More and more companies, including startups, are taking company culture seriously in the current business world. Company culture might not seem important when there is a team of 5 employees but startups can scale quickly to 20 employees within a short period of time.
And if you are not intentional about company culture from the beginning as a founder, you will easily lose control which can lead to bad hires, employee gossip and a toxic working environment. Life in a startup is dynamic and moves very fast so it is important to set the foundation aka startup culture the moment your idea turns into a business.
Startup culture is a set of shared values, thoughts and beliefs that shape how people work to reach the company’s goals. It also includes other factors like how well different teams work together and the employee experience. So how do you build a strong company culture?
Here are 5 steps to get you started:
1. Define your values
Values define the core of your company culture and impacts how you hire, fire and hold conversations who are not aligning with the values. Values need to be personal and unique to you and your company so it is advisable to consider these carefully.
For beginners, start with deciding on what type of environment you want to establish. And to help further identify the values, you might want to ask yourself these questions:
- What is your company mission?
- How do you want employees to behave?
- How do you want to help customers?
- What are your team goals?
These values need to be natural to you and when you create a list, try not to exceed 5 values because people tend to forget. When you create the values, they need to be clear and actionable.
2. Be inclusive from the start
When building your company culture, inclusivity needs to be addressed and nurtured from the start. If not, you might risk having a company that not only lacks diversity but also actively excludes people with diverse backgrounds from feeling welcome.
One good question company leaders should ask themselves is “How inclusive am I in my personal life?” because this will help you identify where you are lacking in inclusions and what you need to improve.
With this question in mind, it is important to review your hiring process and ensure it aligns with diversity, equity and inclusion best practices which include things like standardising candidate evaluations for recruitment and collecting data on internal diversity statistics etc.
Another important factor to take into consideration is to take the time to think through all of the human touch points at your company. It could be as simple as having a nursing room dedicated for nursing mothers or a handicap toilet for people with disabilities.
Think about the vibe you want to create in the office and the language you want people to use. Then work backwards towards how you are hiring and the backgrounds of people who typically come to your company.
Adopting true inclusivity needs to come from the heart and not merely just trying to enforce a declarative statement or sticking to a handbook. It is a constant ever-changing and transparent process with your employees.
3. Set an example from top down
Company culture is set up by leaders, maintained by employees and monitored by Human Resources (HR). Defining the company’s vision, mission and values is considered half the battle won. However, what really matters is the desired behaviour according to the vision, mission and values.
If the leaders behave outside the rules, employees will view the behaviour as untrustworthy and will not feel compelled to model the supposed values because the C-suite is already breaking the rules. A lack of trust breeds toxicity, resulting in a bad company culture, causing employees to feel disengaged and leaving the company eventually.
That is why the values need to be very personal to the company leaders from the start for them to set good examples. When employees see the company leaders behaving according to the set values, they will naturally follow suit.
Company culture is not built overnight and takes time so make sure that time is taken to train as well as help employees to assimilate the same vision, mission and values. Ensure that everyone is on the same page on what is expected of them, how the values will be used to guide the company and why they matter.
The “WHY” matters so when employees understand why the values are set the way they are and how important it is to uphold them, it encourages and fosters positive behaviour, building a cohesive and mission-driven culture.
4. Evaluate your culture regularly
The company culture you started might not stay the same when it grows as every employee that joins your company will bring in a new personality, new experience, new working style and new way of thinking etc.
Hence the culture needs to be evaluated on a regular basis to make room for these variables and see what needs to be changed to accommodate the increasing number of employees. Just like business strategies, what might have worked initially (flat hierarchy) may no longer apply when your company has grown to 50 people.
Additionally, remote work has become an expected norm for a lot of employees. If your company is adopting the hybrid or remote work model permanently, your culture needs to reflect this structure. This includes thinking through remote communications strategies, hiring strategies and activities to keep your remote employees engaged.
Polls can be done to keep track on what matters to your team and to check what is no longer working so you know where and what to improve. It also keeps the employees highly engaged as they are actively involved in shaping the company culture.
5. Choose kindness
EQ (emotional intelligence) matters more than IQ (cognitive intelligence). While establishing the company culture seems time consuming and complicated, the easiest step you can take to develop a healthy workplace is to choose kindness.
Empathy and support can leave a positive lasting impact on who will be your potential employees. These 2 attributes are a great indicator of what matters to the company leaders and company in general, making them an influential element in whether employees should stay in the long term.
Eg. Offering a job opportunity to a jobless, single mother with 2 young children. In the single mother’s perspective, your company’s job offer is a lifeline to her and because you chose to extend empathy and support in her time of need, she will put greater effort in doing her job well. Your company culture changed the trajectory of her and her children’s lives.
In summary, company culture in a startup is not just about the free flow of beer, team games and unlimited vacation time. It is about treating people right, with respect and equality. When done well, it can lead to transformation in the company and people’s lives.