The soft problem of culture
It’s easy to see why company culture is so frequently overlooked: it’s difficult. Its soft, intangible nature makes it impossible to quantify and hard to wield. But that doesn’t mean it can’t deliver tangible business value.
Research has shown that company culture is a more important driver of innovation than things like capital or labour and businesses with a healthy company culture are likely to have more happy, engaged and productive employees.
In addition, it’s not something you can just copy and paste. Managers too often look at a company like Apple or 37Signals and say, ‘I want that. Everyone do that.’ But a culture that works for one company is unlikely to work for another. You can’t force it.
Culture occurs naturally; it’s an emergent property of human interaction so it can’t be chopped and changed on a whim.
That said, while you can’t directly change your company’s culture, you can alter how people interact and do things in the workplace, from which a new culture will emerge.
The company manifesto
The first thing you’ll need is a company manifesto or guidebook.
This shouldn’t be a down-from-on-high, dictatorial set of commandments, but rather a collaborative creation that’s open to edits over time. Cultures change, after all.
It’s helpful to put some aspirational points in there, but it shouldn’t be just about who you want to be. It should make clear who you are now, how and why you do things the way you do and where you want to go as a company.
Most importantly keep it brief, human and clear. If you trust your employees, they don’t need a great tome of shoulds and should nots.
HubSpot’s ‘Culture Code’ is both a brilliant example of an uncomplicated, well-defined culture and a good brief for those looking to create their own. They keep it simple and trust their employees to do what’s best, giving them, in their own words, ‘the autonomy to be awesome’.
Of course, this relies on hiring great people. To get the culture right you need to hire right.
Company culture helps attract the right people and gives you a measure of the sort of people who will fit in with your company. It makes the hiring process that much simpler.
Skills and experience are important, but don’t be seduced by them. If someone doesn’t fit the company culture, they’re no good. Hire them and you’ll undermine it.
Follow the leader
An effective culture also requires a great leader.
Lead by example: be open, honest, fair, supportive, enthusiastic. Trust your employees to make decisions.
Share the ‘behind the scenes’ and business development side of company so your employees can see the inner workings of the business and have a sense of what’s on the horizon. This way people can more easily propose improvements to routine processes, suggest new business applications and talk through issues with particular projects.
Open up and connect
This culture of openness and transparency is crucial for the modern small business.
Although it can be difficult with tight margins, try to support some risk and failure from employees to help foster innovative ideas and suggestions. Reward the idea rather than the success so that people aren’t afraid to make suggestions.
Make use of internal social media to keep each other updated with what you’re doing, share funny or interesting things or simply chat about your plans for next weekend. It provides a friendly and informal forum for suggestions and new ideas, which helps everyone feel like a real part of the business and have a greater stake in it.
This is particularly important for virtual companies with remote workers. With no central hub you lose the water cooler moments and the shared coffee breaks. Using internal social media, online collaboration tools and video conferencing to maintain communication helps create a sense of camaraderie, wherever you are working.
How do you solve a problem like company culture?
Creating a company culture is a tricky business, but it’s vital to your success. It inspires, attracts talent, increases retention, gives everyone purpose and keeps your business heading in the right direction, even as it scales up.
And, while the same culture won’t work for everyone, openness, good leadership, great employees and a sound company manifesto are excellent first steps.