Company Culture: It Takes a Lot More Than Free Beer and Ping Pong

In an attempt to woo highly-sought-after talent, startups and larger organizations alike are placing a renewed emphasis on company culture. That can be a great thing for both employees and management/founders … if it’s done right.

Understanding Culture

Culture is the backbone of a company, dictating employee happiness and retention. It encompasses the company’s mission, beliefs, and core values in a way that’s palpable when anyone interacts with the organization.

Culture is about people, including their personalities, behaviors, and work ethic. If you think about it, when employees are satisfied with their workplace environment, their job responsibilities, work/life balance, and compensation, they don’t really have a reason to leave — unless they aren’t in sync with their coworkers.

Your employees should trust one another and demonstrate that trust by encouraging one another. Employees should work together toward a common goal, even if their jobs require their specific tasks to be completed independently.

Working together

Digital Telepathy explained how peer camaraderie can have a positive effect on employee happiness and success.

Personality matters — it plays a huge role in how coworkers interact. That’s why it’s important during hiring to consider how a new hire would mesh with the rest of the crew. One bad apple really could spoil the bunch.

(For more advice on hiring, check out these tips from Y Combinator President Sam Altman and the founders of Pinterest and Stripe.)

If your company culture is lacking, your office might be filled with disgruntled employees who are just there to pay the bills. The result can be devastating — former Comcast exec Frank Eliason lamented that company culture likely had a negative impact on the telecom provider as a whole, causing incidents like Asshole Brown.

If something like this happens at your company, it should signal a re-evaluation of culture because clearly you have some employees who aren’t taking their job seriously.

On the flip-side of serious work (but not quite a-hole level shenanigans), great companies recognize that employees have to be comfortable at work to be productive. So they offer perks, incentives, and refreshing ways to make sure the work environment doesn’t seem like a pressure-filled, windowless cave of doom with fluorescent lighting.

It might come in the form of comfortable chairs and nap areas or possibly ping pong and beer. These elements can help to create a welcoming and productive environment that’s comfortable for employees. After all, happy employees are motivated and driven.

With that comfort comes safety and the ability to let loose (to a degree) without repercussion. Sometimes you need a moment to regroup and do anything other than work in order to refresh your brain and get back on task. Knowing you won’t be punished for it is a huge relief and allows you to get back on track without worry, fear, or stress.

Staring at a task when you’re mentally exhausted is just going to lead to more attrition, whereas taking a break can give you a fresh perspective and put you in the right frame of mind to tackle the problem. (For more on this, check out Buffer’s explanation of the science behind taking breaks at work.)

A Note About Perks

Regardless of how ping pong and beer became bastions of company culture, they have permeated the concept so widely that it’s become cliche. Look for stock photos on startups and you’ll find … wait for it … images of ping pong and beer!

Ping pong and startups

Here’s the deal — you don’t get an amazing company culture by offering beer and ping pong alone. Frankly, I don’t even know where the concept of beer and ping pong as culture started — if it actually was about giving employees a fun way to take breaks or maybe a desperate attempt from a hip Baby Boomer to try and lure in the elusive Millennial creatives.

The reality is that, unless you’re manufacturing ping pong equipment or you’re a brewer, these perks alone won’t create a positive and productive working environment. Without a mutual respect and understanding of a real company culture beyond the perks, you’re just babysitting overgrown toddlers.

Don’t get me wrong, beer and ping pong are awesome, but the key is balance. If a company offers some wicked cool perks and a solid culture, great employees will stay. They will nurture the company and contribute to its growth.

You can’t let the kids out for recess and also not require them to come back. Similarly, you can’t let your employees take “mental breaks” for 8 hours and expect your company to thrive. Healthy boundaries and balance will make the culture work for everyone.

Join the Culture Club

It would be next to impossible to reshape your company’s culture without knowing where your current culture stands, so take stock in what you offer new and old employees.

If you’re having trouble defining your culture, begin by asking questions about the values and people of your company.

Once you determine your ideal culture, you can begin thinking about the best way to implement it, keeping in mind the business’s short and long-term goals. A superficial culture will collapse under pressure, so be steadfastly dedicated to any major culture changes.

The euphemism of putting lipstick on a pig is applicable here — what you present as your culture must be true, otherwise it will be overtly apparent.

Lipstick on a Pig

Image credit

Keep in mind that culture intrinsically comes from the top — the beliefs and ideals of the company leaders will dictate a large portion of it, whether purposefully implemented or not. You have to believe in your culture in order to make it a realistic part of your business.

An established company may have found that it has new goals, a new mission, or acquired new values — employees who have been with the company for that time need to be made aware of the new plans clearly and explicitly.

Some will jump on board right away, others will jump off — either way, evaluate your employees and how they are receiving the new culture. Those who choose to leave will be better off finding a company in which they will be a more natural fit. It will be a benefit to you as well.

Once your new culture plan is in place, you might have some employees who are sticking around for convenience and a paycheck. For those employees, it might be time to make some tough decisions. And when it comes to new hires, invest the time to get an idea of their personality and actual goals.

When Glassdoor company reviews are readily available, great candidates (ones who do their research, at least) will be leery of joining a company that’s been lambasted for poor practices, and they will easily see through insincere and misguided attempts at culture (e.g. just ping pong and beer).

Talent that’s worth hiring will have goals and plans to grow with the company, not just a flashy resume that gets them in the door. They will have a long term plan that closely aligns with that of your business, and it will be in their best interest to help your company attain it.

Part of company culture includes individuals who share goals, beliefs, and values — make sure the people you hire reflect that.

Time to Implement What You’ve Learned

Culture is a hot topic, and rightly so. Work environments are changing for the better, and competition among like businesses want the creme de la creme. A solid culture that’s more than just beer and ping pong will help bring about the right candidates and make your business what you’ve always wanted it to be.


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