Culture club: How companies bring cool to the workplace

In the original British version of The Office, Tim Canterbury, the series' everyman character, remarks, "The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with. I mean, you don't know them. It wasn't your choice. And yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family. But probably all you have in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day." It's a particularly bleak moment on the show -- and the show is a great example of how a bad workplace culture can really kill any possibility for success an organization might have.

There is something of a stereotype that techies don't have the greatest social skills around. But when it comes to figuring how to get along with those people they spend eight -- or ten, or twelve, or sometimes more -- hours a day walking around together on the same piece of carpet, they actually seem to learn how to get along with them. Maybe they aren't as close to family, but for many of us, they become much more than just people we're thrown together with.

culture_0.jpgPhoto by: Dawn Endico/flickr

But how can you can make this happen -- in either a leadership role, or just as an ordinary employee? When I started talking to people for this article, I half expected to hear nothing but horror stories, but I heard from a lot of people who knew that they had a good thing going in their workplaces -- and who were eager to tell me how they kept things going that way.

A question of trust

One of the most common themes that underlay many of my discussions was trust, even though that word wasn't always used. Often, the level of trust that a company has for its employees comes out in the amount of freedom they're given to arrange their time as they see fit. Packy Anderson, a senior software developer at GridApp Systems, is pleased about the schedule flexibility he's afforded. "Since we pretty much work on our own, I'm able to set my own hours (within reason) and come and go as I please. Just this afternoon, my father came through town and wanted to have a late lunch. I knew that nobody would bat an eyelash at my working straight through until 2 p.m. then taking off for an hour and a half, because nobody's watching over me making sure I log a certain number of hours each day."

While some people might think that that level of freedom will inevitably be abused, people in engaged workplaces often end up working harder because of it. That seems to be the case at IBM, which got rid of formal vacation time a few year's back and lets employees organize their time on and off themselves. And Anderson notes that, after his late lunch, "I'll probably be here until 8 or 9 p.m. to finish up the work I would have been doing during that time -- but that's because I want to get my work done, not because I'm toiling away trying to meet a daily quota for time spent at my desk. Besides, I really enjoy what I'm doing."

Of course, trusting employees goes beyond just not keeping precise track of the amount of time they spend at their desk. You also have to trust that they have something important to contribute, trust that their ideas are worth consideration. As Carlin Wiegner, CEO and co- founder of CubeTree, puts it, "Everyone needs to have a voice." While companies aren't necessarily run like a democracy, he says that "crazy- good ideas can come from anywhere," and favorably cites Google's policy of giving employees time to work on projects they think are interesting. He suggests that employees use Twitter and other social networking sites to put ideas out there that could benefit the company.

Of course not every idea is going to be a winner, even from the smartest employees; but people are less likely to go out on a limb if they feel that any slip-up will torpedo their career. Theo Schlossnagle, CEO and founder of Web design firm OmniTI, says that at his company, "we struggle from the business level all the way down to technology architecture decisions to ensure that human failures have minimal business impact on our clients or ourselves. This provides a foundation to sustain a culture where employees can make decisions outside the shadow of fear that typically comes with failure ... Having a culture where employees can make an occasional bad judgment without fear of losing their job adds tremendous value to our company by developing experienced staff with significant domain knowledge."

It's the little things

Of course, a corporate culture isn't always defined by anything as high-falutin' and abstract as "trust" or "permission to fail." There are more concrete things that are important as well. It can be good, for instance, to assemble a team that has similiar professional orientations. GridApp's Anderson said that "I've worked in offices before where I was the only person who had ever heard of open source software"; he feels like he meshes much better with his current team, which includes committers to Perl and Linux projects.

And then there are those things that we've come to associate with dot- com excess, but which can really make a workplace fun for employees -- company outings, foosball, free snacks in the break room, and so on.

Of course, in tough economic times, these are some of the things that get taken away -- but CubeTree's Wiegner thinks that's a bad idea. "The first thing that happens in bad times is that the free soda gets taken away!" he says. This is the sort of small but very visible thing that panicked companies tend to rescind when times are tough, and he thinks that's a bad idea. Frivolous or not, little touches that make employees' days brighter are a big part of the culture as employees experience it -- and taking them away can be demoralizing all out of proportion to their monetary value.

Fighting the culture wars

If you're a CEO like Wiegner or Schlossnagle, you to a certain extent get to set the tone for your company's culture. But if you're an employee, how do you maintain the benefits of a company culture that's doing everything right? I heard one story that I'm not ashamed to admit that I found downright inspiring on this front.

John Nelson, is currently the manager of application engineering at LiveOps, a company that offers cloud-based contact center services. Nelson had disliked the fact that his previous job had seen a lot of silos, where coworkers ended up divided into mutually suspicious factions. In contrast, folks at LiveOps were very welcoming, and there was a strong culture of company barbeques, sporting events, holiday parties and the like. Even more intriguing was the fact that there was no real HR infrastructure organizing these events; they were managed (to the extent that they required management) by a self- selected volunteer group that called itself "the culture club."

Not long after Nelson arrived, LiveOps embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. This is exactly the point in most corporate evolutionary paths when that fun startup culture dies. But the new CEO and VP of Human Resources, both coming from eBay, saw what the culture club contributed to the company, and gave it a bigger role.

Redubbed Team LiveOps, the group not only helps orient new employees, and keeps an ear to the ground to see if there's problems arising -- for instance, when the company moved offices, they helped workers work out the details of their new commute and organized carpooling. And they still do the fun stuff like the barbeques and holiday parties as well.

Nelson's a team member now; the team includes folks from all the different departments, to prevent that siloing that he found so problematic at his old job.

Virtual culture

We've seen some ways that walking that "same bit of carpet" with a bunch of former strangers can be made not just bearable, but enjoyable. But more and more folks are working in entirely virtual ways, where the carpet is traded for an IM window. Jonathan Follett is president and chief creative officer at Hot Knife Design, a Web application development firm whose employees work in disparate locations and communicate on a day-to-day basis online. In this environment, any idea that your boss will be focused on when you're at work goes out the window; virtual culture "is more centered around the work, deliverables, and deadlines," he says.

But how do you get to actually know your coworkers beyond the work? Follett thinks that social networking plays a key role. "We get to know each other via Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. There's a large amount of personal and professional information immediately available on these networks. If you're a virtual worker, you use these tools readily and easily. Contrast that with a physically co-located team that doesn't communicate well, and you can see how a virtual team might be able to quickly develop a culture."

In some ways, this is a geek's dream, and not just because it involves computers. To the more introverted -- and yes, I think that term applies to a lot of techies -- letting others get to know you via social networking sites allows you to control what information you share, and how you share it. Plus the indirect approach is a little easier for shy types. It might not occur to you to strike up a conversation with your boss about his musical tastes, but if you worked with Follett and saw on Pandora that he liked electronic dance music, that might inspire you to discuss it with him.

Of course, there's nothing quite like the energy of dealing with team members face to face, and Follett says that his team does meet at coffee shops and client sites regularly. But the culture of the workplace of the future will be defined more and more virtually from here on in. The question is, can we preserve the good in the process? As those fighting the good fight at LiveOps showed, that's always up to you to decide -- but you've got to work to do it.

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