A few years ago, the process of defining your culture and owning seemed to involve copying Google : setting up a nice office with a playground if possible, slides inside the building, and open spaces with lunch room for hundreds of people. The Silicon Valley startup effect was on everyone’s mind, and a lot of companies thought that the office setup was the heart of a startup culture.
In reality, offices are just a differentiator, or a way of showing-off. Companies with cool offices are saying “We care about our employees, come work for us!”. It was a way to show it to everyone, a way to differentiate themselves from their competitor and a way to attract the best talent. In and of itself however, it doesn’t constitute the actual culture. You have to look deeper into the meaning of each action a company undertakes to find out what was the real corporate culture.
For example, in the early days of Google, collaboration and innovation were encouraged. That was the underlying reason for long tables in the lunch room, so people could sit beside unknown colleagues, to get to know each other, exchange ideas and begin to change the world together.
Google’s office facilities had two purposes:
- To make employees feel at home and engaged in their work.
- To attract new talent.
The real culture at Google was “Don’t be evil”, not “Playgrounds and fun work spaces for everyone”. Fun spaces were a way to engage people and, at the same time, to own their culture. They were not evil with their employees. They were giving them places for happiness even if they were at work.
The question you have to ask is :
Why are those giants investing so much money in their culture?
If you want the answer, you have to take a look at the research on employee disengagement and to see how choking it might be.
Employees disengagement costs a lot
Disengagement can cost up to 550 billion per year, actually. It becomes clear that we can not afford that. Worklife and meaning are some of the most important things if an organization wants to enhance creativity, innovation and new ideas. All level of leaders need to accompany employees throughout their careers and their projects.
Disengagement can impact an organization in various ways: higher turnover, less productivity, difficulties retaining talent, difficulties attracting new employees, lower value as social/employer brand, absenteeism, lower quality, reduced productivity and generally the most dangerous : poor customer service, which affects the company directly.
To avoid disengagement, companies have decided to invest a lot of money in their offices and on their services. It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon : Samsung Digital City is a perfect example of this trend. The downside is that you become the prisoner of your workplace. There are so many services, that you end up spending most of your time at work.
So, where is the balance in the culture? How to put it in place an environment that fits everyone desire and objectives without falling on the wrong side ?
Below you will find a list of books, articles or companies which inspired us in our process.
Today, there are many examples of companies that succeeded based on their culture. I share some examples that inspired me in our journey to build the culture at Arcbees.
Strategy For Sustainability: Adam Werbach
A few years ago, I read a book written by Adam Werbach: « Strategy for sustainability, a business manifesto ». He demonstrated that employee engagement is a key success factor for a sustainable strategy. This has benefits beyond sustainability. It supports your employment brand. If you are not supported by the masses, you won’t succeed in attracting or retaining your champions.
He and his team started a project called « PSP », the Personal Sustainability Project for Wal-Mart. Each employee was asked to do one thing for themselves, for the society, for their family or for the organization that was sustainable.
With this project, they succeeded in one aspect of their sustainability strategy. By improving the life of their employees and by creating common objectives, they created a new sense of belonging. Also, by planting seeds of sustainability in the minds of their employees, they enhanced their employees’ lives, and by extension, their employees’ families and friends.
Tribal Leadership: David Logan
« Tribal Leadership » by David Logan clearly describes the difference between companies with strong leadership and well established values, and companies with no purpose. In this book, he explains how people put in place their leadership and at the same time the culture for their tribes. This book is not focused on culture per se, but it tackles this subject indirectly.
Delivering Happiness: Tony Hsieh
Another important book on corporate culture is « Delivering Happiness » by Tony Hsieh, a book about Zappos. This company is the perfect example of the success of a strong commitment to culture, and it is an example of a tribe described in David Logan’s book.
In less than 10 years, through culture, Tony Hsieh built a billion dollar company. His book has become a reference on how to develop a unique culture inside your company.
The biggest lesson from this reading is about commitment. You can’t have a successful culture without it. You can’t succeed in defining who you want to be without it. It’s a long process and as a company, if you attain your objectives, your employees and your company will gain a lot from it.
Buffer’s Culture Blog
Finally, my last inspiration is Buffer Culture and their path to transparency. The good thing about their transparency and culture journey is that everything is recounted on their blog. So if you want to know about the upside and the downside of the day-to-day work of building your target culture, you can have a look at all their stories.
The biggest result of all these examples is the importance of “commitment” in this process. Without commitment you can’t take ownership of your culture. Every company should focus on that and build it straight from the beginning, it is what defines the company and the workplace.
The first steps to define our culture
We started our commitment to build our own culture by then end of the autumn (the reflection started long before that). The company was shifting its strategy and business model to emphasize products over services, and we wanted to focus on who we are and what makes us Arcbees.
We didn’t want to copy other companies’ processes, and we didn’t want it to be a 2 or 3 person job. We wanted to involve every employee.
Phase one took a month and a half. We asked each employee to reflect on their values and what they seek as a person and as an Arcbees team member.
The biggest advantage is that the process of defining culture becomes a team project. On the other hand, the downside is the fact that everyone does not explain the same thing in the same way. So it took some time and a lot of back and forth to explain what we were expecting from everyone.
We sent the following guidelines to all Arcbees employees:
“In the past few years you have been working at Arcbees, and you have completed many tasks. We would like to invite you to participate in the process of defining our culture. We want it to reflect who we are and we want to include everyone’s opinions.
We would appreciate it if each of you, on your own, would define 4 to 5 values and to explain each one in 2 or 3 sentences.
The purpose of the explanation is simple. Not everyone thinks the same way and the same word can have different meanings. That is why we ask you to define what you mean by the values you list.”
The results were outstanding! We were really impressed by the ideas and the commitment of our team to the exercise. One of our colleague even sent it in Rot13, which is the most creative and geeky way we received it. They all agreed to play the game, understanding this was their opportunity to express their feelings, and explain what they want and expect from working at Arcbees.
The hard work began when I received their emails. I had to gather the information and merge the many different explanations into one coherent set of values. When you are working with various people each with their own expertise, role and personality, you sometimes have to dig down a bit to find the real intent or real issue behind their explanation.
For example, some people had the same definition for “freedom” and “autonomy”. It was sometimes a bit hard to explain what we were expecting because some people were focusing on the company only, so it was missing a bit of their personal.
When you do this kind of exercise and it works, you notice the similarities in thinking really quickly and choosing the one you want to commit to become crystal clear.
After reconciling the explanations, I came up with a list of values that from now on will define Arcbees Culture.
This list of values is an extract from our culture which is still a work in progress.. We’ll blog about that as we work on it, so you can keep tabs on our ongoing commitment to our culture.