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How to build a company culture that goes beyond free lunch and casual Fridays

Perks are fun, but they don’t equate to a long-lasting, positive company culture. Here’s what else matters.

How to build a company culture that goes beyond free lunch and casual Fridays
[Photo: Evelyn/Unsplash]

As a founder, there are two things I really appreciate: great company culture, and a great acronym.

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Coincidentally, an acronym I use for hiring also works for building a culture: ERIK (empathy, resilience, improvisation, and kindness). These are the core qualities I seek in the people I bring on board, and they’re also the principles on which all great cultures are based. If your culture runs on ERIK, incredible things can happen.

Your employees will wholeheartedly trust the person sitting next to them. Collaboration and productive experimentation will develop naturally. And no challenge will be insurmountable.

I really believe none of those statements are hyperbolic. Because, in business, a strong culture is like a secret weapon. But keeping a great culture intact is incredibly challenging. You have to be intentional, not only about building it but preserving it as well.

I’ve seen wonderful and terrible cultures during my career, and both have taught me a lot about what makes a great place to work.

ERIK is a good start, but the common thread among the companies I’ve seen that have the best cultures is the ability to communicate well, even in times of disagreement. Additionally, employees should naturally trust leadership and their coworkers—by default.

If a sense of trust erodes or constantly needs to be proven among team members, that’s a serious red flag. Trust is the foundation for solid company culture.

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I’ve worked at companies where internal competition was high and trust was low. In some cases, people would avoid even broaching issues for fear of it turning into an argument. In others, team members would engage in conflict, but in a very unhealthy way.

Every culture I experienced firsthand helped teach me what I did—and didn’t—want to cultivate at Tandem.

Hiring people with values that match ours has been instrumental in building great culture

Hire people who share your company values, and make no exceptions. Because exceptions to this rule are direct threats to your company culture.

If you’re the founder of a small, early-stage startup, you’ll be able to keep close watch over your company culture to keep it in check. But once you begin to scale, a lot of that responsibility will fall on management’s shoulders. At this stage, coaching and providing performance feedback become crucial to shaping and maintaining company culture.

This is where we’re at right now at Tandem. We built and maintained great company culture as we grew from 10 to 20 to over 30 employees. Now we’re working hard to keep it in place as we grow even more.

It’s impossible to carry every feature of your small startup culture with you as you scale, and that’s okay. Each new hire will bring their own influence to your company, changing the dynamic a bit. Embrace that, but make sure to never stray from your core company values.

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Periodically check in to make sure you’re maintaining the core aspects of your culture

This doesn’t have to be super scientific—just create opportunities to check the pulse of your company culture by speaking to employees in unguarded situations.

Twice a year, we conduct satisfaction surveys, which help us gauge how employees feel about the company, the culture, and their work overall. And on top of that, I personally have a one-on-one chat with each team member at least once annually. It’s very casual—we typically go for a walk or a coffee and chat about life, work, or whatever comes up.

Ultimately, we just want to know our team feels happy, fulfilled, and supported at work.

Perks alone don’t create a great company culture

Perks are great, and people appreciate them. But company culture cannot be built on free catered lunches and air hockey tables.

I know from experience. I’ve been at small companies with zero perks where I felt very happy and supported, and larger companies with great perks that just didn’t have healthy cultures.

I’d even go so far as to say that perks can become detrimental at a certain point. Because when employees become conditioned to having all their needs met by an employer, their motivation can become tied to those perks. Team members could become desensitized to their professional purpose and the mission of the company.

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In extreme cases, people’s identities can become wrapped up in their jobs. It’s concerning to hear stories about Google employees who were hired right out of college and don’t know how to grocery shop because everything they need exists at work. That kind of dependency is unhealthy.

We want people to have identities and lives outside their jobs

Overtime isn’t a thing at our company—you put in your 40 hours a week and go live your life.

Of course, people will break that rule and end up working more. But we do our best to track and discourage overworking. And when we notice someone putting in more than 40 hours, we consider it a sign there’s an issue: a project required more time than anticipated, our expectations are unrealistic, etc.

To encourage our team members to pursue their interests outside of work, we have monthly meetings where people present about something they’re doing outside of Tandem. A team member recently talked about fostering dogs—she explained how it’s enriched her life and how to get started if you’d like to do it too. One of our designers gave a presentation about her love of weaving and even brought in her loom.

Additionally, we encourage side hustles. We don’t believe 100% of our employees’ professional focus needs to be on Tandem. In fact, a number of employees freelance or work on their own startups nights and weekends.

That’s our company culture. What’s yours?

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I encourage every founder to carefully answer this question when building a company. Because, as the late, great business author and philosopher Peter Drucker (maybe) said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The truth is, no matter how great your business strategy is, if your culture is weak, your company will struggle. And, in a lot of ways, investing in culture is more important than investing in your actual business. Because with great company culture, incredible results will come naturally.

This article originally appeared in Minutes and is reprinted with permission.

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