Workplace Culture Hacks From America’s Politest City

What Charleston, South Carolina, can teach the rest of us about hospitality and the art of creating a comfortable working environment.

In certain situations--like when someone tries to compensate you for returning a lost wallet--the polite, socially acceptable thing is to refuse. In South Carolina, however, where hospitality runs deep, refusal is futile.

That’s why I’m standing on the back patio of the Charleston Children’s Museum with a free margarita “mocktail” in hand, a “#SiliconHarbor” button on my lapel, and a tote bag loaded with swag, while the 40th person in a row compliments me on my pocket square. A cheerful pedicab driver has just chauffeured me from my hotel downtown, where my lunch appointment paid for the meal before I even noticed. I’m about to have dinner with a dozen startup folks who have made sure to include a vegetarian option--braised cauliflower cut into a spiral--just for me.

I’ve yet to open a door for myself since my arrival to the city several hours ago. And everyone keeps calling me “sir.”

All this generosity is not simply because I’m here from New York to speak at Charleston’s first annual DIG South tech conference; it’s how this town, which has been repeatedly named the U.S.’s best-mannered city, operates. Clearly, there’s something genteel in the sweet tea.

The surging number of startups in the area must be guzzling the stuff: Culture is top priority in the local tech scene. In fact, two of the biggest startups in town build solutions that help companies keep employees happy. BenefitFocus, a 700-person company with clients from Groupon to the State of Maryland, helps corporations manage employee benefits, from health care to retail discounts. Just down the street, a startup called PeopleMatter helps service-based companies manage hiring, training, and employee scheduling--so workers can see their hours and learn their jobs online.

“We have a tremendous quality of life,” says PeopleMatter CEO Nate Dapore of both his city and his company. “That is a tremendous asset.”

So Charleston's startups got me thinking: How do you turn your own company culture into a “tremendous asset?” Here are a few clever cues, courtesy of the good folks of Charleston (and elsewhere, since these guys are nice enough to admit they don't totally corner the market on great ideas):

Grant every employee hiring veto power.
Company culture starts and ends with people. That’s why Charleston-based Sparc, a software development shop, lets anyone--from executives to interns--shoot down potential hires for any reason.

”We hire for culture first,” says Sparc CEO Eric Bowman. The interview process typically requires candidates to spend time working with the teams they’ll be sitting next to. Then those team members get to vote “yay” or “nay.”

Nothing’s worse for company culture than having to work with people you can't stand to be around. If you want employees to show up every morning excited for work, they’ve got to be delighted to see every person in the office.

Author Bob Sutton calls this the No Asshole Rule: Given the choice between talented jerks and less-talented people your employees can get along with, pick the nice ones. It’s obvious advice, but as leaders, it’s often easy to see prospective hires in terms of numbers and productivity, rather than cultural impact. Letting your own team pick who to work with not only addresses this problem, but it is great for morale.

Make vacation mandatory.
Boston-based Hubspot not only has “unlimited” vacation days, but requires every employee to take a minimum two weeks of vacation every year. Instead of dreading the “vacation policy” question in job interviews, they impress potential hires by telling them they have to take time off.

But what about employees who abuse “unlimited?” The secret is, at companies with great culture, it rarely happens. Good people tend to not want to disappoint managers who treat them well.

Sanity is important, and vacation is good for sanity. But just as important, employees who understand that you think people are most important are likely to work hard and evangelize your company.

Make continuing ed fun, challenging, and creative.

Sure, jobs can be demanding (especially at a young company), but difficulty of assignment doesn’t automatically translate to unhappiness. Culture only starts to sour if employees don’t feel as though they’re moving forward. “If things are hard and I'm not growing, I'm printing out my resume," says Sparc Chief Evangelist John E. Smith.

Hubspot’s Dharmesh Shah (disclosure: an investor in my company), writes, “Any employee is allowed to take someone out for a meal that they feel they can learn from. No limits.” On the company’s dime.

Charlie Kim, CEO of New York-based NextJump, maintains exceptional company culture and a high employee retention rate in part due to an emphasis on continued learning. In particular, he helps match his employees with their dream mentors. A recent employee, for instance, was interested in gamification, so NextJump hooked him up with author and Gamification Summit founder Gabe Zichermann for some coaching.

At Contently, we host a monthly, optional, book club. If you want to read the book, we buy you a copy. At the end of each month, the team gets together to discuss and debate over dinner. We pick books that make us think, challenge our preconceptions. Learning together brings us together.

Other companies offer to pay for any SkillShare or Udemy classes their employees want to take, regardless of the subject matter. It’s a small thing to do to engender loyalty, and for many people, a little personal growth is weightier than a little more salary.

Relocate the team--even temporarily--somewhere awesome.
Every year, Holstee, a New York-based sustainable-product company and social network, ships its team to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a month. Not as a typical retreat, but as a way to increase productivity and gain perspective.

“I believe every company is in itself a whole universe,” Holstee founder Fabian Pfortmueller says on the Holstee blog. “Spending a month in a non-familiar environment allow[s] me to see all our actions and ongoing behavior with some healthy distance.”

Oaxaca is one of dozens of cities that make up a global coworking network called The Hub, which offers workspace from Singapore to Bogota to Prague as an easy remote office solution for wayfaring corporate teams. The difference in office and housing prices between Mexico and New York allows Holstee to justify the cost of travel for all its employees--and it reaps big cultural benefits for it.

“It’s been awhile now since where you are physically matters,” says Andrew Green, founder of Charleston-based Mac accessories design company TwelveSouth. “Boundaries are erased. In an inspiring place physically, you work hard, you play hard.”

This is the same reason why Jonny Miller, cofounder of Maptia, moved his five-person company to a beach in Morocco, where, as he writes on Quora, “our ultimate 'culture hack' has been to blend Maptia's startup culture with our daily lives.” That means surfing, playing ukulele, and doing yoga as a team, then working hard together at a common cause.

Happy people are 30% more productive, 20% more creative, and sell 37% more, claims Sparc’s Smith. That’s an incredible lift for the cost of something as small as letting employees in on the hiring process or shipping them to Mexico once a year.

As a manager, Smith says, “it's your job to make your team members happy.”

Perhaps it’s that attitude, and a nice view, that make some workers--like those in Charleston--so frigging nice.

[Image: Flickr user Mark Roy]

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9 Comments

  • StronglyWrdedLetters

    I stopped reading when I read: "If you want employees to show up every morning excited for work, they’ve got to be delighted to see every person in the office." 

    Really? I'd like to know what company that employs more than three people has proven this theory. If you're delighted to see your coworkers every morning, you might need to ease back on the anti-depressants. I'd prefer to work with reasonable, intelligent people and for a company that doesn't expect you to work 60 hours a week in exchange for the occasional beer and wearing shorts to work.

  • MargaretMurrayPhD

    I worry that granting every employee veto power will lead the team to hire people who are already like them.  We tend to like people who think like us, especially before we really get to know them, so diversity could really suffer if you ask everyone to make a snap hiring decision.

  • Shatzy1

    You should come by SPARC and check it out then.  There is every type of individual personality you could imagine!

  • Patrick Hutchinson

    Margaret, that's a very good point.  As a SPARC employee who's involved in a lot of the technology hires that we've made, perhaps I could shed a little more light on the topic.  We absolutely do hire on culture first, we do typically include a shadow day as part of the interview process, and we do elicit feedback from as many of our team members as possible.  However, the veto process isn't quite as black and white as the article makes it seem.  In practice, no one is going to veto someone just because they're different. Exercising that veto would require quite a bit of conversation with anyone from the front-line hiring manager to the CEO.  While those conversations are welcomed and encouraged, it does make the veto a much more personal process then just some sort of secret ballot were anyone could be anonymously blackballed. 

    Have I seen candidates rejected based on a lack of culture fit or personality issues raised by one or more team members? Absolutely.  However, I haven't seen that power to veto being abused or misused.  As a company that prides itself on putting people first, things like this have a tendency to work out for the best.  As a company that also prides itself on being agile, if it ever stops working or starts being abused we'd adjust as necessary.  

    I know I probably sound like a corporate stooge here, but it really does work.

  • Leeroy

    Trust me when I say, you haven't worked at BenefitFocus....  It's run by @ssholes and the culture shows it.  However, they do put on a pretty facade.

  • Ex BF Engineer

    As an ex-employee of Benefitfocus (Software Engineer) - I have to say that I totally agree with Leeroy.  BF seems great at first until you realize that management is completely insane and lacks any ethics whatsoever.  Almost every bit of information they share with the public is a massive lie.  For instance:  Their new engineering building isn't new.  They've been using it for almost three years.  The 600 jobs it is going to create?  Most of them will be in India as BF outsources a lot of its dev work to ValueLabs in Hyderabad.  Don't believe the hype.