Why am I qualified to talk about this?
I’ll hold my hands up – I am not trained in HR. So I’m sure there are lots of technical inaccuracies about my approach to building company culture. But maybe that’s a good thing. In my experience, most revered companies are authentic ones. The ones where everyone can be themselves. And perhaps ‘HR-ness’ gets in the way of that.
My own perspective is one of a company founder. These are lessons I’ve learnt building our team and making plenty of mistakes along the way (I wish someone had shared all of this with me as I was starting out). I hope it’s as useful for team/business unit managers/leaders within big companies, as it is for founders of smaller ones.
It’s a perspective that’s enhanced by our experience supporting 100s of start-ups in London and internationally in attracting and retaining great people – a strategy which always has company culture right at the heart.
What is “culture”? And why is good one important?
A “good cultural fit” is one of those terms that gets chucked around but rarely examined. It’s dangerous too – all too often founders don’t hire someone citing [a lack of] “cultural fit” which all too often means “they didn’t have a similar background to me”. Always remember, diversity creates stronger teams.
I think of “company culture” as the atmosphere that is created by how people behave when at work.
So what’s a “good culture”? An atmosphere in which people are happy and able to do their best.
‘Staff cost’ is commonly the largest expense bucket in any business. So making them as effective as possible is paramount for growth. And retaining great people is what every company quests for (expertise is developed, recruitment & onboarding costs diminish, continuity is preserved etc).
How do you create & nurture a good culture?
Nurture is an important word here. It’s not enough to make the snacks free and stock a Friday beers fridge. Sustaining a good culture is multi-faceted. Almost every process in your business has a small impact on how people feel when at work. Company culture needs a huge amount of detailed thought. Moreover, it needs on-going attention (‘nurture’).
Here’s my list of things to think about. I very much doubt it’s exhaustive. But it should set you off on the right track:
1. Don’t wait to hire an HR person (it’ll be too late).
Realistically, someone to ‘do HR’ isn’t going to be your first hire. It’s probably not even going to feature in your first 20 hires. You can’t wait anywhere near that long before getting the culture right – it needs to be there from the get-go with your first employees. And as I mentioned from the outset, the most effective cultures (and the most highly sought after ones too) are authentic – and this characteristic is hard (perhaps impossible) to bring about if the founders decide to outsource the task to HR.
2. It can’t be imposed.
Orders, commands and top-down structures tend to lead to indifference and stifle. A good culture is a shared one; one that everyone believes in and protects. A great starting point is to sit down with the team and to come up with a list of ways that you all want to work together. Things that are important to all of you.
3. It’s not enough just to create a set of values. And it’s not as simple as free snacks & Friday beers.
Creating values is the easy part. A lot of companies have values (most of them don’t co-create them, but at least they do have them). What often doesn’t get much/any thought, is how to make sure that the team actually live by them. If you commit to the whole team having to live (well at least while at work) by the company values in order to create a good culture, then you realise that “culture” needs to be supported by almost every process you set up.
Revisit the definition; an atmosphere in which people are happy and able to do their best. And have a think about all the aspects of work that can support or undermine that.
In no particular order:
(i) Office environment; make people feel at home. Kitchen space, dining space, casual seating, outdoor space. It’s all-important. Investing in a bigger space than you need can feel like a waste of money when you’re starting out. But it’s worth it to create the best environment for the team.
(ii) Rhythm; annual is too long. Most big companies work to an annual cycle. In a high growth environment, that’s way too long. If you focus on quarterly goals and fortnightly sprints, you’re much more likely to foster a culture that’s collaborative, communicative, results-driven, etc. If reviews & bonuses are quarterly too, all the better.
(iii) Communication; keep it natural. We are a social animal. We like to chat. Online everything has many advantages. But it can detract from an authentic culture if people stop talking to one another. So try and encourage conversation; it’s often far faster than trading emails.
Things that can help include:
- Daily team huddles
- Rapid candour (start-up jargon for honest feedback)
- Massive hot desks (so people are sat around the same table),
- music in the office
- Role modelling from the founders – keep your door open & chat with everyone
- Weekly cross-company chats (we do coffee ‘n cake on a Wednesday morning)
- Being very strict on meetings: their length (does it really need a 1hr slot or would 20 mins do?); who attends (if they don’t need to be there don’t invite them) and their purpose (keep it clear). A company that has strings of 1 -hour-long meetings is rarely a productive one.
(iv) Reviews & reward; tie to values. The best way to ensure that values (and therefore culture) is taken seriously, is to review everyone’s performance against the values. Simply put, in order to do a great job and get a great bonus, people must demonstrate that they deliver against the values. And if you get the values right, this behaviour will be one and the same as the business performing well.
(v) Benefits & perks; make things fun. Benefits don’t have to be limited to things like car allowances and health cover. Sure, they are nice to have. But they don’t do much to support a good culture. So be thoughtful about spending on things that will create a happy atmosphere. It’s the thought that counts and I firmly believe that employees value these thoughtful benefits far more than if you were to increase their salary by the same amount. So let your imagination run wild (it’s fun and there’s ROI too!)
A few of the things we do are:
- Company holidays. A summer away week and a long weekend in the winter too. We do the minimum amount of work needed to keep the business running (so a few hours per day) and spend time having fun & brainstorming. Everyone enjoys a holiday, so it doesn’t feel forced (in the way that a ‘team-building event’ often does).
- Monthly fun budget. It’s about £50 per person per month and we rotate the responsibility of ‘fun manager’ (so everyone has a chance to impose their meaning of fun). Commonly it’s spent on snacks, a team lunch, an evening out (we’ve been rock climbing, comedy clubbing, etc).
- Weekly downtime. Every week we have drinks (on a Thursday at 5 pm) and cake (Wednesday at 11 am).
- Birthday presents. It’s amazing how few companies get their employees a card, never mind a present. Do it. It’s just a nice normal thing to do, right?
It needs constant nurture.
Hopefully, it’s become clear through all the detail above just how entwined a “good culture” is in everything that you do. As such, asking yourself about the culture you want to exist is a great starting point for designing all your people processes. But it’s because it’s affected by all of these many processes that it can’t be created and then left alone.
Even if you are thoughtful and get all of these things up and running, it’s very easy not to revisit, which risks culture turning sour. Tying reviews & reward to values will help, but as founders, it’s always worth deliberately checking in on how team culture is doing. You can do this very informally i.e, just chat & ask how people are feeling. You can also get some regular data by implementing a simple team barometer (or a more lengthy staff survey) that go out regularly.
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