I feel like I’m most likely to hear the phrase “company culture” when it’s following headlines about some shakeup at a massively successful new startup or a long-time, old school conglomeration of a company that’s had to catch up with new morals, ethics, expectations and the ever increasing transparency of the Internet age. Uber and Fox News reportedly have “toxic” company cultures, and are working to redeem them, correct them or possibly find better ways to hide them from the ever-probing public. Company culture isn’t exclusive to negative press and scandal. It’s something you should be aware of from the get-go, something that can be fostered and curated and molded to boost the success and longevity of your company and your brand.
The company culture of many new businesses started by people in my generation, Millennials and the like, tends to be comfy, informal, and even playful, aimed at boosting creativity and fostering what Disney taught us all from birth: that we’re all unique and not only is that okay, we should embrace it. A basketball player can star in the school musical and you can wear hot pink and bleached locks and still be a fierce lawyer.
Studies and research have increasingly revealed that not only do people learn in different ways, they work and create best with freedom, humanity, relaxation and basically, less rigidity. Rigidity is the antiquated way of the assembly line and, in my opinion, is best left to the robots. Writing for Fast Company, Kevin McCarty argues the importance of a good company culture: “By creating an environment that promotes engaged employees, firms can attract team members who are motivated to support and contribute to a company’s profitability.”
Your most successful company culture can and should be as unique as your brand, and should strike the balance between engaging your employees and serving your brand and business goals. Gallup reported in 2014 that 70% of employees felt disengaged with the work they were doing and the companies they were doing it for. If you don’t believe that this matters to your business interests, you need to wake up! Gallup also reported: “actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually.” If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, then well, good for you. McCarty writes that company culture is a process, not a stagnant state. “To combat pervasive workplace unhappiness, companies should work to promote greater emotional investment—creating an office where employees can contribute while pursuing their passion and continuing to learn.”
If your business doesn’t function primarily in an office setting, as in you’re a customer service or retail facility, or what have you, you can still find creative ways to improve employee engagement and job satisfaction that end up serving your employees and your business interests simultaneously. The coffee chain I worked for, first as a barista and then as an assistant manager, encouraged company engagement by instilling both a sense of competitiveness and creativity from the first day of training, particularly through latte art. We would have company-wide latte art competitions, called throw-downs, which were big parties with cheap booze and pizza provided at one of the locations and a competitive bracket burnishing the winner with bragging rights and a cash prize. Latte art was also a point of connection for every barista, bringing a team together around a new team member to help them learn and perfect their pour and encouraging creativity during down time with more informal throw-downs or explorations of unconventional artistic methods. Even our monthly staff meetings would be party-like, with cheap booze and pizza also provided, business first and hanging out and bonding after. They were the only staff meetings I’ve ever looked forward to.
Events like this change the workplace from a point of resentment and pure, exhausting necessity, into a place someone can look forward to going to or spending some amount of time in.
Mccarty says the three main goals for a mutually beneficial and successful company culture are compassion, thriving and “positive deviance.” Compassion is something I experienced at that coffee shop when I was a new barista trying to perfect my latte art (which we were regularly tested on) as well as learning the ins and outs of a daily shift. Every team member was willing to work with me on my art, giving me tips and tricks, because they had felt the same pressure and had experienced encouragement and congratulations from every direction within the company when they had succeeded. They wanted to see everyone succeed and that made everyone else want to see, and help, everyone succeed.
“Thriving employees are more likely to face adversity head-on and spearhead transformation within their organizations.” This means showing each employee exactly why and how much they matter to the company and its overall goals. “Employees that understand how their individual contributions connect to the company mission are more likely to thrive.” Further, making sure to also focus on your employees as individually as possible will increase their engagement and commitment to the company because they feel valued not just for what they contribute to your business but as an individual with individual goals. Regularly engaging employees about their goals, skills, and ideas can boost the innovation and efficiency of your company, identify those employees that could better serve your goals in a higher or different position, and connect you and your employees in the mutual goal of encouraging their success and growth. This involves the understanding that many employees may not have the goal of spending their lives with your company; encouraging their success and branching out will give you a loyal person who will use whatever future success they have to promote, collaborate with, or otherwise benefit your company. Serving them serves you, just as vice versa is true.
Facebook had a slogan: Move fast and break things. Allowing employees to deviate from what is expected is how some of the greatest inventions and innovations come to life. Don’t discourage behavior or practices merely because they’re abnormal without first considering their merits. Allow difference and creativity, note it and praise it when it succeeds. “Weave these moments into your corporate mythology, the fabled (but true) workplace stories that get passed through the ranks, showcasing times of memorable employee interaction or learning.” This is inspiring, encouraging and guarantees engagement in a variety of ways. Mccarty recommends bringing this mythology to the interview process, starting a potential candidate out with stories of innovation and unexpected successes to find those most likely to contribute in creative and exciting ways if hired.
Find the culture that serves your needs, inspires and pushes your employees, and creates the most efficient, productive and happy company you can muster. Boring or painful work environments lead to boring products, lackluster production, high turnover, bad reputation, bad service and so forth. If you want your company to thrive, you need your employees to thrive first.