Leadership | Breakout syndrome

Breakout syndrome

Go your own way

Making sure your company culture is about more than ping-pong tables

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Theo Griffin

Words by Kieran Howells

Design by Theo Griffin

What does good company culture look like? Whilst creating a progressive aesthetic is a sure-fire way to attract the kind of young professionals that may make a company look the part, simply installing glass walls and putting a ping-pong table in your break area does not ensure you the kind of employee satisfaction that comes with being a true leader for company culture.

This misconception is sweeping the corporate world of late, and it boils down to being short-sighted in the search for a modern workplace. Whereas aesthetic changes and fleeting perks may well provide some shallow levels of community and culture, these would only truly penetrate the surface of the company. A truly superior corporate culture runs far deeper and is intrinsically linked to the true wellbeing of its employees - a far more taxing and time-consuming endeavour than simply handing out drinks on Friday or paying for a weekly fruit basket.

What companies are top for culture?

Whereas attempting to compete with companies renowned for company culture represents a pursuit for the wrong reasons, examining what it is about those companies topping the lists that makes them a top employer is an effective way of discovering certain methods for cultivating such culture.

The Netflix model is one that radically revolutionised the corporate world. Creating a company with a market valuation in excess of $150billion and with 124million monthly paying customers is no mean feet, and it’s one that many within the HR field, as in many other industries, have tried in vain to replicate. Success such as this is cultivated with patience and consistency; these two principles also apply to its company culture.

Netflix built its people model around one key facet – trust. The company believes that in taking a risk and entrusting its staff to define their own success, the resulting mutual appreciation will ensure a fruitful symbiosis and slowly but surely cultivate a wholly unique culture in which the worker feels valued, and, almost just as importantly, the work gets completed.

“If you look at an innovator’s mind, the innovator never says, ‘I know what we should do. We should look around and see what everyone else is doing and do it a smidge better,’” Netflix's ex-Head of HR Patty McCord told Fast Company in a 2016 interview. “We just took risks with the people stuff, just like we took risks with the business.”

Whilst Netflix may lead the pack, you don’t have to break so spectacularly from the herd to promote good culture. By comparison, O2 is a far more traditional model of a large-scale corporate business. The company has a vast amount of low-level employees, a lot of whom work in customer service. These roles are traditionally some of the lowest rated with regards to job satisfaction, but it doesn’t stop O2 from ranking highly on Glassdoor’s list of corporations with top company culture.

Employees have noted that key elements of O2’s culture include a program of continuous education and encouragement to take part in training sessions, personal accountability and responsibility with clear paths for promotion, and even free tickets to the various O2-owned venues throughout the UK. According to past employees, management are trained to be attentive, and to treat each employee as an individual, which cultivates what one employee called a positive workplace ‘buzz’.

“We have three key values that define our culture – bold, open, trusted,” O2 HR Director Ann Pickering told HR Grapevine. “Workplace diversity is a key focus for us and we’ve always aimed to create an open and inclusive culture, where everyone feels empowered to come to work and be themselves.

“To ensure employees feel valued and engaged, it’s important to put a forum for communication with senior leaders in place. Examples include regular one-to-one feedback from line managers, engagement surveys and quarterly briefings on company performance,” she concluded.

This approach seems to be working for, at least, some employees. An anonymous Glassdoor user wrote: “Love O2! Great people come together with a clear ambition to deliver excellent service for our customers. Fast pace environment, in a challenging and exciting industry. The company is honest and open and employees are regularly updated about what’s going on. We have lots of fun too. Where else do you get invited to a private gig at The O2 with Take That to celebrate the O2’s 10th birthday?!”

How to affect change in your company

If you subscribe to the Netflix approach, the answer is to simply throw out the rulebook and make it up yourself. Whilst McCord’s policies in her 14 years with the company were a collaborative effort, she attributes the majority of her success to isolation and a notable lack of a formal collation of policies, claiming that regularly attending talks and seminars on HR ethics simply made her angry, whereas simply spending time with Netflix’s employees delivered far more useful information from which to draft policies.

“What I found in my peer group [when I went to these HR meetings] is that people would whine about not having a seat at the table, that their CEO doesn’t respect them, about how you get recognition you deserve. That stuff makes me mad,” said McCord. “How do you get a seat at the table? You earn it. How do you get recognition? You do something that’s worth recognizing.”

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