Shaping your company culture? The only way is bottom-up

16 Jan 2024

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, right? Company culture is the secret sauce that keeps employees engaged, it’s the glue that makes teams stick together. We talked to two of our members about the importance of organizational culture. The Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Antwerp has 400 employees and is part of a huge organization of 6,000 people. The 6-person team of tech company Cloudwise fits in one office at The Brain Embassy. They both tell us how they build and foster their very own culture.

University of Antwerp, Faculty of Business and Economics: “Coworking had a positive effect on our culture”

The Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Antwerp joined Brain Embassy last summer, explains faculty director Tinne Borremans. “A fire destroyed our offices at the historical campus in the city center, our workplaces were lost in the fire. So, we moved our 400 employees to the tenth floor of Brain Embassy. Our colleagues of the Faculty of Arts occupy the second floor.”


The University of Antwerp has nine faculties and around 6,000 employees, spread over three different campuses in Antwerp (all three with a whole bunch of auditoriums and offices). How do you manage to shape a distinctive company culture in such a huge, decentralized organization? According to Tinne, it’s all about the values: “They transcend campuses and locations. Everybody who works at the University of Antwerp shares our values. You need to explicitly agree with those values when you apply for a job, it’s a commitment that we don’t take lightly.”

Culture grows bottom-up

 Tinne emphasizes that a successful company culture needs to grow bottom-up. “You can’t just dictate a culture to people. High quality, dynamic, forward-thinking education is obviously one of the core values of our university. But diversity is equally important. We have 40 different nationalities in our faculty team alone, they help shape our company culture bottom-up.”

“If you want to bring a culture to life, you also need to practice what you preach. Our culture are not just hollow words on a website. We don’t just say we value diversity, we include the Antwerp Pride in our official academic calendar, for example.”

Don’t get stuck on an island

A company culture evolves all the time. How does the University of Antwerp make sure everyone stays on board? “We have blogs and newsletters that zoom in on our culture and our values. The university also organizes some big events and parties each year, where all of my 6,000 colleagues are invited.”

“To make sure we don’t get stuck on our own island we also collaborate with other faculties. We work together with our colleagues of the Faculty of Arts here at The Brain Embassy to detect on line hate speech through text mining, we team up with the Faculty of Medicine for research on affordable health care, we join forces with the Faculty of Applied Engineering to research renewable energy. Those cross pollinations are essential if you want to create a shared culture in a large organization like ours.”

The Brain Embassy x University of Antwerp

Tinne is convinced that The Brain Embassy is a good match with the culture of the University of Antwerp. “The diverse, international vibe is a perfect fit with our own team. In a way, coming to The Brain Embassy has also boosted collaboration within our faculty. We have 400 employees, but The Brain Embassy doesn’t have 400 spots for us. You need to reserve your spot. That was a small revolution for us.”

“In our old offices every employee had a fixed spot and every research group had its own floor. Before we moved, we had the same neighbor every day and we saw the same familiar faces at the coffee machine every day. The new reservation system stimulates spontaneous encounters and informal talks. Despite the great disaster the fire is for us, the new working situation had a positive effect on our culture.”

Cloudwise: “Your culture evolves with the people who jump on board”

Cloudwise is originally a Dutch company that helps school digitize. “We make their ICT systems faster, easier and safer”, explains Philip Vermeylen, who leads the Belgian branch of the company. “The COOL-platform we built takes away the complexity from teachers and other education staff.”

 How would Philip describe the company culture of Cloudwise in one word? “I’d say: open. I encourage everyone to grab opportunities, launch new ideas and speak up if there’s something on your mind. We are a small team of 6 people, so, I also stimulate my colleagues to break out of their silo’s and out of their comfort zone.”

“Cloudwise is much bigger in the Netherlands, they have put our company culture – our ‘Coolture’ - on paper. Off course, we share the same values: customer centricity is extremely important, for example. But we adapt the company culture to our smaller team and to the people who work for us. You can write down the essence of a company culture, but it will always be a living thing. It evolves with the people that jump on board.”

For employees and customers

You can’t possibly overrate the importance of company culture, agrees Philip. “We had a Christmas party at our headquarters in the Netherlands. By eating candy from different big boxes, the employees could pick what HR’s top priority for 2024. ‘Company culture’ was by far the most popular candy box.”

 “Company culture is important to attract new employees and keep them happy and motivated. But in my opinion, it’s equally important for customers. They meet different people from Cloudwise: the salesperson, the account manager, the trainer, the technical support,… A strong culture gives them something to rely on. It makes sure that they get the same excellent, personal service every step of the way. Culture is not necessary something you should explain, it’s something your customers should feel and experience, no matter who they are in touch with.”

Celebrate your milestones

Is it up to the managing director himself to keep the company culture alive? “It’s up to everyone at Cloudwise”, says Philip. “Every last Friday of the month, we go out for after-work drinks. There’s always another team member who chooses a pub in the neighborhood. No pressure, you only join when you feel like it. It wouldn’t work if I would make it some mandatory office thing. I did realize the importance of setting milestones and celebrating them. A company culture needs common goals and shared ambitions.”

Philip has one final piece of advice for other organizations: “A nice coworking space works miracles for your company culture. You meet other people and get inspired by other companies, you don’t need to run far for some distraction, you can break out of your office from time to time. It’s much easier to shape a shared company culture when your employees are not counting down the hours.”

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