How to build a first-class company culture
In the world of digital, whether you’re Facebook or a cool East London start-up, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to set yourself apart. Everything you do – your services, your benefits, your company structure – will at some point be copied by another agency. In fact nowadays there is only one part of your company’s identity that can’t be copied, and that’s your culture.
When meeting someone for the first time, we usually know within minutes if they are a ‘Founder’. Chances are, if we don’t get that feeling, then they probably won’t be feeling it either. I would never be so presumptive as to say we have the perfect company culture, but certainly there is something about Found that keeps people here.
The reason your company culture is so important is that it’s key for both employee satisfaction and productivity. Unpleasant working environments drag down motivation, encourage your best people to leave and generally create a culture of negativity. A good culture, however, ensures that everyone can work to the best of their abilities, low on stress and will also attract talent.
Many people, especially in the digital sector, have come to expect a distinctive company culture. So what are the key factors to consider when building one?
Don’t try to imitate what you think is an ideal company culture, because there’s no guarantee it will transfer. Think instead about the individual values you want your company to focus on – such as ambition, supportiveness, incredible customer service – and the direction that you want it to take. Can you encapsulate that in a single motto, like Google’s “Don’t be evil”, or a short mission statement?
If this is a process you’re just starting, then you can ask staff to contribute their own ideas. Once you know what kind of culture you want to achieve, you can look at the type of people and resources you need to get there.
If your people are passionate about the company mission, then they will do what they can to accomplish it. To get that, there must be integrity and conviction behind the plan. Employees at all levels should see themselves as a team or even a family, rather than disparate units so that everyone is pulling in the same direction. Allowing for investment in the company’s success can help with this. John Lewis and Waitrose famously split their profits with staff, which is a huge motivational factor, while some public companies offer shares to their staff at discounted prices.
A Listening Approach
When people feel that they are being listened to, given a say in how their company operates, it’s a big motivator. Too often when companies hit a wall for inspiration, they look externally for solutions when in all likelihood the answer could come from within.
Neither do the best ideas always come from the top down. By making it easy for people at every level to give suggestions on how they can improve a product or the way things are done, you indicate that you trust them. We introduced FoundLabs a few years ago to give the team a platform to share their ideas and get opinions from the wider team. The most popular ideas get built out and the contributors rewarded for their input, but more importantly, they are part of shaping the future of Found.
Promote Work/Life Balance
A place of work needs to be somewhere that people enjoy being rather than forced to endure. In our industry there are plenty of companies who offer unusual perks such as chocolate fountains or slides in the office. Yes, novelties like these can appear attractive at first glance, but the companies that people really want to work for are those that value their wellbeing, happiness and development and encourage a good work/life balance.
Focus on the challenges your team face that you can help them with, such as childcare or flexible working arrangements. Google, which is, let’s face it, the benchmark when it comes to company culture, offers plenty of trendy benefits, but because it expects its team to give their all every day, it also throws in free meals, free healthcare and even free haircuts. These have a cost of course, but so does employee dissatisfaction and a high rate of staff turnover. If your people know that their company has their back when it counts, they’ll stick around.
Happy people are more productive people, that’s well-established. But a good company culture cannot always be focused inwards. It needs to concentrate on the other vital stakeholder in business relationships – the customer. Every department of your company, not just those facing the customer directly, should be focused on providing the best possible customer service.
So the accounts department, for instance, might look at how it can streamline its refund process, while IT should have the security of customer details front-of-mind at all times. Show the customer you care about them and you build loyalty and growth.
Find ways to break down barriers within your company and increase communications between organisational layers. It engenders a feeling of being part of a team which is crucial for a great company culture.
Bonding between team members should be promoted, whether through informal catch-ups over coffee or regular shared lunches, because getting to know each other is key for a happy workplace. By bringing people together and sharing ideas, you’ll see an increase in employee satisfaction and creativity.
Aim to hire people who you feel will be a good fit with your company culture. Going back to my own experience of knowing immediately who would be a potential ‘Founder’, it’s difficult to change people and a lot easier to identify if they will be a good fit in the first place. So, when interviewing for a position, look beyond skills and qualifications to personality.
Invest in a mix of talents. Diverse experiences and personal backgrounds will strengthen your company. Once you find the right person, nurture them by helping them to develop new skills. Some companies prefer not to give their people too many opportunities to learn because they worry they will then start looking for new opportunities elsewhere, but as far as I’m concerned, this is often a great way to encourage people to stay.
People change, business environments change, so company cultures must have the ability to change also. Take inspiration from Google’s data-driven approach to see what’s working, and what isn’t, and turn that knowledge into transformation. This flexibility, the sweet spot between continuity and change, is particularly important when your company is growing, as the best aspects of the culture can often be forgotten as other priorities take over.
No business can effectively operate without good people onside. Shared vision, shared attitudes, and shared behaviours – these are vital. You need to understand each within the context of your own company. If you have a great company culture and you acknowledge its importance, it’s a huge competitive advantage not just when it comes to doing business, but also attracting and retaining the best people.