Employee Culture

Building Company Culture from the Ground Up

In September 2021 Hadrian consisted of 7 people who could easily communicate via Slack. Sitting in the Amsterdam offices and the London workspace on the company Culture Day in February 2022, the company is almost 50 people. In breakout rooms on Google Meets mixed groups of developers, hackers, sales and marketing team members discuss the company values. There are jokes about whether or not someone should be named Chief Humor Officer, and surprisingly intense - though good-hearted - debates over whether private or public slack channels better support the value of Openness. These conversations and culture-focused days are key to maintaining the employee-led culture both important to a successful start-up but also a challenge to maintain as Hadrian scales.

Employee-led cultures have been shown to increase positivity, well-being and thus productivity in the workplace. Forbes writes that having discussions about the foundational values of a business can help company cultures feel more authentic and encourage individuals to put values into practice. By creating an environment where individuals feel like they are heard and valued, companies increase engagement. Engagement in turn increases productivity, with studies by the Queens School of Business and the Gallup Organization showing that disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism and 60% more errors and defects.

Employee-led culture can be extremely beneficial at a start-up, where rapid growth and a changing team mean that values and strategic direction are fluid. Sofia Verkhoturova, Chief of Staff at Hadrian, and one of the organizers of the Culture Days, emphasizes this point: “The nature of startups is that change happens quickly and frequently [...], therefore a culture that is imposed from the top-down won’t stick, because it may not resonate with changing team dynamics.”

Yet, the same fluidity and change that means a start-up can greatly benefit from employee-led culture, can also make that same strategy difficult to implement. “To scale culture development you need to be ready to tackle different challenges that come in different stages of the company’s development,” says Verkhotoruva, “there are different obstacles at 30 people, versus 60.”

One of the challenges is creating the interaction and dialogue necessary for including all employee-voices in developing company values and culture. Dialogue and discussion are essential to creating a company culture which feels inclusive and is truly representative of its people. In Harvard Business Review’s advice on optimizing the ‘wisdom of crowds’, asking many people for their opinions and then combining them to form an overall decision is key to getting to the best outcomes. A group of people is more likely to get something right than just an individual. UX/UI Developer Yujie Shan, mentions how discussion at the first Culture Day “deepened [her] understanding of the shared values” allowing her to realize subtle aspects that she hadn’t been able to articulate. However, decision-makers need to pre-commit to a strategy for combining opinions ahead of time in order to ensure a lack of bias in aggregation, and encourage employees to view discussion as constructive rather than fruitless disagreement.

As start-ups scale, facilitating this kind of inclusive discussion can become more difficult. Employees are less likely to know each other directly, and in a remote-first company like Hadrian, may have never been in the same room. “When we were 7 people it was very easy for everyone to be on the same page from strategy to operations,” says Verkhotoruva. “Hadrian at 50 people requires us to put more thought into vertical and horizontal information flows.” Verkhotoruva also describes how company culture can become self-reinforcing, by: “By championing communication as one of our values and deeply integrating it into our culture, we encourage our teams to improve their communication with practices that work for them.”

The other challenge Verkhotoruva discusses, is offering just enough guidance that discussion is directed, without overpowering the voices of employees. “The feedback we gather from our employees fuels the cultural guidance we try to foster,” she says. “For example, for the Culture Days, we will prepare a draft of cultural practices and values we’ve observed and then we will rigorously debate them altogether. Is it something we want to keep or stop doing? It’s an invigorating process and you never know what will come out of it at the end.”

Employee-led cultures have clear benefits for creating positive and engaging work environments where everyone feels included. “I think that having everybody’s opinion involved is indeed important to create a shared culture that helps people relate to each other,” says Shan, “shared values help teams stay more united. While learning to scale this approach to meet a rapidly growing start-up can be difficult it is a worthwhile challenge. By referring to the opinions of employees, start-ups can ensure commitment, organizational structures which are effective for everyone, and agility in values and direction.

Written by: Team

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