In today’s new work world—more remote, digital and flexible than ever before—a company’s culture is built by the interactions that employees have over digital channels like email and instant chat services. Teams and organizational leaders who want to understand or change company culture will struggle without effective methods to measure employee digital behaviors. This can seem like a daunting challenge, but it doesn’t have to be.

Company culture can be difficult to define precisely (despite an abundance of academic research around the topic). But in broad strokes it can be defined as the values that a company holds and the ways in which those values are expressed (you can read a more detailed explanation on SHRM.org here). For example, company values might include:

  • Outcome-driven
  • People-focused
  • Stability
  • Innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment

These values are often reinforced by official channels—such as presentations from HR or what leadership emphasizes in meetings—as well as the everyday interactions that employees have with management. Do managers reward employees who are aggressive or ones who are collaborative? Do they respond to messages after hours, or do they let emails sit for days before acknowledging them? Do executives listen more to employees who go through official channels, or the ones who corner them in the hallway? Over time, these interactions show employees what the company culture is (and this might differ from what HR and leadership claim that it is!). As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

The digital transformation of the workplace over the past two decades and the rise of remote work means that interactions between managers and their teams can occur more often online than in-person. The majority of knowledge workers’ “office” interactions are now conducted through technology like email, chat or video calls (especially as the pandemic has dramatically accelerated these trends). And the proof is in the adoption. Slack grew from 400,000 daily active users (DAUs) in 2014 to 12 million DAUs in 2020, with 14 million in 2021 so far. Microsoft Teams is reporting a staggering 115 million DAUs in 2021 (up from 8 million in 2018 when it launched).

We all can expect the use of these digital platforms to remain high even after the world returns to some level of normalcy later this year and beyond. A Gartner survey of company leaders from July 2020 found that 47% or organizations will allow employees to work from home full-time after the pandemic ends and 80% plan to allow hybrid part-time remote work. We may well be looking at a future economy where more than half of the knowledge workforce works remotely at least a few days per week. A similar survey of CEOs from PwC found that 78% believe remote collaboration is here to stay for the long term. Furthermore, most knowledge workers communicate via email and chat even while in the office— how often have you pinged someone instead of just walking by their desk?

So how can your organization better understand company culture? It’s crucial that teams understand these digital interactions, because they’re what reinforce the value that makes up culture. Traditional assessments of culture like employee surveys and feedback tools rely on self-reporting, which has many potential biases (people might report values that they don’t actually enact). Culture also changes and evolves over time, and survey data can become obsolete.

Employee digital interactions like emails, chat messages and meeting invites are an amazing source of data that can map out culture based on how the organization communicates digitally. This avoids the bias issues associated with surveys, and can turn up findings that organizers don’t think to ask about. We used this approach to create the Cultivate Culture Report, and the similar themes appear in recent academic research from places like the Computational Culture Lab at Stanford and UC Berkeley.

Thanks to remote work and the rise of digital communication platforms, analysis of company culture needs to take digital interactions into account or it will be incomplete. That’s why we built this approach into the Cultivate Culture Report.

Learn more about the Cultivate Culture Report and how it can help organizations understand the links between company culture and business outcomes by passively analyzing digital behavior Cultivate here.

Rachel Habbert, PhD
Rachel Habbert, PhD

Rachel is the Senior People Scientist at Cultivate. As a psychologist, she’s always been interested in people: how we think, grow, evolve, and interact. She is excited to help Cultivate users interpret their behaviors through a scientific, research-based lens.