Last week, my colleague and I interviewed a young woman for an open position at our tech company. Remembering how intimidating it was to be double-teamed in an already anxiety-inducing circumstance, I worked overtime to make the candidate feel comfortable.
I satirically used the outdated (and sexist!) phrase “girlboss” to describe the personality type we were looking for, complimented her responses that impressed me instead of trying to maintain a game face, and assuaged the tension when Zoom’s glitches held us mere mortals at its mercy.
My colleague and I had been in sync throughout the whole call. This wasn’t our first interview together. By now we had established a rhythm—tag-teaming company facts and stats, asking follow-up questions, and (almost) never interrupting each other.
Then, minutes away from our inevitable hard stop, the candidate asked a simple question, yet one that we hadn’t had yet: “What’s the company culture like?” I was taken aback, even though this is probably one of the top 10 most common job interview questions. Pre-pandemic, I answered this with a strong elevator pitch, but now… I didn’t know anymore.
Telepathically sensing my uncertainty, my colleague stepped in.
“Oh, it’s great here, everyone’s super fun and nice. We’re pretty laid back! There’s a party planning group that sets up a Halloween costume contest and Christmas cookie bake-off every year, then we do a big scavenger hunt on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s definitely a work-hard, play-hard environment, so we’ll have beers in our company-wide meetings and Friday Happy Hour. Well, this was all before COVID, of course.”
I could tell the candidate and I had the same thought—yes, that’s what it used to be, but not anymore.
Can there still be company culture with all of the changes of the last year? Without the open-concept offices where we sat shoulder-to-shoulder wearing the $200 headphones required to drown out the constant, mind-numbing noise? Without inter-office gossip and drama for entertainment? Without drinking?
When I began my professional career a decade ago, many “cool” companies hid their terrible insurance plans, gaslighting, and lack of internal advancement behind Taco Tuesdays, arcade games, and other alcohol-soaked activities. What we didn’t realize at the time was perks like onsite dry-cleaning, gyms, and iced coffee on tap were designed to keep us at work. By limiting our need to leave the office, we’d spend more time glued to our desks, too afraid to be the first person to leave at the end of the day.
And don’t even get me started on The Office-style party planning committees. They pile even more responsibilities on women, since men rarely participate or are even asked to join. On top of the job they were hired for, these groups require the same emotional labor women carry at home to follow them into work—getting up 30 minutes early to pick up a birthday cake, booking event spaces, and ordering enough food to feed 100 people while noting who’s vegan, celiac, keto, and deathly allergic to shellfish.
It’s because of employees, not employers (well, and an international pandemic that sent us all into quarantine), that we’ve evolved.
Now when I hear “company culture,” I think of how humanely and empathetically employees are treated. Does your CEO speak out in support of Black Lives Matter? Did your human resources department draft a diversity pledge? Are they sticking to it throughout their hiring and promotion processes? Do your colleagues get paid time off after a miscarriage? What about paternity leave? Is your executive board adapting to work-from-home or are they clinging to a butts-in-chairs mentality?
Company culture is also about how much your C-suite listens to the needs of everyone below them and respects those needs enough to follow through. More often than not, coordinators and assistants know more about the stressors and tensions than the executives that have the power to enact positive change. Nowhere are we seeing this play out more than the fight for updated work-from-home policies.
I, for one, have no interest in returning to an office again. As a writer, I need absolute silence to be productive and schedule my meetings back-to-back when possible so my flow isn’t constantly interrupted. I love walking my dog at lunch and folding laundry as soon as the dryer finishes, not to mention the absolutely cosmic mood boost from kissing commuting goodbye.
My home is the center of my universe. I spent the last 10 years searching for doctors, pilates studios, and dinner reservations close to the office because that’s where I spent the majority of my time. Now I’m a happier, more well-rounded person—I’m in yoga teacher training, learning Tarot, and taking online breathwork and fiction-writing classes. I have hobbies!
But hey, I’m not the Unibomber. I like meeting people and understand the importance of building and nurturing professional relationships. Culture can be company-wide summits where everyone comes together for a few days of in-person meetings and team building. Bonus points for ocean views. It can also be quarterly volunteer days to build houses or serve meals to the underprivileged (those who don’t have the luxury of redefining company culture for themselves). The less alcohol, the better.
The next time I’m asked, “What’s the company culture like?” I hope the answer describes a supportive environment where employees are trusted to work where, and how, they feel most productive. One where the executives aren’t afraid to speak out against injustice and donate time and money to inclusive organizations. No one should be expected to feel silenced, compromising their mental health, personal growth, or happiness for a steady paycheck.