For years, proverbial wisdom and subjective statistics have convinced many leadership teams that culture is essential. Now, an overwhelming number of leaders recognize culture as one of the most significant sources of competitive advantage (nearly 70 percent) and believe that companies lacking a great culture are doomed to mediocrity (more than 80 percent). 

Culture is undeniably important, but its exact organizational value can be difficult to quantify. That changed when WeWork turned company culture into a commodity.

I've been thinking about this--and the larger transformation of corporate culture over the last decade or two--since reading a recent New York Times article on the rising popularity of WeWork. Just in case you're unfamiliar with the concept: WeWork buys office spaces and then leases them to patrons who want a fully stacked office without the overhead of a full office.

Most of WeWork's locations resemble high-end coffee shops, contemporary, open-floor plan offices, and fancy hotel lobbies. Amenities include kombucha taps, comfy seating, yoga classes, wine and cheese tastings, and free printers. They're nice, but you can find some of the same things at libraries, actual coffee shops, or your home office.

So why would people inconvenience themselves and pay for things that they could get for free, or at least a lot cheaper? The secret isn't in the conveniences themselves, but in what they foster: a sense of community.

How you really should be defining "company culture"

Because "culture" is a nebulous concept for most, it is often misinterpreted. Many companies look at culture as an umbrella term for a hodgepodge of amenities, rather than shared experiences, social connections, and a sense of belonging.

Don't get me wrong, perks are appreciated--but it's what they promote that truly matters.

Unfortunately, many organizations have "shiny-object-syndrome" and stockpile employee benefits with little intention. They claim to have great cultures but at the end of the day, there's a disconnect between what they're providing and what employees value.

If your employees appreciate family time and you want to be known for having a flexible, family-friendly culture, then incentivizing them with a trip apart from their kids, as cool as it may be, sends the wrong message. WeWork knows its audience. 

It has succeeded by packaging and monetizing an experience of work that appeals to and unites the traditionally estranged and deinstitutionalized workers of the world.

To me, that sends a pretty clear message: Employees expect more from their employers and workspaces. For most, work provides one of the greatest sources of connection to others. Remove someone from the work environment, and it's only a matter of time before the lack of interaction and association affects their sense of value. 

If your organization wants to build a culture that enhances the work experience for employees, focus on providing amenities that cultivate relationships and community around shared circumstances. A few of my favorites are employee resource groups, shared development opportunities, and networking events. 

The WeWork model is a reminder that great cultures aren't a result of forcing predetermined values to unite employees under one flag, but instead focusing on fostering an ecosystem that allows the freedom to connect with others based on their own beliefs and interests.