How do you measure company culture?

Seems counterintuitive, right? How can you measure something that is by its very nature intangible?

It’s like measuring a friendship. What makes a “good” friendship? Well, the first thing you have to determine is what “good” means. Does “good” mean that you know everything about each other’s lives and are so close that sometimes people think you are one entity? Or does good mean that you’re the one person who will always be honest with them, even if it’s not what they want to hear? Or maybe it’s something else completely. And then, once you figure out what you’re measuring, how do you actually measure it? You could track the number of years you’ve known each other, texts exchanged, or life crises solved together. But none of those data points, even when taken together, would give you a full picture of the quality of a friendship.

We run into the same challenges with company culture. What makes “good” company culture? The answer, like with friendships, is “it depends”. Ugh. Don’t you hate that answer?

What makes one company’s culture awesome would not necessarily make another company’s awesome. For example, take Google – often thought of having it all when it comes to company culture. Can you imagine if the CEO of Goldman Sachs decided to bring the Google culture to Wall Street? That would be an … interesting experiment.

So does that mean we can’t or shouldn’t evaluate company cultures? Definitely not. It just means that we can’t use our favorite excel formulas to put a discrete number on a company’s culture. We had the pleasure of speaking about this topic with Lexi Gordon of Exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that uses data to help companies develop cultures, employers brands, and talent strategies. According to Gordon, many companies tell Exaqueo that they want to do what Google and Zappos are doing. Her response?

“I’ll tell them it’s great they want a unique culture, but to foster a unique culture that makes sense for their business, they need to know what makes them unique. They can’t just steal from another company because it’s flashy and exciting.”

Exaqueo helps companies figure out what makes them unique, and then capitalize on those nuances. At the beginning of a client engagement, Exaqueo collects baseline data through an audit of the company’s HR-related information: recruiting materials, engagement surveys, website review, retention figures, and more. Then they interview the company’s leadership team and conduct focus groups with the staff.

This is just one piece of the puzzle. To get a full picture of what’s going on at a company, Exaqueo uses their proprietary Whole Self Model. In addition to collecting data about the workplace environment, they look at employees’ lives outside of the workplace. Focusing on things like employees’ relationships, values, and hobbies (yes, your employees have other friends outside of the office and they do like to do other things besides work) is a great data point for evaluating company culture. Those relationships, values, and hobbies don’t get checked at the door when employees sit down at their desk for the day. Instead, they are folded into the company culture in hundreds of ways, from the jokes at the water cooler to the after-hours activities your company sponsors. So whether you like it or not, your culture is a reflection of the personalities and interactions of your employees both in and outside of their cubicles.

One of Exaqueo’s most common culture findings is there is a huge disconnect between what leadership thinks of their company culture and what employees say about their company culture. Culture is not a bullet point you can put in your strategic plan and execute. It’s a reflection of your people, processes, and systems. So what’s the best way to “measure” your company culture? Ask the people who live, breathe, and shape it everyday — your employees. Afterall, that’s how Chik-Fil-A, Chevron, and Progressive were recognized as some of the Best Company Cultures of 2014. It’s worth a shot!