Each week I’m asked, “What is your company’s culture like?” Each time, I answer with a hint of amusement. Maybe I’m at that age where all of my friends are moving on from their first post-college jobs and really deciding where they want to go next. Maybe I work for a company that is known to have a better culture than where my peers work. Or maybe, there’s a larger phenomenon happening… professionals are starting to realize that their work environment matters.

Culture is more than a buzzword

If you take a look back at 2016, we couldn’t get away from the terms “big data” and “thought leader” or, here’s my favorite, “gamification.” (Can someone tell me what that really means, by the way?) Those were the buzzwords of the year, at least in tech; I can’t speak for other industries. This year, it seems the narrative is changing. One of the buzzwords for 2017 is “company culture.” Truth be told, I think that’s okay.

This year, it seems the narrative is changing. One of the buzzwords for 2017 is “company culture.” Truth be told, I think that’s okay.

Here’s the problem, though. For many, it’s an esoteric term that gets thrown around with minimal understanding. If you do a little search on Google, the first result, Investopedia, defines company culture as, “the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.” Do I sound like I’m delivering a bad speech at a wedding reception or what? Oh, Webster’s dictionary defines love as…

But I digress.

Beyond the definition; beyond the perks

Long story short, company culture is how your employees feel about working at your organization. There are many factors that go into a good (or bad) culture and they can vary by department. But universally, perks are a primary contribution to culture. Do you offer generous parental leave? Do you host events for employees to take time to interact with each other, maybe over a beer? Is your kitchen stocked with free snacks? Do you even have a kitchen? What kind of medical benefits do you offer? Do you host ping-pong tournaments?

While perks absolutely have an impact on the culture, perks are not, in and of themselves, the culture. Sound divisive? Certainly. But also true. I often see perks and culture interchanged and it would be a disservice to yourself and your organization to see them as one in the same.

While perks absolutely have an impact on the culture, perks are not, in and of themselves, the culture. Sound divisive? Certainly. But also true.

Companies frequently list “FREE SNACKS” and “MONTHLY HAPPY HOUR” as benefits on their Career page, yet they neglect to mention health and wellness, rest and relaxation, professional development, Does your website reflect the questions that candidates actually have?

Does management recognize good work?

Does the workforce generally eat dinner with their families (or friends, or roommates) rather than at work?

Is PTO truly free from work emails?

Are employees adequately and fairly paid for the work they do?

Does your workforce feel like they are making an impact on your bottom line?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. These are the culture comforts that today’s workforce cares about.

Remember, culture is for the people

If you have only one question to ask about a company’s culture, it should be: And the answer better be, “yes.”

For me, the company culture at Zendesk truly manifested at a very specific point in my life. I had received some devastating family news and decided to take leave for an undetermined amount of time. Within 12 hours, I had emails from more than five VPs and SVPs that I worked closely with, text messages from my teammates, and an email from our CEO to my personal email address, extending his condolences and encouraging me to take all the time I needed. It was signed, “big hugs” and included his cell phone number in case I needed anything. Our CEO. We had over 1,000 employees at the time. I can’t say the rest of my impacted family got even close to the same care from their companies.

The space between snacks and something serious

A good company culture is felt by employees in the white space—in the space between free snacks and a serious situation. And it’s not that hard to figure out if you have it. You just need to ask. Ask through anonymous surveys, ask during company town halls, ask during feedback reviews, and ask over coffee. Consider whether your employees would answer an enthusiastic “yes” to the following:

Do you look forward to going to work every day?

Is your work impactful; does it have an effect on the growth of our organization?

Does management communicate effectively and with transparency?

Do you feel connected to your team and manager, even as a remote employee?

Does the company recognize you as a person and not a cog in a machine?

If an answer is “no” or a tepid “yes,” you know you and your company have some work to do. Chatting with HR is a great place to start the culture conversation.

While no one directly asked me these questions, I already knew we had a good culture before my emergency, and the heart-warming behavior I experienced sent it over the edge. But remember, it shouldn’t take a serious situation for employees to feel acknowledged. It should be felt everyday when they sign on to Slack or log in their email, whether that’s at HQ or in their home office. They should feel it whether or not they have access to free snacks. That’s a good, no that’s a great, company culture.