How to build company culture: Definitions, examples, and next steps

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
December 7, 2023
A graphic with a pink background and black text that reads 'Is a ping-pong table culture?'
How to build company culture: Definitions, examples, and next steps
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
December 7, 2023

Peter Drucker, a renowned management pioneer, once asserted that "culture eats strategy for breakfast." 

What he’s getting at is the pivotal role that company culture plays in the success of any strategy. Research has consistently shown that an effective culture correlates with enhanced revenue growth, employee retention, stock prices, and net income.

Unfortunately, the term "company culture" has, at times, been reduced to the tangible perks offered in modern offices — the beer fridges, free lunches, foosball tables, beanbags, and ping-pong tables. While these amenities have their benefits, true culture extends beyond the physical environment; it’s about how employees behave in their roles, particularly in crucial situations.

The onset of the pandemic prompted leaders to reevaluate company culture, recognizing the potential pitfalls of a fully distributed workforce. Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, the spotlight is once again on company culture for executives. 

Some leaders are optimistic that a return to ‌office (RTO) will alleviate their culture concerns. Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, questioned the efficacy of remote work in fostering connections and building a shared culture, pondering, "Are we failing to cultivate tribal knowledge with new employees in the absence of an office culture?"

While there is a prevailing belief that physically bringing employees back to the office will resolve culture issues, the reality is more nuanced. Merely having workers together for part of the week offers no guarantees that the desired positive outcomes will materialize.

What is company culture? 

Geert Hofstede, a distinguished Dutch social psychologist, presents a compelling model affectionately called the "Cultural Onion." This metaphor encapsulates the interconnected core aspects of culture, peeling back the layers to reveal its multifaceted nature.

An graphic of the culture onion, with Values at the center, surrunded by concentric circles for Rituals, Heroes, and Symbols, as well as an arrow for Practices linking all levels
A visualization of Geert Hofstede's 'cultural onion'


Broad preferences for a specific state of affairs form the bedrock of culture. Despite the inclination to articulate values explicitly, they manifest more commonly in the implicit values reflected in the practices and behaviors of individuals and teams within an organization.


Tangible and visible signs of culture, symbols are elements that even non-members can discern. These encompass logos, brand colors, team names, job titles, and, in the digital realm, emojis, and graphics often used.


Recurring events and patterns that guide how tasks are completed or how individuals interact constitute rituals. Distinguishing themselves from habits and routines, rituals yield different results each time, contributing to the creation of new meanings.


Culture finds embodiment in personalities that stand out, often represented by CEOs and top leaders like the iconic Steve Jobs. However, heroes can emerge at any level, exemplified by team members who demonstrate extraordinary efforts, such as staying up all night during a system outage. Heroes become the living narratives, carrying forward stories that define and perpetuate the culture.


Cutting across the outer layers of the culture onion, practices encompass the regular activities performed by the people within a culture. These actions shape and define ‌collective identity, forming the day-to-day fabric of organizational life.

Understanding culture through these dimensions provides a nuanced perspective that extends beyond the superficial trappings often associated with it.

Designing company culture

Understanding the framework and elements of culture paves the way for intentional design and direction. Culture happens regardless of whether it’s deliberate or left to chance.

The flow of culture is omnidirectional, yet its origin is unequivocally at the top. Leaders serve as ‌catalysts, shaping the culture that permeates the entire organization. True change, especially in culture, must emanate from the leadership echelons.

Culture is about creating a desired environment where teams can thrive and do their best work. 

It goes beyond perks like ping pong tables or even circulating corporate values. Culture is ultimately the sum of the emotions, mindset, and behaviors of the people in the organization. 

Jeanne Liedtka, a professor at the Darden School of Business and a pioneering thinker in organizational design, has demonstrated how design thinking is a type ‘social technology’ that holistically addresses change. It fosters trust within and between teams, creating an environment conducive to meaningful conversations and collaborative innovation.

Liedtka's research outlines the key stages in collaborative design thinking, demonstrating how these stages, or the "doing" in design thinking, correlate with individuals' experiences and subsequently lead to transformative shifts within teams.

Intentional culture design is a strategic effort, influenced by leadership and fortified through practices that reinforce the desired behaviors. Frameworks such as design thinking, when diffused across an organization, provide a powerful mechanism for cultural transformation. 

Moving from academics to big business, we’ve found that design thinking serves as a powerful force in affecting organizational change. 

Transforming company culture at Autodesk

Take Autodesk, a leading provider of software solutions for architects and engineers around the world. Over a decade ago, the company began the transformation to a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. This massive shift impacted every part of the organization. Critically, it required teams to work together in new ways and new cultural orientation. 

To realize their new strategy, leaders Autodesk began a top-down change program with LUMA Insitute training as the centerpiece. Amy Bunszel, VP of Digital Engineering Products at Autodesk, told us: “We very intentionally decided to start a movement. We knew we had to focus on the bright spots, highlight some of our early successes and build this coalition of the willing. It has turned into a self-sustaining program now—it’s pretty incredible.”

To date, over 3,000 people at Autodesk are now formally trained in collaboration design using the LUMA methodology. That’s over a quarter of their workforce of twelve thousand. They don’t leave culture to chance. They’re designing it. 

They know which methods to use to tackle any problem, and they use that knowledge to craft collaborative experiences that predictably and repeatedly lead to impressive results.

Beyond the office: Distributed, flexible work cultures

As we navigate the landscape of a modern post-pandemic workplace, the imperative is clear: we must reimagine how we connect people and cultivate intentional culture without relying solely on in-person interactions.

Let's be clear — we recognize the invaluable role that face-to-face encounters play in building personal relationships. Recommending annual in-person gatherings for distributed teams has been a steadfast belief for over a decade. However, we also acknowledge that these periodic reunions are insufficient for sustaining a robust organizational culture. The mandate to return to the office a few days a week similarly falls short of a guarantee for cultural continuity.

Rather than mandates or work gatherings, it’s about intentional culture design — a dynamic approach that transcends the physical confines of office space. It's about weaving connections and fostering a culture that transcends buildings and locations, as aptly articulated by Rebecca Pearce, Chief People Officer at Autodesk. In her words, "Our culture is more than our buildings and more than our places."

Well said, Rebecca. Culture is indeed more than ping-pong tables.

Pearce's insight resonates profoundly. Indeed, culture is a nuanced tapestry woven with threads of meaningful connections, shared values, and collaborative endeavors. It extends beyond the allure of ping-pong tables and office perks, encapsulating the essence of how individuals interact, collaborate, and collectively contribute to the identity of an organization.

An image of the Mural culture design canvas template
Get started building an intentional culture with Mural’s culture design canvas template

In the evolving landscape of work, as we embrace flexibility and redefine the parameters of our professional lives, intentional culture design becomes not just a strategic choice but a necessity. It is the cornerstone upon which resilient, connected, and innovative organizations are built. So, as we move forward, let us remember: Culture isn't confined to the physical spaces we inhabit; it is a living, breathing entity shaped by the intentional efforts of its stewards and the genuine connections among its members.

In a modern post-pandemic work, we must reimagine how to connect people and instill an intentional culture without being in-person.

Learn more about how to build a strong organizational culture that flexes to meet the needs of your company by getting in touch with our Professional Services team

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.