To be honest, my first office wasn’t much to look at. In fact, it wasn’t an office at all. It was my loft apartment in Vancouver. There wasn’t a fancy coffee machine or a foosball table or even a real desk to work at. But there was a rooftop patio – a little space where my tiny team and I could retreat to after work, to have a drink and admire the view. To this day, I’m convinced that that rooftop, and the culture it created, was one of the main reasons they stuck around.
The phrase company culture is used so often that it can feel like an empty buzzword. But culture is what inspires employees to come to work, and to work hard. It’s what differentiates you from all the competitors out there, selling the same products in the same space. It’s the extra gas in the tank that helps you weather the bad times and excel during the good times.
Some elements of culture are deep and sacred: the values and mission that underlie whatever it is you sell or make. Others represent a real – and important – investment: benefits and options plans, company retreats, sleek offices, etc.
But building culture doesn’t always have to entail a huge cost or commitment. In fact, some of the most powerful culture-building tools are essentially DIY hacks. Hootsuite now has around 1,000 employees and we help more than 800 of the Fortune 1000 companies manage their social media. Pretty much everything has changed since those early days. But one constant has been finding creative ways to cultivate culture, without breaking the bank. Here’s a look at some of the most effective tools we’ve found over the years:
The rooftop patio principle: After my first experience with a rooftop patio, I was hooked. My second office had one and, when we outgrew that, so did my third. These weren’t fancy spots, by any measure (and they didn’t add much to our leasing costs). But they did offer a space to retreat to that wasn’t a workspace. I think having this kind of safe zone completely changes how people interact and blends the lines between office and life (which is one of the real secrets of great culture).
The rooftops became the scene of impromptu lunches and after-work beers. They hosted parties and off-kilter competitions. They offered a refuge from the pressures of growing a company and a place to let off steam. I was reminded how important this principle is recently when our London office finally graduated to a new space with an expansive rooftop patio. Suddenly, they’re hanging out after work and gelling as a team. At the end of the day, just putting a keg beside your desk doesn’t make a party. A dedicated space can make all the difference.
The company that eats together, stays together: Food is a natural bridge builder. But company dinners, especially when you grow to a certain size, can get prohibitively expensive. Not to mention, when you’re stuck at a table it can be a challenge to mix and mingle, which kind of defeats the purpose. We overcame this early on with a pot-luck style strategy that brought together the joys of eating with the thrill of competition: the guac-off.
Our first guac-off in the company’s early years featured 11 competitors and three simple rules: no pre-made guacamole mixes; contestants have to prepare their creations live; and everyone has to have fun. Since then, it’s become an annual tradition. We’ve evolved different categories (authentic, fusion, freestyle, etc.) and on occasion added margaritas to the equation. Over the years, we’ve embraced other DIY food traditions, as well. Among my favorites: “rookie cookies.” New employees have the option of baking (or buying) cookies for their department. These are set out on their desk, which lures over the rest of the team for casual introductions throughout the day. It’s a low-stress way to meet new colleagues and informally onboard new hires.
Company clothes people actually wear: Lots of companies pump out piles of t-shirts, beer koozies, keychains, hats and stickers with their name and logo on them. This swag is then pawned off on employees, as well as customers and prospects. Nine times out of 10, it’s ugly, poorly made and discarded as soon as it’s handed out. We found that taking an entirely different approach can be an effective differentiator and culture builder.
For starters, we handed the creative process over to our own graphic designers. And we emphasized that the goal wasn’t to plug Hootsuite but to create t-shirts, hoodies, even socks, that people wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in. The result: company clothes that people actually want to wear, inside and outside the office. In fact, there’s always a backlog of orders for the latest designs. This isn’t a costly measure by any means. But putting a little style in your swag reinforces the feeling that there’s something special going on and something worth being part of.
The power of random coffees: One of the biggest challenges in fast-growing companies is silos. Imaginary walls spring up between departments. Before you know it, the sales team and the engineering team, for instance, feel like two totally different companies. They’re not meshing socially and – just as worrying – they’re not collaborating or exchanging information on projects. This lack of coordination inevitably hurts the final product and the customer’s experience.
This is a huge problem and there’s really no easy fix. But one hack we’ve discovered to at least break the ice is a random coffee program. Employees sign up and are paired with a peer – blind date-style – from another department. They then set up a time to meet over a coffee break. It turns out this can be just the nudge needed to open up a future connection with other teams. It’s not that people don’t want to cross departmental divides, after all: Oftentimes, it’s simply that they don’t have a space or a system to do so.
DIY parties are more fun: Company parties aren’t just a nice perk, they’re also a way to strengthen bonds between team members. But here’s the thing: gatherings for dozens – if not hundreds – of people can easily get cost-prohibitive. If there’s a restaurant or venue involved, even a simple event can break budgets. As a result, many companies limit themselves to just one or two bashes a year, despite the clear culture-building benefits.
Early on, we found a workaround, really out of sheer necessity: a DIY party concept we called Parliament. Each month, two departments would join forces to host a fete for the entire company, in the office. We’d give them a modest budget of a few hundred dollars and pretty much complete autonomy to design their dream party. We even added a competitive element: at the end of the year, employees would vote on the best bash, with winners getting year-long bragging rights. The result was a crescendo of increasingly creative themed parties: from a Mexican beach night to a disco-themed country fair and an ‘80s-inspired high-school homecoming. All of this may sound silly, but these Parliaments went a long way toward crystallizing and strengthening our culture as Hootsuite grew from 100 to 1,000 employees.
None of these culture-building hacks is especially deep or involved. And none of them will mean much unless a company already has a foundation in place: a mission, a commitment to employees, a healthy work environment. But, in many respects, a company culture is the sum total of the little things. It’s whatever makes someone excited to come to work at the start of the week, rather than indifferent. Creating this atmosphere doesn’t require a huge budget or elaborate perks, but it does require genuine attention and interest from management. Great cultures may be born organically, but to grow and thrive they need support.