Many companies refer to their employees as a family, but this is the central goal of clan culture. A modern approach to corporate structuring, clan culture is an option for company leaders who want to prioritise flexibility and equality by allowing all employees to have a say and contribute to important tasks like planning and decision-making. We asked three HR experts to weigh in and help explain the inner workings of clan workplace culture. What is Clan Culture?
Clan culture describes a corporate environment that’s close-knit and collaborative. “It’s a friendly, cooperative and democratic style of culture,” says Rosalind Cardinal, executive coach and managing director of Shaping Change. “Members tend to know each other well and will often socialise outside of work hours, and build strong community-like bonds.”
In this type of workplace culture there’s an emphasis on equality, respect and communication, breaking away from the traditional hierarchies typically seen in the corporate world.
Cameron Shepherd, director of human resources and leadership consultancy Shape HR agrees. “With clan culture, management is accessible to all levels of the organisation,” he says. “And there are higher levels of collaborative behaviour, such as two-way and 360-degree feedback, knowledge sharing, brainstorming and gathering input for decision-making.” SEE ALSO: The 4 Types of Workplace Culture Explained
According to global workplace consultant Prina Shah, clan culture in the workplace can be a very positive experience for employees.
“You’re working towards a shared goal or vision and this creates a sense of belonging and inclusion as well as loyalty to the organisation,” she says.
When employees feel supported, connected and engaged with the business, they’re happier and happier employees are more productive, according to research conducted by Oxford University. And here’s another plus: clan culture may actually help attract new hires.
“People are attracted to these workplaces because our need to belong to a tribe is fulfilled there,” says Cardinal. “We want to feel engaged, consulted and connected. These organisations often find it easy to attract and retain employees, they resonate with human tribal instincts and feel like a great fit.”
Are There Drawbacks to Clan Culture? With its focus on communication and collaboration, clan culture seems like the ideal way to run a business. But, as Cardinal notes, in some cases, this type of structure is almost too good to be true.
“Clan culture is focused on people and relationships, and this often comes at the detriment of goals and outcomes,” she explains. “The culture can be too nice and therefore tough conversations don’t happen. People are not held accountable, and poor performance is overlooked. Decision-making and change can be slow, driven by the need to over-consult and not upset relationships.”
Another pitfall is the lack of diversity and diverse thinking that’s inherent to a clan culture setup. “Having everybody on the same page can, at its most extreme, create a cult-like atmosphere,” says Shepherd. “A workplace can lack original insights and start to stagnate.”
In many ways, clan workplace culture comes into its own when employees are working from home. For one thing, when employees are confident, happy and productive, and there’s easy and open communication, they can successfully work anywhere.
As Shah points out, clan culture has a way of making people invest wholeheartedly in an organisation, so they’re willing to work hard in both the office and their homes – sometimes too hard.
“They may go over and beyond to deliver, which is wonderful from a results perspective, but could be a cause for concern if people don't have clear boundaries,” she says.
Establishing and maintaining clan-based cultures may also be difficult if staff are all working in remote locations.
“Remote staff often report feeling disconnected,” says Cardinal. “They are isolated and miss out on office chit-chat, social events and so on. Some of my clients tried to navigate this by holding online quiz and game nights, or hosting lunches and after-work drinks over Zoom or Teams.”
“[Establishing a strong workplace culture] becomes harder to do well,” Shepherd says. “A more concerted effort needs to go into creating connections and sharing knowledge and information, but over two-thirds of people now opt for some form of hybrid working, so organisations need to get creative.”
The experts agree: maintaining a consistent clan culture can be difficult as a business grows bigger.
“In my opinion, clan culture tends to work best in small businesses or startups,” says Shah. “As a business grows in size, the culture tends to evolve. You may find you need more structure, where roles, responsibilities and tasks are more clearly defined and aligned.”
Companies striving to hold onto their existing clan-based culture need executives and managers to work cooperatively.
“Once your tribe gets above 150 members, we start to bump into people we don’t know and we lose the family-like feel that characterises a clan culture,” says Cardinal. “You then need leaders who encourage collaboration, connection and community to maintain a positive culture. On the other hand, competitive leaders can break down the culture quite quickly.”
At the time of the announcement, Atlassian had undergone a transformation and embraced a concept it calls Team Anywhere, offering permanent flexibility to all employees. They can work from wherever they feel makes the most sense: from an office, from home or a combination of both.
An important aspect of Atlassian’s workplace culture is transparency, communication and collaboration. To involve employees spread out across the world, it uses its own tool called Confluence, where information on every aspect of the company, including projects, news and big decisions, is open to every single employee. On the platform, people can follow projects and engage in conversations.
Atlassian also developed a program called Atlas, released to the public in April 2022, that shows who is working on a specific task and allows employees to make short entries pinpointing what they’ve achieved. It’s designed to replace progress meetings, and Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes often checks it in the morning to see what staff are doing.
But it all stems from Atlassian’s beginnings when Cannon-Brookes and co-founder Scott Farquar set out the company’s values. They have never changed, and, as the company’s chief administrative officer Erika Fisher wrote on the Atlassian website after it was named on the World’s Best Workplaces list, “These values aren’t just a poster on the wall. They’re used and referenced in conversations across Atlassian every day. Our employees are proud of them and use them to determine how they show up for their teams and for our customers.”
It’s a clear indication of how a large, successful company can take all the aspects of clan culture, including flexibility, equality, communication and collaboration, to create a workplace that delivers for both employees and the bottom line.