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Company culture: it’s in the little things

Written by: Matthew Basford

Published on: August 30, 2017

Exploring an evolving formula for designing culture at work.

Company culture. Everyone talks about it, but what does it really mean? Some approach this question boldly, like Brian Chesky of AirBnB, recounting Peter Thiel’s main piece of advice: “Don’t fuck up the culture.” Others, like Jim Collins in Good to Great, talk about culture more systematically, as orbiting around two central concepts: 1) protecting the core, and 2) nurturing progress.

But despite the seemingly endless reams of documentation on culture you can find online, defining what organizational culture is and how it forms still somehow feels like trying to catch water with a fork.

Perhaps part of the reason is that unpacking the concept of “organizational culture” largely requires understanding why we do the things we do without thinking. Culture isn’t defined by a few sweeping statements about what a company stands for. It’s defined by our actions.

Netflix put it best when they said “our values are what we value,” and that the “actual values are demonstrated by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.”

I believe in that, but I would also challenge it to go further. Culture is in the little things. It’s defined by millions of micro interactions that occur each day at all levels in the organization.

Your company values aren’t only demonstrated by how you onboard new employees. It’s in the Slack app you use to bring different team members together. Your company values don’t only live in the stories you tell your clients. They’re found in stories you create among yourselves. Your company values exist in how you reward wins, but also in how you publicly share and learn from failure.

When designing a culture (which is a continuous process), there’s no micro interaction too small not to consider. Of course, you can’t control every communication, but you can lead by example in your own micro interactions and by creating a pathway for others to follow.

At Beyond, we’re working on an evolving framework, or formula, that helps understand and develop an organization’s culture identity. It aims to build a culture that aligns with a company’s values by focusing introspective attention on things that often go unnoticed or are potentially disregarded as trivial, and establishing pathways to develop these moments towards a greater goal. This framework is comprised of six guiding elements:

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Making these work for you could start as a series of questions:

Beliefs: Have we made clear our reason for being besides making money? What do we believe in so strongly that we’d fire a client for it? What behaviors does someone need to succeed in our organization, and why?
At Beyond, we determine goals through our company vision.

At Beyond, we determine goals through our company vision.

We’ve zeroed in on our overall mission: We use technology to help brands transform their business and the way they work. But we’ve also taken this a step further to integrate this mission into fabric of Beyond — sharing it with the whole company and developing brand goals and individual OKRs around it.

Routines: As an organization, what communication do we regularly disseminate daily, weekly and monthly to maintain alignment?

At Beyond, we follow routines that foster adaptability.

We purposely design our routines to support constant communication. This allows us to adapt quickly to new ideas. For instance, our meeting cadence regularly brings groups of varying sizes together to share information. In practice, this means daily team stand-ups to share individual progress, weekly and monthly company-wide syncs to re-align on goals, and regular post-mortems where we explore ways to improve our processes.

Language: What specific words do we use to describe what we do and why we do it? Is that language unique to us or generic?

At Beyond, we use language that underpins what we value.

You can’t control the language your employees use (and neither should you want to). But the language you lead with can impact how your teams tackle challenges. Our leadership consciously uses terms that reflect our values, like “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and “early apples.” As we use this lexicon in our daily communication, on our website, in our client-facing documents, it’s organically permeated all our interactions, from co-ideation to every 1:1 sync.

Celebrations: What’s so important to us that we acknowledge it in front of the whole company? A big deal won? Someone visiting from another office? Length of service with the company?

At Beyond, we choose celebrations that prioritize people.

Every win is driven by smart people who work together on hard problems to get results. That’s why we dedicate a portion of our weekly company meeting to “shout outs,” where team members can publicly highlight the great work of a colleague. Not only does this give visibility to great work, it reminds us to value what’s most important: each other.

Environment: How have we have designed our workspace in a way that amplifies our beliefs? How could we?

At Beyond, we design our environment for constant communication.

Our approach to work demands a high degree of trust between team members. We need to feel comfortable sharing ideas, seeking feedback and collaborating both visually and verbally. We design our offices to support this workflow — most recently for the new 14th floor in our NY base. Our open spaces, breakout areas with whiteboards for ideation and modular desks that flex to new team setups all work towards the same goal of making collaboration encouraged and constant.

Storytelling: What stories do we always tell people on their first day? What stories do employees always recount at social events?

At Beyond, we tell meaningful stories to inspire success.

Great leaders inspire with meaningful stories. Personally, I often recount the story of Beyond’s evolution: In just a few years we grew from two of us working in our sister company’s office, to a dark and dusty shared space in Soho, to three floors in Chelsea with spectacular city views. I tell this story to inspire every employee to still feel that hunger to grow — whether they’re the third employee or the 50th.

An evolving formula to culture design

When defining your own culture identity, this framework may help illuminate where intentional decisions have been made, and where things are just “the way they are.” This often reveals opportunity for change and to deliberately steer these areas towards how you want them to be.

Like our culture, our work and our clients, this framework is constantly evolving. We’re developing it as we go, building on what works and changing what doesn’t. For me, it’s work worth the effort because building a culture doesn’t just happen. You have to cultivate it at the most micro-levels of your organization.