Start-ups are renowned for having a great culture. Their agility gives them the ability to create cultural norms and values-aligned processes much quicker and easier than long-standing larger companies.
However, in periods of rapid growth, culture can quickly be put to the back of the list in terms of priorities. With the focus switching to new hires and hitting targets, values can sometimes get lost.
COVID-19 has reminded us all about the importance of culture and employee wellbeing. What tips and thoughts do today’s leaders have on culture, with this consideration, in terms of its importance and relevance to rapid growth?
Dan Ko, HR Manager, InfoTrack
At InfoTrack, we are fortunate to have grown rapidly since 2012, yet our start-up culture is at the forefront of hiring decisions. Our leading core value is “We care about what we do and the people we work with.” When recruiting new staff, our interview process consists of values-based questions and we hire based on cultural fit. When onboarding, our corporate induction covers InfoTrack’s history, values and initiatives that set us apart. From day one, new starters learn the collaborative nature of InfoTrack that, even during fast growth periods, has meant that we stay true to our identity and company values. We focus on employee development, so they grow while the business does.
During COVID-19 and the transition to remote work, we maintained key cultural initiatives like monthly company celebrations for individuals’ achievements. We implemented fortnightly open forums, allowing each department to share key wins and for all to engage in Q&As with the CEO directly.
Vicky Skipp, Head of APAC, Workplace from Facebook
Undeniably, there is an intrinsic link between both a company’s culture and their success, as the values underpinning a business directly impact the desire of employees to achieve their goals.
In times of rapid growth, it is vital not to lose sight of the principles that got you to this point. Constant communication becomes pivotal to maintaining your culture though vast change. Keep your employees front and centre and make sure you collate regular feedback to keep your finger on the pulse, particularly during growth periods when check-ins can fall by the wayside.
The pandemic has brought growth opportunities which have catapulted some companies five years into the future, not just in the way they connect with customers – but the way they engage with employees and even operate their businesses. One thing that hasn’t changed is what makes a company – the people that drive it. Always ensure they feel close to their workplace (or remote workplace) and know their employer has their wellbeing front of mind; only then will your culture survive and thrive.
Luke McLeod, Founder/Managing Director – Soul Alive
It’s understandable when things become busier, whether due to something good happening (growth of your business) or bad (pressure to perform if the business is struggling), that the importance of maintaining the culture in the business slips because there are seemingly more immediate and important things to deal with. But here’s the often forgotten secret. Any action taken will be done better if the person doing it has a clearer mind and stronger will. Therefore, maintaining healthy values and identity in the business should never be surpassed as it is the apex to performance and performance drives business. Exercises like personal values & drivers reflection time, team building, regular company-wide updates/future objectives and even right down to small things like group meditation classes can be the difference between you and your competitors or at worst, the business’s survival or not.
Drini Mulla, CEO, DEK Technologies
A good company culture involves loyalty, open and honest communication and providing an environment of inclusivity. DEK Technologies has 500 staff across four countries, so embracing cultural diversity and understanding is key. So is hiring employees that are a good fit for the business and retaining this talent.
We operate in agile teams, giving employees autonomy and a sense of control and freedom. Our employees have the flexibility to work remotely and the opportunity to work at our various offices which gives them additional experience and perspectives. When COVID-19 hit, we offered six weeks paid sick leave for employees that may have contracted the virus.
Our hiring process is transparent so that potential employees know what we stand for – an engineering company run by engineers for engineers. We work hard to make sure that staff have the right tools to do their job and are able to openly communicate how they feel.
Alison Haradcare, CEO and co-founder of Halaxy
At Halaxy, we’ve found that the key to maintaining a strong and positive culture is to continue doing the same things we did before the pandemic – but online. This means that Thursday team lunches have migrated to Zoom, as have all our scheduled meetings and other events. It keeps people together so that they can deliver together even though we are apart.
That said, I’ve also found that setting a specific time and place for COVID talk (in our case, there’s a dedicated Slack channel where I post relevant information once a day) is integral to being able to keep up to date but keep it separate from ordinary work, so people can continue to deliver without becoming anxious.
We’ve also established Slack channels to reflect the hobbies Halaxy employees have taken up during lockdown, such as cooking, crafts and woodwork to foster that sense of familiarity and collegiality.
Joel McInnes, CEO and co-founder, FlexCareers
Far from returning to the same kind of workplace we left behind in March, the pandemic will, for the foreseeable future, shift office culture to a hybrid model where half the employees work at home while the other half in the office.
This means that leaders and managers will have to make sure that people who are working remotely don’t feel excluded in any way. One way to do this is to make sure all meetings are held 100 per cent online, and another strategy is to create digital water cooler moments — an instrumental part of workplace culture which often results in serendipity and new ideas.
At FlexCareers, we have moved to a 90 per cent remote business model, and we’ve set up Slack channels (such as Friyay, a place for people to show gratitude for the good things that have happened to them that week) to humanise the work experience.
Weh Yeoh, CEO and Co-Founder of Umbo
For better or worse, the DNA of an organisation is very closely aligned to the DNA of the founder or co-founders. As an organisation scales, and new people come on board, there is a delicate balance between the old and the new. This invariably results in messiness.
At Umbo, our team grew from five people at the beginning of March to over 20 by June. We were adding more than one team member a week.
All organisations are driven by their values, and respect and open-mindedness are two of ours. Approaching fast growth with these values means that as new team members are added, we want to integrate their feedback into the way in which we operate, without completely giving up our original intentions. Clearly communicating that this is our approach, while expecting this from newcomers is vital.
Lindsay Brown, Vice President, APAC and Japan, LogMeIn
Culture is an invaluable asset that has the potential to make or break a team particularly during turbulent times such as a pandemic. It’s no coincidence that LogMeIn continues to be recognised in the annual Best Places To Work Study and it’s all due to intentionally cultivating a culture that projects our core values into everything we do.
Waiting for your culture to manifest could result in misaligned values and disengaged employees that impact morale and productivity. A good way of reinforcing workplace culture is forming a sub-committee dedicated to cultivating the lived experience of your culture and values. This allows our teams to engage with each other and the leadership team through a variety of media and events. This is particularly important in the digital workplace as many Australians continue to work from home and it provides real-time feedback so you can ensure your programmes are working.
Related: Let’s talk: Diversity
Jonathan Englert, Founder, AndironGroup
Most of our work involves high-growth startups, and I’ve been thinking about culture a lot these days as difficult times have made clear strengths and weaknesses that were probably always there. One of my takeaways from this has been simple: culture starts at Day One. Founders are the culture. Other team members come on board and for the most part they either share that culture or leave. Time acts on this and essentially clones the founders, multiplying the strengths and weaknesses. Founders can eventually leave, but their legacy is stubborn and not always easy to put a finger on. It exists in the structures that have been built, the ways of doing things, and the ways of not doing things. Culture in some ways is an unconscious thing that until you make at least partly conscious you can’t change—and even then it’s really hard. That’s why taking culture seriously and as consciously as possible at the beginning is so critical (e.g., determining your values and sticking to them)—and making sure, if you’re a founder, that the like-minded people who inevitably join you on your journey (and they will be like-minded because you’ve let them in) are capable of telling you “no” and not just “yes.”
Julia Poloai, Head of Culture and Talent at Clipchamp
Three key aspects of maintaining values while quickly scaling are: relevancy, frequent communication, and unwavering commitment. Values aren’t a set and forget – to scale, they need consistent reinforcement and meaning in a variety of ways, by multiple people across the organisation.
To continue creating great culture conversations, company mission and values need to stay accessible to all team members. At Clipchamp, we do this by building engaging, accessible content; reinforcing our purpose in regular meetings and at the beginning of each new quarter with every team; incorporating our values into multiple aspects of our talent strategy, and celebrating team members found leading by example.
Luke Fossett, ANZ Head of Sales at GoCardless
I once thought that maintaining values, integrity and identity, especially during periods of rapid growth, was near to impossible for businesses. That is before I started my role at GoCardless.
As a result of increased international scale off the back of investment and the globalisation of our product, our team at GoCardless grew from 100 to over 450 people in less than 18 months. Just before COVID-19 hit, we were recruiting over ten new employees globally per week. As overwhelming as that may seem, our values never slipped.
In past roles, I’ve seen values talked about, yet forgotten rapidly and then changed again far too quickly. This leads to a lack of trust in why they were created, and who they were created by.
Alex Hattingh, Chief People Officer at Employment Hero
You can’t ‘keep’ a culture when you’re scaling. A better lens to place on this is, ‘how do you add value to your culture as you grow at speed?’ The first approach is that it is vital to reward and recognise behaviours where your people are living your values. By rewarding positive behaviours that align with your values, you are reinforcing these ideals throughout the business. This doesn’t have to be a monetary expense; sometimes it’s enough to say, ‘hey I noticed what you did there and that was great!’ People love being recognised.
Alison Lee, Head of Marketing, ipSCAPE
Culture is important and at ipSCAPE, ours is based on Accountability and Innovation which is achieved through clear communication and an alignment of vision and goals.
Recently, ipSCAPE held a virtual strategy session where each department presented their goals for FY21 with ‘Accountability’ as the underlying theme of the day. Accountability was chosen as the theme as it is one of our company values and is especially important when team members are working remotely. Hosting this session enabled clarity around expected goals, while providing visibility on cross-departmental projects for the upcoming year.
Reinforcing culture is even more crucial during uncertain times and can be achieved through the continuation of familiar events to create a sense of stability and focus.”
Karen Porter, Founder & Head of Community, Underground Communications
Culture and values are more than a clever or emotive purpose statement on your website and they go far deeper than team building days and giving back, which is often perceived by organisations as the basis for good company culture. Values and purpose that are embedded deeply into every aspect of a business from how they hire and manage staff, how they build a supply chain, their customer experience and relationship management will survive either fast growth or a business or global crisis.
Angus Dorney, co-CEO Kablamo
So, what should companies do to protect, promote and strengthen their values during the COVID-19 period? I believe a sensible approach is to publish a set of principles and priorities that will guide the decisions of the companies’ leaders during this period. I believe that companies with strong, meaningful and consistent values are the most likely to succeed over the long term. Look at the remarkable success of Atlassian and Amazon. On the other hand, companies that don’t have good values embedded in their DNA are less likely to survive this pandemic.