Why You Don't Need to Work So Hard On Your Company Culture

Published: November 10, 2015

I know a lot of companies that are very proud of their culture. They talk about perks like “beer Fridays” and fun company events that get everyone together for fun and camaraderie. From the outside, these perks can seem like great ways to keep team members happy and make your company a fun place to work.

In many cases, this does have the desired effect. There are plenty of companies that use food, events and other structured perks to create a great company culture.

Too often, however, I see these things overshadow the perks that team members actually want and in some cases, they can actually damage your company culture.

Structured events and pressure to conform to cultural expectations can sometimes have an effect that is opposite of what is intended. Too often I see organizations take a “top down” cultural approach rather than a “grassroots” approach. I can’t really blame them. After all, how many times have we been told that we have to intentionally create company culture (hint: a lot)?

In my experience from leading a team of people for two decades and from working with and studying hundreds of other organizations large and small, I’ve seen the truth about what employees really want and what really matters to them.

A top-down cultural approach tends to feel very forced to a lot of employees. Not everyone loves to go out to baseball games. Not everyone loves to drink beer on Fridays. Not everyone loves to play ping-pong. These things individually are not bad things. Some people love them. However, when they are sewn into the culture of the company in a way that pressures people into participating it can be detrimental to their happiness.

Too many organizations make their employees work long hours tied to an office and then attempt to make up for it with fun events and outings or happy hours that they are expected to participate in. This doesn’t make up for it. All it does is keep employees away from their families and friends for even longer.

So what do employees actually want? What truly makes them happy with their jobs?

Sincere Respect.

One of the most important “perks” you can give a team member is respect. Respect means listening to their ideas. Respect means remembering to conduct consistent performance reviews to keep them in the loop on how they’re doing. It means asking them what they think.

It seems super basic but a lot of CEOs (including me sometimes) fall short in this area. They charge full steam ahead with their ideas and plans and forget to involve their team members in decisions.

While I’m not perfect, I make an effort to think about how every single decision I make will affect my team. I ask them for opinions. I listen to what they think. Team members value feeling respected a lot more than free beer.

Freedom.

This is the one that makes most CEOs heads explode. The best perk you can offer your team is freedom. Freedom means not imposing a work schedule on them. Freedom means letting them work wherever they want. Freedom means throwing PTO out the window and letting them use their own best judgement about time off.

Most companies require people to work in the office during business hours and they track time off against a bank of PTO hours. Just recently I heard someone talking about how he asked his boss if he could leave at 4:30pm one day a week so that he could attend a church-related function and was told “no” by his boss. Unfortunately this is the norm and it makes my heart sink.

If your team members are getting their work done then it doesn’t matter when they work. If they are meeting their goals then it doesn’t matter where they work. If they are keeping your customers happy then it doesn’t matter how much time off they take.

Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around how this can work, but we’ve been doing it at SpinWeb for years. When you tell your team members when and where to work, you are failing to acknowledge that they are intelligent adults with common sense.

If you let go and trust your employees to make good decisions that keep the company’s best interests in mind, you don’t have to worry about schedules and PTO. Your team will manage themselves. And if you don’t trust them with this kind of responsibility then they probably should not be working for you.

Employees value freedom, trust and being treated like adults more than just about any other cultural perk you can think of.

Supporting Their Priorities.

Your team members need to know that you understand their priorities and that you share them. For most people, they want more time with their families.

If your culture relies on happy hours and outside work events, you may be in conflict with what your team members really want. They want to go to their kids’ basketball games. They want to be able to take care of personal errands during the day (see previous section: “Freedom”). They want to be able to take their kids to the doctor without having to ask permission and feel guilty about it. They want to be able to take a reasonable amount of time off when a new baby arrives.

It’s OK to expect that team members have loyalty to the company. It’s OK to expect them to work hard and make the success of the company a priority. But it’s also important to know where to draw the line.

Your employees have priorities just like you and their families come first. This is the way it should be. One of the best “perks” you can give them is demonstrating that you support their priorities. Asking them to put the company first (even inadvertently) is unrealistic and disrespectful.

Empowering a Grassroots Culture.

If you focus on the things that team members truly value, you won’t have to worry about “creating” a great culture from the top down. Your company culture will be created by your team.

When team members feel respected, have complete freedom to work the way they want to work and feel that the company shares their personal priorities they will flourish in ways you never would have thought possible. They will innovate and produce like never before.

Try letting go of the top-down culture mentality and focus instead on creating an environment in which your team feels safe creating their own culture. They will work together to create the culture that they want, and that is the path to true employee happiness and loyalty.