Your company has an excellent organizational culture? That means you have access to a fancy break room where you can play some foosball... Right?
No... Not by a long shot.
Even though it is all around us, and it determines how employees experience day-to-day life at their companies, it is very difficult to define “organizational culture” (mostly because its definition is being discussed since 2013). However, having one is essential: it prevents organizational chaos, it provides people with a sense of security and creates a base for further company growth.
But, how do you create organizational culture? Which aspects should you strive toward, and what should you avoid? We reached out to business owners, managers, and CEOs with these questions and selected answers which inspired simple, straightforward advice.
The Big Book of Team Culture
Create a successful business before the cozy culture
The fact of the matter is: you cannot deliver good service from unhappy employees. That is why having a great organizational culture can be a huge competitive advantage. But there is no point in worrying about which espresso machine your employees would like the most if your business cannot afford one.
In the beginning, we as entrepreneurs must focus and prioritize the creation of a scalable business over trying to build a cozy culture. Ping Pong tables, free lunch, and massages help make some companies a great place to work, but these things did not make a company great in the first place. These are just the perks that help keep employees happy and a great company on top.
Culture often gets mislabeled as “perks” offered throughout an organization. However, I believe that culture should refer to the aligning individual values with the values of the organization. It doesn’t matter what the values of the team are, as long as every member shares those values. At that point, trust emerges - and with trust comes loyalty.
These values have to be installed in the early stages of a company, as it’s impossible to come back later and sprinkle in some culture into an established team. The best precaution we can make as entrepreneurs is to hire good fits. If you don't enjoy hanging out with an individual socially, then they won’t be a value add for culture.
— Bryan Clayton - CEO of GreenPal
Hire with your organizational culture at mind
There is an ongoing discussion: should you hire individuals who fit into your company culture, should you adapt company culture as team dynamics changes, or do you hire just about anyone and wait until they fit in - if they ever fit in. The company culture at Qminder is rather straightforward: they are client/customer centered, and their internal communication is transparent and honest. However, what helped them achieve this “zen state” is their recruitment process and careful filtering of potential misfits.
Even though our hiring process appears to be normal, it’s rather “tight” under the surface. Firstly, job ads are demanding and specific regarding what we're looking for in a candidate. Since we push for "personal customer service", we want the applications to be personal. We ask for individual video clips to test their speaking skills and see how composed they are.
Secondly, interviews usually involve people who are not directly related to the position asking unrelated, often though and tricky questions. That can throw people off during the interview process and allow us to see the real person behind the CV.Finally, the decision process involves everyone in the company - from the junior developers to all the founders. There is a possibility of Veto: if anyone within the company feels the new hire will be a bad fit, the candidate will be turned down. We are a very tight-knit company so we cannot allow big frictions between individuals. The "veto" happens before making the offer to the candidate.
This approach made us turn down a candidate with great experience that was “perfect on paper” as well. Once they came to our office for a visit, they didn't treat our junior employees with the same level of respect as they did with our senior staff. It was abundantly clear that they were not a good culture fit.
Hyun Lee - Growth Manager at Qminder
You can set organizational culture at the beginning, and stick to it
After you’ve laid the foundation of successful business and hired the right people, it is time to chose: either you set ground rules and stick with them for the years to come, or you adapt as employees, time and trends change. One of the successful companies that opted for “everything-written-down” approach to organizational culture is MonetizeMore. As the company which is based around remote teams, they rely heavily on their cultural values to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
Our culture has been deliberately built since the first full-time hire I made 4.5 years ago. Whenever we hire, promote or review a team member, we always refer to our company culture - it is the backbone of our business, after all.
No matter what, organizational culture is always born within a team whether the founders like it or not. That is why it is paramount that the founders deliberately shape the culture to get the most out of the team. Otherwise, the culture could shape into negative factor rather than one that improves output.
Kean Graham - Founder and CEO of MonetizeMore
MonetizeMore is an excellent example of a company that successfully relies on pre-made a set of rules, and expects all employees (new and old) to abide by them. Also, all cultural values of the company are written down in a single document so all staff members can refer to them at any time.
Or adapt organizational culture as you go along
Some companies have determined their organizational culture at the very beginning - others, on the other hand, have shaped and have been developing their culture over extended periods of time. At Butterscotch Shenanigans, a seven people independent game studio, entire company culture is based around “Always Know Why” concept.
We've found that this concept allowed us to keep our employees happy and retained while providing them with the possibility to focus on their work. Furthermore, it lets us continuously refine our processes. For example:
We asked: “Why is it hard to have a full week without absentees (for whatever the reason)?” It turns out it's because we're working 5 days per week - so we switched to a 4-day work week.
Then, we asked: “Why are some of our longer days (known in our studio as Jam days, which are typically 12 hours long), most invigorating?” It turns out that our team enjoys working on a single thing for a whole day.
So now we work from 8am to 4pm, Monday through Wednesday, and then do a 12 hour Jam Day every Thursday. The result? Every single employee is happier, we've had less absenteeism, and our productivity has increased. All because we asked why.
However, positive change didn’t happen overnight. We stumbled on our core value after months of trying to drive cultural change from the top. It took many months of iteration before we employed the "Always Know Why" concept and our growth since then has been huge.
Sam Coster - Co-founder of Butterscotch Shenanigans
Organizational culture is about making your employees feel safe
As often stated, there is no prosperity without taking risks. But if your employees are more afraid of the potential consequences of failure than interested in the benefits of an experiment, no one will take any risks. That is why an organizational culture of Procurify is based around not being afraid of failure: fail fast and find a better way.
When looking for people to join our team, it all comes down to the why. When I started seeing our company take form, I believed in building a team with no ego, and creating an amazing culture for them not just to work, but also be able to learn from each other and improve themselves continuously.
What sets our company culture apart is that we encourage and allow our team members to fail. As the CEO and co-founder, I often meet with new team members to get to know them better and to tell them our story firsthand.
I often tell them: “Don’t be afraid to fail because there is no such thing as failure. There are only good outcomes and bad outcomes, and the bad ones will help you create more opportunities". This has done wonders for product innovation and keeping the right kind of people for our company.
Aman Mann - CEO and founder of Procurfy
No two organizational cultures are exactly the same
New employees, especially those who switched from another company, will be uncertain about the way “things are done,” “who’s the man” and “what’s frowned upon” at the new company. Some of them will abide by rules of their former employers, while others will try to remain as neutral as possible. At Inspirehub couple of newly recruited staff withheld themselves from asking questions. Reason? At the previous company, questioning leadership in any way was considered a serious infraction.
It all started when I noticed that although I offered praise and rewards my team would never ask questions, especially in public meetings. I had one staff member who also admitted they found it "terrifying" to question leadership based on past work environments. I realized I had to find a way to make people comfortable with asking questions then maybe they would do the transition.
I had sent out two logos for "questioning" the day before and got back a total of 2 questions. The next all-hands meeting I grabbed a pencil, and I asked the team to ask as many questions as they could on the pencil. They were laughing and having a great time. I then said, "Ok, I have one more." This time I put up the before mentioned 2 logos - we had over 20 good questions in less than a few minutes.
It turned out we had to use “the pencil” for a few more sessions before the culture took over and it became something we understood. Now if I say "Question game this" the team just flies into action. New hires observe and catch on quickly.
Karolyn Hart - Co-founder and COO of Inspirehub
Implementing organizational culture takes time
Like any other complicated process, implementing organizational culture is a slow and tedious task. However, it will reward you tenfold - if done properly. It took almost a year for Gnatta’s upper management to introduce their set of unspoken rules employees should follow.
In Gnatta we don’t have a written manifesto or handbook we ask employees to abide by. Instead, we have a set of unspoken rules which we’ve taken the time to ingrain into our workforce of 30 people:
1. We work smart, we work hard, but we believe in work life balance - We want our team to view work as an integral part of their being, not as the thing they have to do for 8 hours a day to fund the rest of their life.
2. We’re a team - We put all new hires into a dedicated slack channel during their onboarding process so they can experience our culture, banter, and terrible jokes before they join. This way they can tell if our company suits them, and we can tell if their attitude suits our company’s culture.
3. We’re an enabler - All of our teams are autonomous, creative, and driven people. Our job is to give them the structure and resources they need to achieve their goals.
It took us roughly 12 months of focused work to get this culture into place and a process for making sure new hires can fit in as seamlessly as possible. The result has been reduced employee turnover, a much more efficient development process, and we grew our business to £5m since 2014.
Rob Mead - Head of marketing at Gnatta
Ideally, a good organizational culture will make colleagues feel like a family
With more than 2,400 employees spread out in more than 25 cities across the country, maintaining our culture can’t just fall on the leaders or even our dedicated culture team which is more than 50 employees strong. Three core values are: Be Passionate and Have Fun, Deliver Results with Integrity, and Enhance Lives Every Day.
How a large company like ours keeps culture so inclusive? Well, our values say: “Actively contribute to the Veterans United’ family spirit,” and “We genuinely care about the wellbeing of others.” So, our employees run wild with those statements – everything from collecting items for an employee whose apartment burned down, to baking a wedding cake for someone who is on a tight budget, or even raising money to buy a car for an employee who shared one vehicle with her family of five.
We encourage building relationships at every turn, and people take advantage of that. So when we say that we are more like a family than coworkers, it’s true – there’s a closeness that just isn’t found in a typical workplace.
Ian Franz - Director of culture at Veterans United Home Loans
Like we already mentioned, having a developed and well thought out organizational culture is paramount in establishing the productive and overall positive working environment. These tips are the starting point for your company’s development, but keep in mind that culture is ever changing and ever adopting. So it doesn’t matter if it’s the set of unspoken rules or an official document, revise it often and carefully - times change, and with them so should you.