There’s a lot of talk about “company culture” these days. Generally companies believe they have culture if they offer employees perks like Ping-Pong tables, Nerf guns, flex time or beer Fridays. But companies who feel they can create culture by simply offering frat-house-style perks, are missing a fundamental understanding of what productive company culture is.
You see, these perks are (and must be) a representation of something bigger. A productive and meaningful company culture knows that Ping-Pong tables, Nerf guns, flex time and beer Fridays are a byproduct of a company that fundamentally trusts and respects their employees to have these perks. A company that has formed a community of empowered individuals to work toward a larger goal.
The Company Community
If you are lucky enough to be part of a company that extends trust and responsibility to its employees you understand that the company must be bigger than any one person. The company is a community that requires all members to do their part so it may thrive. And not just in a “getting their work done” kind of way, but in a broader sense of supporting the overall team in individuals supporting goals that might not fall under their day-to-day tasks.
“We come together in our groups, in our companies, in our tribes, to feel like we belong, to be around people who believe what we believe so that we may feel safe. When we are surrounded by people who have our best interests in mind and we feel safe, we will organize ourselves and cooperate to face dangers externally.” –Simon Sinek
A company should be a community, filled with and fueled by trust and shared responsibility. With these things in place the community is self-sustaining. It will continually provide the inspiration that its members are all working towards something bigger than themselves or their individual job responsibilities.
The Secret About The Value of Perks to Employees
If you work at a company with perks like Ping-Pong tables, Nerf guns, flex time and beer Fridays, these are the things you tell your friends about to impress them. To show off what a cool company you work for. These may even be some of the things that attracted you to the company in the first place. But, once you have the job and you’re in the trenches you quickly realize that 95% of your time is spent doing work like everyone else does, and 5% of the time is spent playing Ping-Pong while drinking a beer and shooting a Nerf gun. The perks alone are not enough to influence how much an employee enjoys working at a company.
What does matter to employees however is the trust the company leadership displays by offering these perks. This says, as a company we trust everyone who works here to have these perks, we trust that you will use them responsibly and we trust that by offering these you will not only continue to get your work done but that you may even be able to get more work done thanks to the culture/environment we are providing. It’s all about trust and responsibility for everyone to pull their weight.
The True Test of Culture: When Push Comes to Shove
In boom times, perks are great and free flowing. And in these times, it’s hard to differentiate which companies are actually contributing to an overall trusting and responsible culture and which are just showing off because the money is flowing. The true test of this culture is when push comes to shove and the company hits some choppy water. When the company has a bad month or a bad quarter, what happens to the perks?
In tough times many companies will discontinue the perks, fold up the Ping-Pong tables and stop stocking the beer fridges. They will tell all the employees “we need to hunker down and focus on productivity for a couple months.” BOOM! That’s the moment you know your company never trusted you in the first place and the perks were a mere show, not a representation of a larger cultural understanding.
When companies pull the perks they are showing they believe the perks have actually been a distraction to employees that the company could afford to have in boom times. They feel by removing them, they will squeeze some extra productivity out of their employees. What this really says to employees is that they never trusted them to be responsible in the first place and they are now going to take their toys away. Showing total distrust that the employee could both have a beer and get a project done at the same time. Which of course hurts morale, motivation, and thus productivity.
In this instance the company has created a scenario where the employee is only motivated to work just hard enough to keep the company afloat. That’s the motivation they are given. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the perks should actually represent. Earlier, it was mentioned that these perks are a byproduct of a bigger cultural understanding, by removing the perks the company shows the culture never actually existed in the first place.
Surfacing The Takers: The Cost of a Culture of Trust and Responsibility is Self Interest
When a culture of trust and responsibility is created at a company it will require everyone pull their weight in keeping this culture around. When the majority of the company adopts this culture, it becomes clearly evident who has not. Those people are surfaced organically because they aren’t playing their part in supporting the overall community, rather they are taking from it and in doing so, threatening the culture’s existence for their own self interest.
The fear is there’s that one dude who thinks he can just play Ping-Pong all day instead of working, and that the company leadership will take away that perk because it was abused. However the community, in order to protect itself, will likely raise this as an issue before company leadership has to, because that dude is not playing his part in the overall community. This culture of trust essentially creates a continuous “give ‘em enough rope” scenario where the takers will hang themselves, and the true community members will just have a lot of rope.
When Hubspot co-found Dharmesh Shah was asked if a lot of employees abuse Hubspot’s unlimited vacation policy, Dharmesh answered:
“The reality is: No, people don’t abuse the policy — and yes, they do get work done. If we ever end up with an employee who abuses his or her privileges, I’ll know that we made a hiring mistake. I would rather fix that one mistake than put the burden on everyone else.”
The true cost of a culture of trust and responsibility is self interest. If employees only pursue their own interests, the community cannot survive. If leaders only pursue their own interests, the community cannot survive. If everyone works together, setting their own self interests aside, the company will thrive.
This is why it is direly important to be selective about who is let in to your community.
Who You Let In Matters
If you want to protect your community then you need to be very selective of who you let join. You see, culture and community are not things that all people care about. Some people just want a job. And that’s fine, but they won’t be good for your culture or community.
There are “core things” that are hard to describe but easy to identify when you’re interviewing potential new hires. They may have an impressive work experience or a stunning portfolio but smart companies will ask, how will this person impact the community we’ve worked so hard to build?
Great companies will turn away the most experienced and qualified candidate for the job because that person’s ego (thus self interest) might become a threat to the stability of the community. Instead great companies might hire a candidate with less experience who is a better cultural fit, because they know the candidate will thrive in your cultural environment and contribute to making your community better. In the short run, it seems touchy feely. But in the long run, it matters because some people are toxic and will hurt your culture. You’re not just interviewing that one person and his or her skillset, you are interviewing how that person will work with everyone else.
What Is Culture Really?
A brilliant ad man once told me that “Your brand is the thought in the consumer’s mind when they see your logo.” Think about that, it’s not your logo and anything visual at all, it’s the sum of the experiences that person has had with your brand to date that make up how they feel about it, what that brand stands for to them. That’s why the same logo can trigger very different thoughts in different people when they see it.
Culture works the same way, it is the thought in the employee’s head when they think about the company they work for and what it means to them. It’s indescribable in words, but we all know immediately what exactly it means and how it feels.