Where Companies Get Culture Wrong and How to Fix It

After years of keeping management and HR departments awake at night worrying about how they’ll compete with Silicon Valley for top talent, the latest trend in the South Bay is cutting perks. So long free after-workout clothes washing service, all-you-can-bring company dinners, Friday open-bar, and house-cleaning services!

The news should induce a sigh of relief for anyone trying to attract talent that hasn’t received hundreds of millions in VC funding and isn’t yet considered the next unicorn. But in fact, this worry was a misnomer all along: companies didn’t need $25,000 to spend on perks for each employee, like Dropbox, in order to compete for top talent. For years companies have prioritized the accommodations of work rather than creating conditions that yield opportunities for the right kind of work. We’ve seen companies, particularly in the Bay Area, develop better lunch options just to keep up with competitors.

How did this escalating race get started in the first place? Companies were trying to create a culture that would attract top talent and ideally make them want to stay — but everyone got confused along the way because perks do not equal culture.

Culture isn’t just ping pong tables, Summer Fridays, or catered meals. It’s the shared reality in which work gets done: the sum of an organization’s behaviors, values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions, which brings stability and consistency. When culture isn’t defined or well-implemented, it plays out in the workplace. Overworked and burned out staff, friction in workflow, poor communication, combative teams, and disengaged employees are all symptoms of lacking company culture. And they produce mediocre results, which no startup can afford.

“Company culture” may be a popular buzzword, but this is where the benefit of a functioning culture becomes apparent. It truly defines the difference between high and low-performing teams.

So what does culture look like instead of perks?

Culture should be something internal and unique to the company that others can’t easily copy and paste. Consider what work feels like for employees and how the work gets done, i.e. how people work together. There’s a reason everyone wants to work at Pixar — it’s not because of the chef, it’s because they want to work with a group of people who have a shared sense that they all really care about what they’re doing.

It starts with thinking about the employee’s work experience and designing that experience to make people naturally engage on the job. Employees most commonly want the following from their work environment:

  1. To understand how their work impacts what the company does. Employees need a line-of-sight from their daily efforts to the effect they have on the world.
  2. A commitment to fairness among everyone, and a clear sense that the leadership team makes it a priority. People get out what they are putting in because the culture is one that works ever towards a meritocracy and democracy. No company will ever truly be perfect, but employees need to know their efforts will be squarely judged.
  3. There’s a concerted effort to train and contribute to the personal development of employees. People want to work at places where they’re going to level-up and learn from their peers or through training. In addition, a decisive effort to make time for providing employees feedback regularly versus only during yearly reviews, is essential.
  4. Lastly, autonomy has been proven to attract talent and motivate them to deliver their best work. We’re not talking about the right to hang out in the break room all day, but rather to determine what goals employees want to achieve, and how they’re going to achieve them. Studies have linked greater autonomy to increased job satisfaction, lower turnover rates, decreased stress at work, and beyond the office — increased longevity.

In fact, another study indicated that the real reason people want to be promoted is not for the money or the ability to tell other people what to do  —  they just don’t want anyone else telling them what to do.

If you want to try increasing your team’s autonomy, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Increased autonomy is often restricted for fear of a crucial task not getting done, or that no one will want to work on the hardest problems. Creating a “Roles and Responsibilities Board” can help clarify who’s doing what and keep everyone accountable.
  2. There’s no one rule book for developing autonomy within the team, and you may have to try a few systems to determine what works best for you. If you need inspiration, find out the five guidelines Buffer developed while experimenting with greater autonomy.
  3. If a few people aren’t fully participating, don’t let them spoil it for everyone else — instead, use these tips from “Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance” to encourage better behavior.

To recap: culture is what attracts and retains talent while creating high-performance teams, perks are not the same as culture, and anyone can offer a great lunch.

For more tools for building effective and efficient teams visit futureofwork.is.

Bud Caddell
Bud Caddell

Bud Caddell is the founder of NOBL, a management consultancy at the forefront of team design that’s on a mission to make the future of work universally accessible and immediately practical to help ambitious leaders and their teams unlock their potential.
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