Business Advice from the Geek Side - Issue #2

How to create a productive culture in your business

or

How to avoid destroying your business

Last week I posted my first “issue” of this series of posts, here, wherein I offered some advice about management styles to be avoided, mostly because of their tendency to drive away talent and / or have large negative impacts on productivity and growth. This article is designed to be a companion piece based on my own ideas and experiences, and comments I received after I published the first piece, on how to go further than simply avoiding bad management approaches, but also build a culture that continues to follow a more positive path over time.


Have a clear understanding of what you want your company /team culture to be.

Whether you are starting a new company or team from the beginning, or attempting to affect a change in culture, you need to start with a clear and unambiguous description of how you want it to work. This helps the initial team understand the boundaries, and allows you as a group to fashion the paradigm you want out of discussion and consensus.

Once decided, having this cultural paradigm written down and accessible to everyone has an immediate advantage of allowing people who are considering joining the team or company to understand what they are getting into and to decide if it is right for them.

Beyond that, having a cultural statement that is available to all and shared by all allows everyone to feel as though they have a stake in the current situation and in the evolution of a shared future. It is also an effective mechanism to ensure that everyone remains mindful of their duties to one another to nurture that culture.

Ideally your cultural statement should be short, clear and ratified by all of the people involved in constructing it, and then once you have it in your hands you must actually live by it.

Let go of your fear of a realistic work / life balance.

In the last few years, more and more companies have started to enjoy greater productivity and improved team cohesion by operating sane, modern policies about working hours and work / life balance.

Bluntly, no one who has looked into productivity in companies believes any longer that encouraging a culture of long working hours leads to anything but resentment, mistakes and an accelerated churn of employees as they burn out and seek alternative employment.

Every business has commercial realities, goals and limited time — this is a constant now and will almost certainly be that way in the future. Just as in every other corner of our lives, there is never enough time. The secret is to find productive ways of getting as much as possible out of the time available, and this goes double for businesses, as they are buying that time from people who have a hundred other things that they would rather be doing if they did not need to enter into that transaction.

Setting concrete limits on working hours and being honest about the need for them to be respected is at the centre of treating your employees as whole people, rather than sending a message that you see them as nothing other than your workforce. As one of my commenters pointed out, this has to flow from the top down. If the team sees their leader arriving early and working late as a matter of course they are going to begin to wonder if that is not what is really expected, and worse still they may start to believe that such an approach is something that they also need to adopt in order to advance within their careers. Have everyone from the top down keep to the stated working hours and encourage people to leave the office when they have done their fair share.

Of course companies do need, occasionally, to ask their staff to engage in heroic measures, and I am not suggesting that any company’s culture should make that completely impossible, but it should be rare in the extreme to ask people to work on into the evenings and over weekends. If they do, they should be paid extra, or offered paid time off in lieu of that extra effort.

In the end operating a sensible work / life balance, having sensible rules about flexible hours and offering home-working are all part of showing mutual respect between employer and employees and acknowledging that people are far more than just the work that they do.

Consider reading up on some good, current examples of this kind of approach, such as Treehouse, a very successful online training company from Portland, OR which has operated since the beginning based on a four-day work week.

Treat new people as honest reviewers of your culture in an ongoing process of maintenance and improvement.

When new people arrive in your team or company, the very best thing that you can do is ask them for honest feedback on the culture as they have experienced it in their first week and their first month.

Of course companies should have a commitment to an ongoing assessment of and tending to their culture, otherwise they risk it becoming a neglected memory, but the impact it has on new people, people that were not involved in its creation, can be a very effective window into whether or not it needs some refinement or even wholesale change.

It is entirely plausible that a group culture that worked for the first twelve to eighteen months in any given instance might need to be changed quite radically as the organisation grows beyond a certain point, or the goals of the organisation change over time. New arrivals are more likely than anyone else to spot the things that are changing and in need of course correction. As long as they are not tempted to take the opportunity to simply re-create everything “just because”, and their contributions are recognised and agreed by the wider group, the opportunity to add to the consensus is well worth the effort of asking new arrivals to contribute to the discussion pretty much right away. If nothing else it will get them immediately into the swing of the idea that the company culture is as much their responsibility as anyone and everyone else’s.

Only enshrine a core value in the culture of your team or business that is agreed by the majority.

This seems obvious, but it bears mention because it applies to things that a team leader or even a company leader might believe is a really great idea, but that many people do not want or disagree with.

Just because you are in a position to enforce some good practice or other, as you see it, does not make it something that you should try and do.

As an example, don’t make “Friday Beers” a regular event if the people in the company would far rather go home an hour early on Fridays. It is absolutely important for teams and companies to form deeper bonds than simple physical proximity and working on things together — working groups are generally better across the board if they become friends to some degree — but if a large portion of the company just comes to see “Friday Beers” as a wasted hour that they are expected to “enjoy” in the office when they could be with their kids, or families or whatever, then it is not encouraging cohesion, it is just becoming a source of resentment.

People might prefer “Wednesday Coffee”, halfway through the morning, where the company springs for decent coffee and pastries and people sit and talk about work and home and hobbies and whatever, in the middle of an other wise work-centric day.

Cultural norms within a company or team need to be built around consensus, no matter how benevolent they might seem to be.

Try to have a flat hierarchy, and make everyone’s voice count.

In the end, when businesses grow, there comes a time when sheer scale leads to an unavoidable need for hierarchy. Even when that is the case, there are sections of that hierarchy that can and should be allowed to remain flat, i.e. within teams or departments.

But why is it better to have as flat a hierarchy as possible? Well, for one thing, it is imperative that the person or people who are supposed to be leading any given group are not so far removed from them by layers of management that they do not understand the challenges faced by their staff. Equally leaders need to be accessible, rather than distant, lofty figures out of reach of the junior and perhaps mid-level people.

By keeping the hierarchy in the company as flat as possible, the staff remain in touch with the management and feel more like collaborators and less like minions, to the extent that progress and success become shared joys rather than plaudits conferred upon the leaders through the efforts of the rank and file.

This feeds into the other great advantage of keeping the distance between the junior people and the top as shallow as possible; everyone can contribute freely. Just because someone is junior or young, does not mean that they have no insight to offer. In hierarchical structures, entire careers can be based on the selective reporting of ideas that have come from the people below the reporter, often without any attribution beyond “the team thinks…”. This does not encourage the kind of involvement and investment that businesses need from all levels half so well as a flat hierarchy that allows for the most junior developer to mention an idea to the CTO. Clinging to protocol and “appropriate channels” stifles innovation pretty quickly, and if your junior developers don’t know who the CTO is, don’t see him or her around and find them approachable, they are not going to feel that they can contribute in the same way as they can if the CTO attends their stand-ups and comes to pair with them from time to time and is a part of their daily experience of the company.


In conclusion, if you want to have a successful, creative, productive atmosphere in your team or your company, treat the people as people, rather than numbers. Give them ownership of the day to day and let them create their own success out of their greater understanding of what works for them and their colleagues and for the business. Pay them the respect of understanding that for them to give their best they need time away from work to live their lives.

There are many other things that you can do to help your company thrive and grow, but building a culture that treats the people who engage with it as grown-ups and that offers staff respect instead of control will go a very long way to breeding success and loyalty, both of which then contribute to maintaining the morale that you need to get the best from people and make them want to stick around to help you achieve even more.

(With thanks to David Humphreys, Chris Matthews, Jon Pither and Malcolm Sparks for advice on Issue #1 and ideas to put forward on this, Issue #2)