If Your Company Feels Like Family, Maybe This is Why

Q: What's one of the most common comments I hear from clients, when I ask them to describe their workplace?

A: "We're like family here."

Whether or not it is healthy to have a company culture that feels like family--and there are arguments on both sides--there is at least one interesting way that all organizations are like families: no two are alike.

Think about it. Families are so different from one another. There are the basic demographic differences: some are small, some are big. At the nuclear level, some have a single father, some a single mother, some one of each, some two. Some have a grandparent in the house, or an aunt. Some are divided and re-blended across more than one household, with multiple parents and step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings. One could go on forever with the demographic differences, but that's only the beginning.

Families have different rules, they have different traditions, they have different styles. Some are more formal, some more laid back. Some are orderly, some are chaotic. Some have strict hierarchies and discipline, some don't. Remember that feeling of shock when you visited a friend's house as a kid, and found something very different from your own? At my house, we all helped ourselves to breakfast and lunch--the only really prepared, organized meal was dinner. At my best friend's house, lunch was a formal, sit-down affair. I was accustomed to calling most of my parents' friends by their first names, but many of my friends referred to my folks as "Mr. and Mrs." My house was loud--people shouted, people belly-laughed, and no one much noticed. This freaked out some of my friends. At their homes, shouting was frowned upon.

These kinds of differences are both important and completely unimportant. They are important in that they define what makes one's own family special. They define the environment we spend most of our time in; especially when we are young, they shape our identity and define our world. When we go away from home for the first time, they are what make us homesick.

But they are also completely unimportant: they have nothing to do with whether we have a happy or an unhappy family--a functional or dysfunctional one. And although I don't know the research, I'm betting these kinds of differences have very little to do with how successful family members are, or become.

What does matter? That family members love, support, listen to and respect one another. That they don't abuse or neglect each other.

Organizations, too have their traditions, styles, and rules--not to mention demographics. And while it may be currently fashionable to claim that companies with fun, laid-back cultures, where ping-pong is king and no one wears a tie, are the ones in which employees are the most engaged and happy, the truth is there are plenty of happy, engaged, and productive employees at more traditional organizations. Just look at the latest Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list: Google and Riot Games are there, yes, but so are much more buttoned-down professional service firms, like Deloitte and American Express, and a good sprinkling of hospitals, where (for good reason) rules and traditional hierarchies tend to prevail.

Just as with families, people tend to settle into their organizations and be comfortable, no matter how strange the environment might feel to someone else. And just as with families, in my experience many employees of long-standing are at most only dimly aware of how different their work environment is from that of others--until they move on to a new job. And (sing along!) just as with families, the differences don't really matter. What matters is that people are respected, listened to, and supported. Even love plays a role: at the best organizations, employees share a passion for the mission and also share camaraderie--research shows that work friendships are good for everyone involved.

Of course, unlike with families, respect and support at work are about more than being nice to one another (although that is important.) Workplaces show respect and support by giving employees control over their time and their work, providing fair compensation and well thought-out, as-generous-as-possible benefits, encouraging inclusiveness, providing plenty of training and opportunities to advance, sharing information openly, taking suggestions seriously, and honestly addressing complaints.

So, yes, there are some basics involved in being a great place to work. But beyond that--hey, no two "families" are alike. Or, as they say across the pond, vive la différence!

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.