When employees come in for their first day of training at Amazon, they are given laminated cards printed with 14 principles to help guide their work. This fact was recently detailed in a New York Times piece about Amazon’s “bruising workplace” ethos, bringing to the forefront a conversation about the value of company culture of all kinds.
But is having your company culture outlined on laminated cards only for corporate behemoths, or can smaller companies benefit from formalizing and fostering a culture too?
“Startups should think of culture like breathing — pretend your company can’t live without it, and chances are, it can’t,” writes Leah Busque, founder and CEO of Task Rabbit.
Small businesses may think a culture will simply emerge over time—and, probably, it will. But without forethought, that culture likely won’t be what you want. Busque says: “It takes hard work and foresight to develop and nourish a company culture.”
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you try to figure out what your company culture will be and how to formalize it.
Step 1: What are your company’s values?
Some companies offer company-sponsored happy hours or shortened work days during the summer and call it their “company culture.” But before you begin offering miscellaneous perks and incentives to your employees, you need to outline your company’s mission and core values. If those words— “mission” and “values”—already feel too corporate to you, then try responding to these two questions instead: What is your business trying to achieve? And how does it want to achieve it? Once you have answers, drill down to see how your approach to business might trickle down to your workplace culture.
Step 2: How do you communicate your values to your employees?
The people at your company will help shape your culture, and help communicate your overall values to new workers, customers, and vendors. That means that you should be figuring out if they are a good “culture fit” from the moment they walk in the door to interview for a job; don’t wait until after they’re hired. Your interview style and format, as well as the questions you ask, will all communicate a certain culture to the potential employee. Make sure your hiring process is aligned with your company values.
After you’ve hired an employee, it’s important that he or she receives a training or orientation that explains job responsibilities as well as the company culture. You can present this either as a mission-based statement, or as a series of ways employees should expect to act in the office.
At small businesses, there’s daily interaction between high-up bosses and employees. That means a laminated card isn’t enough to create culture. More important is leading by example. You can shout about your culture as loudly as you want, but if it’s not reflected in your actions, then it doesn’t matter. How the CEO and other leaders act matters a lot to the rest of the employees. If you’re creating a culture, you have to walk the walk. Don’t tell your team they can go home early if they see you on the clock after hours.
Step 3: Do your HR policies reflect your company culture?
Beyond the day-to-day, you can set an example by ensuring that official policies reflect your company’s values.
If you say that having work/life balance is important to your company, will you offer paid family leave for your employees? How will you determine pay raises and promotions? Will you celebrate employees’ birthdays? Offer them access to professional development?
The more aligned your policies are with your company values, the more they’ll truly aid the development of culture; one additional benefit is that you’ll earn the loyalty of employees who see that you’re delivering on your promises.
Step 4: Create a physical office space that promotes your culture
A lot has been written about the modern day workspace and how it can be updated to make workers happier and more productive. As a small business, you probably won’t pick a trendy address or architect for your office. Still, make a point to develop your space so it’s welcoming for workers who come every day.
“Creating a cool office space can and should reflect a company’s culture,” says Samantha Zupan, a Glassdoor spokesperson. “It can be a sense of pride for employees and an attractive selling point to recruits.”
The type of work done matters too. Do you want to encourage a collaborative culture? Then high-walled office cubicles probably aren’t the best move. Do your employees need focused, quiet time to focus? Then soundproof mini conference rooms might be the way to go.
The classic move for companies that want to seem hip is to install ping pong tables in communal areas. If you add table tennis to the mix, then push employees to play; on the other hand, don’t invest in games and break rooms if higher-ups are going to reprimand those who take breaks from work to play.
Step 5: What’s your communication plan?
You have great news to share—you just closed a huge order or filled an empty position. Or maybe the news isn’t so great—you have to make layoffs or a client is raging a social media war against your business.
How do you communicate the good or bad news to your team and the outside world? Do you make yourself available for questions and feedback? If so, do you do it one-on-one with your employees or in an all-team meeting?
How you handle this type of communication—both the happy and the hard—is a defining factor in company culture.
Step 6: How do you give back to the community?
Your business is not an island. The way you interact with your surroundings speaks volumes about your values, to employees, potential customers, and neighbors.
South Mountain, a small company of 34 has its own foundation and gives 20% of annual profits to local charities, community projects and pro-bono work, proving that a company of any size can make giving back part of their culture. But you don’t just have to donate money to help your community—you can offer free event for nonprofits or complimentary wall space for local painters to feature their work. Whatever you choose, just make sure it’s aligned well with your mission.
Step 7: As your company changes, don’t forget to let your culture evolve too.
If you’re a small business that’s growing quickly, it’s unrealistic to think that your company will have the same culture ten, or even five, years from now. So make sure to stay flexible and open minded about that evolution, checking in at least once a year.