In the start-up years of my company, Vanderbloemen Search Group, we had a great staff culture, and it was easy to maintain. Our team was small, we were aligned, and we collaborated on everything. Our culture happened spontaneously, and we all loved coming to work every day. But, as every entrepreneur knows, it’s difficult to maintain that start-up culture as your company grows. I knew I needed to be intentional about our culture, and I knew that it needed to be scalable.
For the first couple years of the company, we were in what I affectionately called The Frat House. Our office was in a house a block from a university, and we got really creative with how many desks we could fit in each room. As we grew from 2 to 5 to 8 employees, it got to the point where team members had to go outside to have a semi-quiet phone conversation.
So when we moved into our second office location around the corner, 5,000 square feet felt enormous. We had intentionally designed it with a few empty desks thinking it would take us a couple years to fill them. Within six months, those desks were full, and our new office building began to feel crowded, and rapid growth made our tight culture something I set out to cultivate and protect.
Fast forward five years to our third office space and 30+ employees later, becoming anal about protecting our company culture has paid off. Our Vanderbloemen team was just named #5 Top Company Culture in the nation by Entreprenuer.com and #3 Best Place to Work in Houston by the Houston Business Journal.
So how did we do it?
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We certainly faced our fair share of challenges to our culture. We moved office locations. Our team grew exponentially, with each new hire potentially changing and impacting the culture. We experienced our first couple of tough firings of staff members. How did we maintain our amazing team culture as we exited the start-up phase?
The key was intentionally establishing systems. Here are a few things we learned to help you build systems to maintain and protect your workplace culture.
- Appoint one person to “own” it.
Systems are not my forte. Three and a half years ago, I asked one of our team members to be our “Culture Whip.” A natural organizer, she had a strong hold on our staff values and my vision for our culture, and she was also gifted in creating and implementing systems. She recognized the importance of building and protecting our culture. Then, I let her run with it.
Choose the person you want to really own your culture and create systems for it. Make sure they have a strong handle on the culture you have – or want to have – and that they’re excited about building and fostering it.
- Establish core values & reinforce them.
If you don’t have established core values for your organization yet, stop reading now and set up a brainstorming meeting with your team to create them. If you’re like many other companies, you have staff values in place, but you don’t have a system to reinforce them regularly.
Here are a few things my team does to keep our values constantly in front of our team:
- Send out a weekly email focused on one core value
- Design a plaque or sign of your values to sit on each employee’s desk
- Highlight a team member living out a value in each staff meeting
- Put your values on your conference room walls
- Conduct your staff reviews based on how your employees are living out your team’s values
Vanderbloemen Values Wall
- Schedule & budget for culture.
Your appointed Culture Whip can then work with your leadership to create a yearly schedule and budget for your staff culture. As your team grows, events and outings can’t be spontaneous any more. If you value your team culture, you’ll budget for it. Our company does one staff-wide event per month, and our individual teams also have a budget to plan one team-specific event a month.
Plan events that reinforce your organization’s core values; for example, our team has a core value of “Unusual Servanthood,” and to that end, we have a yearly necessities drive for the displaced in our city. We also have a staff value of “Contagious Fun,” which we celebrate often through our yearly Chili Cookoff, Office Movie Night, and Valentine’s Cheese-Tasting, just to name a few. One additional hint: plan some events/small gifts that are surprises to the rest of your staff, like funny temporary tattoos or an ice cream sundae bar.
- Hire & onboard for culture.
I’ve written about hiring for culture before, so let’s focus on onboarding for culture. Once you have a great company culture, the best way to preserve it is to achieve total buy-in from new hires. As I’ve said, each hire can make an impact on your culture, so from day one, make sure you’re teaching your new employees about your culture.
Our Culture Whip created an automated email workflow for onboarding our new team members, something you could do with any email service your company uses. In your culture onboarding, include your values, vision, photos of your staff members at past events, team inside jokes, and a reading list that supplements your company values. For example, one of our company values is Wow-Making Excellence, so the books The Nordstrom Way and The New Gold Standard are on our reading list for new employees.
- Remember that culture happens from the top down.
Last but not least, you cannot delegate culture-building and then forget about it. Culture always starts and ends with the leaders of an organization . If you have a toxic team culture, you should look in the mirror. As the leader, always stay involved in the staff culture. Be the biggest champion of your core values. Attend every event. If you don’t set the tone for the culture you want or participate in all the team events, how can you expect great culture from your staff?
Culture is a buzzword in the business world, because people are learning that having a great staff culture is extremely valuable and beneficial to the long-term health of the company. But not all of us know how to get there practically. If you lead a company, you’re extremely busy, but putting the time, effort, and budget into building and improving your staff culture will yield great results for your organization. As someone who has seen it firsthand in both my own company and in the hundreds of teams I help with staffing, I guarantee it.