Can A Corporate Culture Be Built With Digital Tools?

A whopping 20% of the world's workforce telecommutes: virtually traveling to work via robot or iPad; conversing on Yammer, HipChat, or 37Signals' Campfire; sharing over Box or Dropbox. But while the tangible benefits of conducting business digitally are manyfold, companies that are moving their employees online have largely ignored one of the most important factors of success: corporate culture. "You can start to feel like you don't know anyone at the company anymore," says Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness, the startup she cofounded with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to assist companies in instilling corporate values.

Studies have shown that corporate culture can have a significant impact on a company's hiring, talent retention, and performance. Yet what was once fostered by in-person interactions has been lost in all the emails, private messages, chats, and shared links common to office 2.0. Tools to help managers and executives cultivate a positive work culture in the digital space have not been developed alongside the myriad productivity tools we've become addicted to. But they are beginning to emerge. "The short answer is yes, corporate culture is spreading into the digital world," says Lim. "But it's difficult to have that one-to-one translation of things you can do in the physical world. There are some things that you can just never translate."

At Zappos, Lim and Hsieh have worked to create a sense of culture even as its workforce balloons and spends much of the day glued to their computer screens. To address this issue, Zappos implemented what's internally called a "name-to-face game," whereby each time an employee logs in to his or her computer, a face of another employee will pop up on the screen. "We'll then ask questions like, 'Do you know this person? How well?' And so forth, so we can really embed this idea of keeping connected," she explains. Additionally, the company has worked with Nic Marks, known for his TED Talk on the "Happy Planet Index," to develop a "Happy Business Index," which can score how happy certain areas of an organization are through various survey tools.

But Lim finds it much easier to tick off all the methods Zappos employs to foster company culture in the physical world—Hsieh is famous for only allowing employees to enter one door of the building to force encounters that wouldn't otherwise happen.

Yammer, the enterprise social network Microsoft recently acquired for $1.2 billion, is taking a different approach. The network, which essentially acts like a Facebook for internal business use, enables employees to exchange messages and media just as they would push status updates. Yammer has integrated the option to "Like" a coworker's post or give him or her "Praise" badges (a heart, shiny trophy, double rainbows) along with some positive feedback. These features can feel contrived—the digital equivalent of receiving a gold star in kindergarten.

Not everyone believes that businesses need specialized badges to foster culture online. "My thinking is that culture isn't something you can create," says Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals, which develops web-based collaboration tools. "Software can help, but company culture is a by-product of consistent behavior—the way you treat people or release products, or whatever—that's what forms culture. I think trying to make tools to create that culture is artificial."

Fried sees culture organically forming at 37Signals in the digital space, occurring naturally online just as it would traditionally happen around the water cooler. "Technology plays a huge role in our culture because we have a distributed company. Without technology we couldn't have a uniform culture; it'd be fractured with a Chicago culture and a somewhere-else culture," he says. "Campfire, which is a real-time group chat tool, is where the culture happens at 37Signals."

While Fried acknowledges that tension and distance can build in an online workplace, where an innocently short message from one employee can be perceived as a curt reply from another, Fried argues any downsides aren't necessarily a result of the digital tools themselves. "Yes, in some ways technology can hurt, especially when it's so easy to misunderstand someone's comment, but I think that's just a matter of humans being human, and not a symptom of the technology," he says. "Human beings just have a hard time getting along with each other."

To address such concerns, emotion-intelligence startup Kanjoya has developed a way to tap into a workplace's Yammer network and analyze shared messages and data to measure how employees are feeling at any given moment or on any given topic—"trending emotions," as the company says.

The add-on, called Crane, is designed to take advantage of the emotions shared on Yammer that would otherwise go unnoticed. "You'll see spikes in emotion," says Kanjoya CEO Armen Berjikly. "Sometimes, things don't matter: If you don't provide lunch, nobody is likely to feel that emotional about it. But if you ruin people's Internet access, they might be ready to murder you, though they'll smile to your face." Without addressing these issues, tension can fester and workplace culture can turn toxic.

In an internal test of Fast Company's Yammer network, Crane revealed some interesting findings: Just 3.6% of conversation on Yammer is devoted to feedback among employees, including messages such as "good stuff" or "looks great," which indicates a low level of support among coworkers. [Eds note: this is a great story so far!] Crane also found peak periods when employees became incredibly confused and annoyed—such as when a new content management system was introduced. But even with this data, it's not always clear what actionable steps one must take to address these issues—nor is it evident whether managers can even respond to a souring corporate culture once it's too late, when employees are just generally unhappy or upset.

But An Le, VP of business development at Yammer, says it's these small issues that can add up to an unhappy workplace. "Company culture I think is the end game," she says. "You have to enable the tools to get pull points along the way. So as things are trending negatively, you can start taking small actions around these things so they don't add up over time." And though we were hoping to get a sentiment analysis of individual employees, Berjikly says the company is trying to "stay away from profiling any individual," perhaps due to privacy concerns. It's too bad, as disruptions in office culture can often be attributed to single employees. (Plus, we were hoping to find the grumpiest editor at Fast Company, and then praise them with a Yammer badge.)

Though Lim and Fried believe similar web-culture tools are likely to be developed down the road, both remain skeptical about the benefits of such products. "You always have to take it with a grain of salt: With any index or tool or survey, it's just one of the factors that needs to be analyzed holistically," Lim says. "When we talk about culture, we really want to make it a science, so you're not just measuring this fluffy feeling of happiness."

Fried takes issue with Crane from a practical standpoint. "Software is not good at detecting inside jokes or sarcasm or slip-of-the-tongue stuff," he says. "With these sorts of tools you start to remove the humanity from it. So if the system raises a red flag because someone is talking this way and that, what do you do? You have to go confront them about it, and there might be nothing wrong in the first place. And you don't want to create a culture of fear in an organization, where everyone feels they're being tracked and analyzed all the time. That's just horrible and nasty."

Of course, it's still early on in Crane's integration with Yammer, and Berjikly says the company is still fine-tuning its emotion-mining tool. Crane can currently home in on well over 100 granular emotions, though the company has narrowed down to roughly a dozen relevant data points for users. "We just aren't sure there is any practical value in telling you that your employees are exuberant instead of excited," he says.

As telecommuting becomes the norm and tools from Lua to LinkedIn become commonplace in the workplace, perhaps it's inevitable that companies are going to have to start considering corporate culture in the digital world.

Yet when asked whether 37Signals was considering developing related tools, Fried says he's not yet thinking about it. "I think there are very few things that substitute for going out to dinner or hanging out with coworkers," Fried says. "That's what you should do rather than try to find some digital alternative."

Hang out in person? Who would ever dream of such a thing?

[Image: Mihail Zhelezniak via Shutterstock]

How do you foster a positive corporate culture at your place of business—online, and in real life? What works? What doesn't? Tell us in the comments section below.

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  • Adi

    It would be fascinating to see any studies into this, in particular a look at how digital tools have affected some slightly more mainstream organizations.  Whilst it's great to see examples from the likes of Zappos and 37 Signals, they are quite unique in their culture already.

    Have any studies been done into this?

  • Hotrao

    I think that this tools are helpful, but I think that are only a part of our duty as company managers in building and maintaining company culture and values. They can act as reinforces of something build differently, but I think cannot be the "starters".
    Company culture is built around common values and shared moments that are then reinforced by the new tools that go to substitute the "physical" getting in touch.
    But having everything virtual I think has more downsides than upsides.

  • Deejay Austin

    This seems to be a case, as
    with many stories of technology and life, of having the cart before the horse.
     Specifically, the headline really leads in that direction.  I think
    the common thread of several posters here is that digital tools might help
    enable or support a bigger effort to build, strengthen or change an
    organizations culture.  We've been providing online tools that contribute
    to the 'culture of quality' in healthcare (specifically in hospitals) and
    find greatest success when our subscribers follow these steps to transition more
    from directed behavior to culture-driven self-initiative:


    a.       Involving everyone in
    linked behaviors

    b.      Identifying desired
    behaviors connected to purpose

    c.       Immediate, relevant

    d.      Tools and resources to
    facilitate and leverage the desired behavior

    e.      A pleasant experience in the
    desired behavior


    Without a doubt, the digital
    tools and scenarios described here can really help with c, d and e
    but to throw a piece of technology into
    an organization and describe whatever behaviors (or
    alignment)  precipitate from it as "culture" seems self-serving for the
    technology vendors.

  • Deejay Austin

    Wow, sorry for the formatting kluge.  What does FC do on the server end ?

  • Kimberlee Morrison

    Infusionsoft hires people who fit a defined set of core values and has a passion for helping small businesses succeed. Before I joined the team, I was skeptical that this actually worked. But having been here for about six months, I've seen those values and passion in action. It makes for a collaborative environment where people trust each other. And while there are lots of people who come from an entrepreneurial or small biz background, I feel like I'm surrounded by so many smart and talented people who excel at creative problem solving.

    What's really interesting, considering Infusionsoft's fast-paced growth, is that there's this push and pull of the natural evolution of the culture as lots of new people join the company. Some want to preserve the culture, but every new person brings their own experiences and backgrounds. The core values give us a point of reference, everything else is pretty organic.

  • Kevin Nakao

    Definitely, I have seen Yammer at work improve communications, awareness and a positive atmosphere.  It can't happen on its own, and it is important for the leadership to be involved and make sure their own posts are entertaining and informative.  You can also use employee recognition tools like to give instant awards, nominations, and kudos.  Some call this peer or collaborative based recognition -- one of the best ways to build a culture of recognition and appreciation.

  • Mohamed_meziane

    As a Corporate Culture such as EHS Culture , toensure a good application  we need to ensure a good representant of EHS Mgr in Place + Local Company's Representant ( PM or Operation Site mgr), are really chosen by Corporate office, with criterai of Level background & Experience in Projects under any different Presure, means  avoid any reasons of Culture & Procedure Comply from anyone  under any excuse or reasons.

  • Paul Chippendale

    We use an online tool called the culture health check (CHC). It enables employees to tell the corporation how well it is living its values using five behavioural ratings for each value. The behavioural ratings used are determined by the employees before the survey is commended. 

  • Greg Lowe

    Culture will always be a result of the behaviors that are rewarded, whether in person or virtually. What we need to realize and be accountable to is that our actions sometimes have unforseen consequences. For example, there may be a perceived level of openness as a result of tools like Yammer, but people have learned that you don't be critical or negative in a social network. That doesn't mean the feelings don't exist. If you don't give employees a place to get these feelings out, they will help build a culture that you may not like even with the best digital tools in place.

  • Deena McClusky

    To chime in and represent the exact opposite view....those of us who work virtually are sometimes insanely happy to avoid the 'corporate culture' altogether. Feeling a need to involve distance workers in the culture inherent to the office is absurd. Most people that seek out jobs in the field, or telecommuting, etc. do so because we have become fed up with all of the corporate time-wasting nonsense. We want to be allowed to accomplish our tasks in peace without the need for some silly digital way for others to comment on our work with a digital thumbs up or patronizing comment. Companies should think twice before wasting a great deal of time and money on this sort of thing, because it may just drive away those of us who never wanted it in the first place.

  • John E. Smith

    an amazing culture isn't that hard... put as much resources, energy
    and time into culture as you do accounting and you will create a pretty great
    place to work.

    SPARC we believe culture and employee
    engagement is our biggest advantages. We have even create tools to help others
    create this thing we call the "Engagement Effect"! getting the right people into
    your company! free app that multiplies the
    great things already happening at your company through recognition. is an employee engagement
    platform(EEP) that builds culture and an engaged workforce! :D 

  • Sridhar

    In a situation such as a shared meal (@David Cohen) even the silent person gives something back to the group. That person is not a 'lurker.' Social tools need to get more real in that sense beyond the multi-colored icons. My experience is conversation flows better when you can see people and sense the body language, tone, etc. Maybe we have to wait for the day when social tools will be standard, immersive, rich video chat tools. Finally, more than the lexical capabilities of text processing or interpretation to detect complex things like sarcasm or sentiment, digital tools should, IMO, do the opposite of trying to emulate humans, and be tolerant. Tools need less rigid ways to determine if a certain comment or post is to be 'flagged' or 'liked' or awarded a gold star. Quora has done this well with upvote and downvote along with comment level threading. Nevertheless, the experience is still not rich and tends to be fragmented. This lack of coherence, again makes digital tools what they are - tools. Culture, till then is perhaps about - hangout in person. It also appears to me that many large companies are tending to embrace digital tools to drive culture either as a fad or for corporate gain such as  a knowledge sharing platform! Culture is more voluntary isnt it? You can take the horse to the water but not make it drink!

  • David C Cohen

    We (Round Table Companies, a Story Telling Company) work in a completely distributed and virtual environment.  The company has never had a location, so we have had to rely on social tools to create a culture. I would tend to agree with Jen that no amount of virtual connection can replace a shared meal. It has gone a LONG way for us and helped us have fun during the times of year we can't get together.  It's allowed for our company to grow to a point where just this year we are hosting our first ever Internal Retreat for all our Staff, PermaLancers and Freelancers.  A private FB group, Basecamp, Trello and Harvest have all been integral to making a any culture a possibility.  

  • TeachThought

    Interest article. The better question might be, what is a corporate culture, and how can we iterate from that in pursuit of something better?

  • Molly McCoy

    I work as community manager at Atlas Travel, a corporate travel management company based in MA. I really enjoyed this article, especially since our company is in the midst of geographical expansion across the country, and our culture is a huge part of our value add and acts as a differentiator in our industry. We use a well-read corporate (internal) blog to encourage that "water cooler" level of discussion, company updates and general forum posting. Still, I've suggested the use of a real-time social networking tool like Yammer to help bridge the communication gaps (that dreaded word "silos") within our company. I'll be interested to see how this progresses. Any tips for adoption?