what “Timbuktu” was! And yes, I did “Altavista” “Timbuktu”, “Google” wasn’t really the search engine of choice back in those days!

My supervisor also kindly offered to reimburse my medical bill which came to about $18. It was a kind gesture, and till today, I still haven’t really figured if it’s my entitlement or he’s paid this out of his own pocket!

Looking back, I must say I was blessed to had experience real flexibility at work very early in my career. There wasn’t any policy in place that dictate what “Flexible Working” is about. There was a lot of flexibility in when we turn up for for and what time we head home. There was a whole bunch of conference call that we would dial into. Often late at night or in the wee hours. The team would be “missing” from office in the morning and only showing up conveniently for lunch.

Fast forward 18 years to today, we now have conferences dedicated to talking about such work arrangement. Consultancy helping companies to deploy such work culture. To top it off, companies are writing policies to define what this is.

I guess the elephant in the room is the mindset of the people involved. Be it the manager, yourself or your peers. How do you define flexibility? Do we draw up parameters which flexibility should occur within, or would it be more efficient to focus on results and let work happen flexibly?

Recently, someone was sharing how she’s been asked by her manager to preempt and inform her when she’ll be turning up for work late as the manager felt that she’s abusing the “flexible work arrangement” that was granted to her.

A bit of context here. This is an employee that’s struggling with trying to get her 2 kids to the childcare, beating the morning rush hour traffic to get into office on time which usually involve an hour’s drive on the road. I guess, the very nature of her reason for being late would be rather unpredictable, preempting when she would need to be late would be a quite tough. Also, given the fact that she would be in a bit of a morning mad rush, would kind of make it a very stressful moment to have to deal with.

I was also told that she had to “ask for permission” to utilise the flexibility on a “per use” basis, which made the whole experience a horrid one.

The employee did voice her difficulties with having to juggle the morning childcare duties and traffic conditions, thus preempting her manager of the possibility of being late. However, that didn’t go too well either.

Face to face meeting were deliberately scheduled to start first thing in the morning, leaving late morning free. The employee were made to stay back in office to take late night conference calls despite them having the technology to do so from home.

We could argue that it’s the employee’s fault that she’s not leaving the house earlier, planning ahead or even getting additional support. Or, we could say that despite of the availability of the flexible arrangement, there wasn’t a real intent to offer it in the first place.

Regardless of what the reason is, we need to be understand that it is the people that creates the culture. So, regardless of whatever is written into the policies, it is the people, the managers that is administrating it. If the culture and mindset is not ready to adopt the change, it is never going to happen.

Personally, I felt that we should shift our attention from looking at tackling the change at the company level. Companies should provide that baseline support, but I feel that it is time that people manager should step up and embrace the change.

After all, as people manager, we all want to be able to bring out the best in our teams.

If you’ve got any stories around flexible work arrangements, do feel free to share them!

Have a fantastic weekend!


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Eric Wong is APAC Head of Talent Acquisition Leader at Fitbit. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.