Nowhere do first impressions count more than with work culture. When candidates come by for that crucial in-person interview, the culture they experience dictates whether or not they look elsewhere. When workers hang up their coat each morning, the environment they step into influences their productivity. Especially on young teams, culture is meaningfully tied to turnover, absenteeism, productivity, morale, and even company growth.
The good news is that a tight-knit culture comes naturally during the startup phase. Employees who get in on the ground floor are often happy to work long hours toward goals they’re passionate about.
As startups grow, their sense of unity and closeness tends to decay. But the solution isn’t to strangle growth; it’s to scale that culture along with the company.
Scaling Culture Through Collaboration
As teams grow and are siloed into departments, employees’ sense of connectedness blurs. As management layers are added, workers may feel further removed from the company’s original mission. Communication and collaboration suffer.
As with most initiatives, the answer to a thinning culture is teamwork. To keep your culture healthy and thriving, consider these four collaboration strategies:
1. Hire for complementary character.
To improve engagement and retention, hire people who fit with the culture you’re trying to maintain. The trick isn’t to hire people who are exactly like you and your teammates; it’s to bring in cooperative people whose character complements the bases you’ve already covered.
If you’ve got a bubbly, extroverted salesperson, perhaps a contemplative marketer is a good match. Collaborative teams need multiple perspectives to draw from.
As with culture itself, first impressions are key. Jot down notes from that first interaction with the person so you can share it with the wider team: Did a candidate come across as a go-getter with a sharp sense of humor? Did she seem honest and helpful?
If the candidate gets the green light from you, bring in a few trusted team members for the final interview. Make sure their first impression matches yours. To encourage genuine responses, tell each person to write down his or her take before sharing it with the wider group.
2. Balance formality and fun.
Even if you hire well, everyone has a different idea of how formal work should be. To salespeople, going to happy hour may feel like part of the job. But if marketing is filling out forms and logging every task, friction between the two teams is bound to develop.
People in different roles operate in different worlds, each with their own goals and discipline-specific jargon. Start with what you share: your purpose and values. Remind everyone why they do the work, even when working together is challenging.
With that sense of unity, start to dig into the processes that get you there: Is swapping memes important to team morale? Perhaps it should be codified as part of your culture. Does logging each project accurately in a spreadsheet keep stress levels low? Do that, too.
Your team has to be both happy and productive. Decide what processes you need to get there, and put them in writing for everyone to follow.
3. Create opportunities for employee connection.
If high-profile projects are the only reasons your workers interact with others outside their team, they’re likely to associate those people with stress and frustration. To avoid this, create opportunities for cross-department engagement.
As much of a buzzword as it’s become, team building still has an important role in your company’s culture. To bridge the gap between departments, CRM provider Ontraport puts together employee peer groups that meet on a regular basis. Regularly exposing employees to others’ perspectives and challenges fosters empathy, making it easier to work through obstacles together when they arise.
Plan extracurricular activities — like lunch-and-learns, volunteering, or even laser tag — involving two or more departments. Give employees the opportunity to get to know each other outside of their roles at work.
4. Celebrate wins together.
When a whole-company project draws to a close, it’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief and move on to the next. Build a sense of camaraderie by taking the time to celebrate those accomplishments, big or small.
A company celebration doesn’t have to be an all-day event or an expensive bonus. Think outside the box. Some of the best ones are free and collaborative. To people nominated by their peers, Stoneridge Software gives “Stoney Awards,” including “Most Likely to Leave a Whiteboard Dirty,” and provides periodic bonus holidays.
Encourage employees to congratulate each other. Distribute company-branded thank-you cards to everyone, not just managers, and challenge everyone to give them all out by a certain date. Tell people to focus not just on outcomes, but also on effort and intention. A sense of appreciation is contagious.
As you grow, you can’t save everything that’s great about being a startup. But no matter how big your company becomes, you can always be a place where people want to work together. And when a candidate or employee walks in and sees that on a Monday morning, it makes all the difference.
Check out my website.
Serenity Gibbons is a former assistant editor at The Wall Street Journal. The local unit lead for the NAACP in Northern California and a consultant helping to build diverse workforces, Serenity enjoys gathering insights from people who are creating better workplaces and making a difference in the business world.