What really is “work culture”?

5 min readFeb 26, 2024

Can a company or org have a culture? Do workers actually want it?

Photo by Vlada Karpovich

Quick answer: There is no such thing, as named.

The phrase “work culture”, “company culture”, or “office culture” is something I’ve heard used primarily as a reason for owners/managers to demand things of employees. Sometimes if their demands seem under threat, they say that this “culture” needs to be protected for everyones’ benefit. Although when a company gets in trouble for employee mistreatment, the “culture” is used to summarize the troublesome behavior — like sexual harassment for example.

So when business owners, corporate executives, and countless middle managers start spewing on about how “office culture is the most important [whatever for some bullshit]” — I think I have to call bullshit.

What is work?

  1. Work, for most people, is something you do because you need to. Whether you intend to live on a rung of society or persist off the grid, you have to do work in exchange for money (the greatest shared delusion in the human condition). Few people would want to work, otherwise. But we can’t stop if we want to survive.
  2. Work is most often a twisted dependance: there are few employers and many, many employees. Employees make a lot of money for employers but get to take home very little of that.
  3. Work is a place where no one lives and everyone wants to leave.
  4. Work is usually a weird, forced collective comprised of people who would ordinarily never interact.
  5. When working, employees are isolated from everyone they do care about and would like to spend time with.
  6. Work requires employees to behave with etiquette and hierarchy not used in their private lives.
  7. Work takes place in finite spans: hours every day, days every week, and months every year between certain ages.

To summarize: in order to live, you are forced to beg for employment where you are made to do another’s bidding for most of every day in a building away from your friends and family.

What sort of “culture” could come out of that environment?

I’d say that work is not a viable source of culture and couldn’t create anything like a culture. Their time at work is full of artificial interactions that wouldn’t take place in real life. This creates no basis for people to organically formulate rich behaviors. Only false behaviors, strung along lines of hierarchy.

So what do people really mean?

Let’s translate this into things they’d never say in plain english but clearly mean when they say “______ is to protect our work culture”:

  • “I need my ego stoked by people — who I can fire — always being nice to me, regardless of how consistently I’m an asshole to them.”
  • “I must justify spending gobs of profit on buying or renting miserable buildings that my employees must work in, even though most modern work can be done online from a wide range of locations around the globe.”
  • “I need everyone here to do what I say, without question, regardless of how ignorant or outright stupid the activity is — given the range of their lived experiences and their working knowledge of the situation from dealing with it more directly than I do.”
  • “I need to be able to see people around the office pretending to work hard, cloaking their mutual disgust for one another, and acting like they’re okay with all the profit they’re creating being siphoned away.”
  • “I need everyone unable to fire me to be fooled into thinking that I share any shred of their expectations, motivations, vulnerabilities, ideals, and beliefs. I need this so they don’t do anything about the fact that I’m a psychopath who does little to no actual work and contributes no direct value to this organization.”
  • “I need to justify paying people vastly different amounts for clustering in the same city or town, just because the cost of living is bat shit crazy in the most populous ones.”
  • “I need to keep persisting all of these great biases, so I can maintain employing as many headstrong able bodied cis white men as possible. Our product and/or service would get far too inclusive and representative if we instead employed people across the spectrums of skin color, gender, ability, orientation, etc.”

Sound about right? It would be a lot easier to make important life decisions if these were the real statements said in workplaces — instead of blathering on about some kind of “work culture”.

What is actual culture?

In the rest of the world, I’ve heard culture used to describe ancestry, nationality, or affinity. Places where people live. Where they have free time. Where interests are shared and stories are told. This is the richness of life that organically spawns culture.

Photo by Temitayo Olatoke on Unsplash

I’ve heard it used as a reflective assessment from visiting a group of people. Most often it’s about a fondness for norms of language, food, clothing, etc. of the place. Other times it’s to summarize differences from one’s self. Rarely have I heard it used to characterize organized injustice or cruelty. It’s something that grows out of people living their lives, from birth to death. It’s everything people share and identify as, drawing from ancestors and passing to their children.

Photo by Roberto Carlos Román Don on Unsplash

Culture is a precious thing. It’s like the bio-diversity of society. Without it we are homogeneous and doomed to mass extinction of the soul.