Culture can be your less important task compared with all the priorities you are facing. But the truth is that culture is a strategic investment and will impact everything in your company. Culture will define your company's identity, impact your performance and team members' well-being, and play a big part in attracting and retaining talent.
Your culture transforms your company into a team. This is hard to define objectively and quite impossible to quantify, but the effects of a good company culture are not hard to observe. A strong culture is what will turn your team from a group of individuals to a team aligned, it's what will enhance and ease good collaboration and communication, and it's what you will experience when everyone is worried not just about reaching individual results but also collective goals.
In this blog post, I will walk you through the steps to build the best company culture.
I will help you figure out how to define what kind of culture you want to implement, how to hire to make this job both feasible and easy, how to develop the feedback loops that will help you make the process self-replicating and sustainable, and, last but not least, how to lead the entire process.
1. Define Your Company's Way
You're probably wondering what we mean by a company's "way", right? That's the simple expression we use to discuss our existence's purpose and the unique way we achieve our goals. It is an overview of the Mission, Vision, Core Values, and Principles that guide us all along the way.
A clear company way means that everyone in the team knows where we're going, how we work, and what success looks like. It will also help the team make trade-offs, make better decisions, and prioritize.
It must be reviewed from time to time. If you're leading a small team, involve everyone in defining and reviewing your company's way. That's something we discuss at least once per year during our retreats. Below are some questions to help guide your minds during this process.
The Mission is the fundamental reason for the company's existence.
- Why do we do what we do?
- What's our purpose?
- What is the cause we're working towards?
- Why does the company exist?
- Why do we get out of bed every morning?
The Vision describes what we're trying to achieve. It's a clear goal to guide the team.
- What would we like our team to be known for?
- What would we love to see our team accomplish in the next few years?
Core values (subjective how)
The Core Values describe our deeply held beliefs.
- What's important to us?
- What brought us all together and continues to hold us together?
- What will help guide us when we are facing a difficult decision?
- What parts of our company are we proud of?
Principles (objective how)
Values and Principles may seem the same, and they are firmly connected, but there's a difference. Values are subjective and provide a sense of direction, while Principles are objective and they define our daily behaviors.
- What behaviors are never to be tolerated?
- Conversely, what behaviors should always be encouraged?
- What qualities do we value in employees?
Simon Sinek's book Start With Why inspired this step and its structure.
2. Hire The Right People
We mean more than just the most qualified or the most skilled. We mean the ones that are right for you.
Every person you hire will impact your team and your company culture. And that's why at Subvisual, we invest in our hiring process (and try to involve the whole team). Yes, the process may be longer than the candidates would like. Still, we try to explain the entire process from the beginning and actively listen if they need a quick answer (we try to balance efficiency and the time we need to make an informed decision).
We don't have a long list of criteria; we only try to ensure an alignment between the candidate's values and ours. Not that we're looking for clones of our team members, we believe diversity is a strong resource, but it is crucial to have a cultural fit (otherwise, the person and the company will not get a good experience). We believe hiring curious people with a growth mindset will make a difference and positively impact the company and its culture.
And we also believe in growing the team sustainably. So even if we have a lot of leads with interesting and urgent projects to develop, we don't hire to be able to accept those projects (fortunately, we have a list of great partners and freelancers we can count on for these occasions).
In summation: never rush a hiring process, and don't underestimate how much the right cultural fit matters.
3. Create a continuous learning environment
Hiring people with a growth mindset isn't enough. You have to create the right conditions and incentives to ensure your team is learning and evolving.
At Subvisual, we started by organizing Friday Talks - a safe space and a playground available to everyone in the company to share a topic they are learning about (since we believe the best way to consolidate knowledge is by teaching or sharing it with others).
And we also have 20% of our time dedicated to Investment Time - a time to invest in ourselves, our company, and our communities. By "ourselves," we mean doing something that interests us and will impact our role in the company, like learning a new programming language or reading a book about a topic we want to learn. By "investing in our company," we mean creating new processes and ways of becoming better at what we do since improving something will also mean going through a learning journey. And, finally, "investing in our communities" like organizing conferences and meetups (as we've been doing with Braga.Blockchain, RubyConf, and MirrorConf, among others), contributing to an open-source project, or working on a pro-bono project. All these activities will not only create an impact on the community but also will contribute to personal growth.
Keep in mind that's what works for us, and it's not necessarily what's suitable for you or your company. They are just two ideas. There are many ways to create a safe learning environment; the best one is specific to your team.
Be curious, listen to your team with an open mindset and without judgment, and create this continuous learning environment together.
4. Frequent Feedback & Radical Candor
Ensuring everyone in the team receives feedback is crucial for better company culture. It is part of every effective learning process, can motivate and improve performance, and, most importantly, will allow everyone to increase their self-awareness.
At Subvisual, a simple process (Peer Review) happens every quarter where all team members share a personalized form and ask for feedback from different team members. We believe anonymous feedback can breed a culture of distrust, and that's why every form starts with the question "who are you".
There are a lot of different ways to create continuous feedback. Still, the most important is ensuring alignment regarding what's expected from the person who receives and gives feedback. Below you'll find the principles that guide us through this process.
If you're receiving feedback:
- Keep developing a growth mindset - accepting feedback will help you grow, and don't get defensive.
- Seek first to understand, and only then to be understood - sit and read/listen to what your mates want to say; they want to help you.
- Become a master of questions - asking good questions is your first step to receiving action-oriented feedback.
If you're giving feedback:
- Focus on the behavior, not the person - remember to share information about what they're doing right or wrong to accelerate their learning process and not breed conflicts.
- Stop bullshitting and be honest - feedback works well when providing helpful information to guide future learning. If your observations are too vague, it can seem that you are scared to get too deep into them.
- Put yourself in the other person's shoes - remember to have empathy when sharing feedback.
5. Create moments for team bonding
Team building and bonding have been unique challenges in the last few years. We moved from a remote-friendly setup to a fully remote operation during the pandemic.
That meant learning how to produce the same kind of effects in a very different way. The strategies used to encourage communication, friendliness, closeness, etc., in an office must differ when the team works remotely.
Here are some examples: We have a Slack channel dedicated to cooking challenges, where we share our recipes and photos of our cooking skills. We do this async. We created something called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, where we fill in some cards (we do it async!) about all our positive, negative, and dubious experiences and then discuss them in a call. These are just two examples.
The key is to continue experimenting and rolling with ideas. Some of our initiatives disappeared as social contact normalized after the pandemic, and others we kept because they made sense in our new dynamic.
Team building is important for more than one reason.
It builds trust, mitigates conflict, encourages communication, and increases collaboration. Effective team building means more engaged team members, which is good for company culture.
But it's not all about the interpersonal aspect. Team bonding activities have been shown to improve productivity as well. After completing team building activities, team members gain a more comprehensive understanding of each other's strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This increased awareness fosters more effective collaboration among team members.
Here are some of our favorite team-building strategies at Subvisual:
- Weekly call on Mondays - Casual session to share what we've been up to last week, our focus for the week starting, and share what we did during the weekend.
- Subvisual Morning every (end of the quarter) - We review our last three months and annual goals.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (middle of the quarter) - This is a forum to share and discuss any topic, question, or controversial issue.
- Two retreats/year - These have grown in importance since we're working remotely. They fill that void of human contact teams sometimes experience and help everyone get to know the people they work with.
- Celebrate successes, big or small - Even if it's just the end of a project, remember your team is made of people, and we humans need recognition for our excellent work. Make sure the team knows you're paying attention and appreciate them.
Now, there are plenty of initiatives we have already tried and abandoned. Some weren't successful, and some were great for a while and then lost steam. And it's totally fine. We've done game nights, cooking challenges, a water cooler channel on Slack,… and we'll keep iterating and experimenting.
Some of this may seem complicated to pull off with a remote team, but as long as you keep trying new things, you will find what's right for your team and your culture. Just iterate based on feedback and then maintain consistency.
6. Create autonomy and promote work-life balance
Autonomy in the workplace doesn't mean letting employees do whatever they want without guidance or collaboration. On the contrary, it's about acknowledging that team members are responsible individuals and everyone has their unique way of working. Creating an autonomous work environment requires empowering people to take charge of their responsibilities while offering support rather than imposing restrictions. It's essential to cultivate a culture that values respect, trust, integrity, and accountability rather than one rooted in fear.
To foster autonomy, enable your team members to tailor their work to meet their individual and unique requirements. Standardized approaches are likely to impact some individuals negatively. By promoting autonomy, each person can find the work-life balance crucial for maintaining their well-being.
Here's what we do at Subvisual to help our team be more autonomous:
- No schedules - As long as everything is delivered and shipped on time, everyone can make up their schedules in harmony with the people they are working with.
- Vacations and free time are limitless - Again, as long as everything is delivered and shipped on time and all responsibilities are taken care of with the team.
- We define DRIs for everything we define as important - Not only team leads or managers are responsible. Everyone takes care of their patch of grass.
- We trust our team - No micromanagement, ever. We check in regularly to ask how everyone's doing, and that's it.
7. Lead by example
Leaders who are reckless and inattentive will likely foster those same qualities in their team. If you don't respect the processes and don't submit yourself to the same kind of scrutiny and ownership that you expect from your team, they will follow your example.
If you're in a leadership position, you inspire and motivate others to follow a particular direction. Leaders who lead by example demonstrate their commitment to their values and principles by embodying them in their actions and decisions.
By leading by example, you can establish trust and credibility with your team, inspire motivation, and promote a culture of accountability and integrity, creating a positive and inspiring work environment.
Know your team
Actively open dialogues, with every team member, to gather their feedback and thoughts. Take advantage of social moments to build trust. Retreats, work sessions, and 1-1s are all good opportunities.
Expect nothing you aren't willing to give
Anything you do will be interpreted as permission to do the same. If you break any rules, no rules will ever be enforced. Take responsibility, and everyone else will take it too.
In a nutshell
Building a strong company culture is vital to any successful organization. Given our environment's dynamic nature, continually refining it is essential. This involves finding new strategies, asking for feedback, iterating, and always finding new ways to improve your company culture. Building a company culture you're proud of is about the journey, not the destination. 😉