stuff that i learned on tour: workplace culture.

Here's the first of what I hope to be a few posts sharing things that we've learned while on tour this summer.

Think cool environments are just for ad agencies and dot coms? Think that your company is too big to maintain a positive, cool culture? Think again. While on our agency's west coast tour this year, we met a host of companies - some in the agency business, most in other industries. And we were inspired but what we experienced.

What we learned: Work culture is everything. Create a successful culture and employees will want to work for you. They'll believe in your brand. And everyone on the outside will want to become a part of it. Great work cultures can exist in large environments just as much as independently owned small firms. I didn't really believe that, until this tour.

Here's an attempt at summarizing what we've seen work for some pretty spectacular brands during the PlaidNation Tour 2008:

Freedom of space.
Great company culture creates employees who want to work. Employees who want to do as little as possible will find their way to the boring, crappy workplaces. And they deserve what they get. Inspired employees believe in what they're doing, and love doing it. So give them space. Space to take naps. Space to goof off. Space to hang and space to explore. Don't worry about downtime. Give them freedom and trust, and you'll inspire them to do more.

Maybe cubicles are a necessity in your company - because of the size, and the number of employees. But do they have to be lame? At iiiDesign, they custom crafted their cubes. At Zappos, every department is decorated in a theme. The upstairs at Jones Soda feels more like a tree fort than office. Aptera decorated their office area like a giant fishbowl. All of these companies have one thing in common: Their workspaces reflect the collective culture of their employees.

Great workplaces and workspaces need to be fun. The majority of workers spend their time on boring tasks in boring industries. But that doesn't mean they can't have fun. Fun isn't reserved exclusively for "video game testers."

Are your employees smiling? At this very moment? This is more difficult than most people realize - but it starts with little things. And it almost never has to do with money. Most of the places that we visited were filled with smiles. Humor. Friendships. Lively discussion. Encourage this, and let it grow.

Stop worrying about the board. About the bank. About investors. Your workspace wasn't created for them. It's for your employees.

Greetings are in.
As the phone becomes the most ignored device in the workplace, many companies have removed receptionists from their lobbies. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We experienced some awesome greetings while on tour - and the majority of them weren't people assigned to answering phones. The "greeter" should be a new role in every firm. Sometimes assigned to a single person, sometimes a shared role - but everyone who walks in your door should be greeted as a friend. As a part of the family.

At Jones Soda, we chatted with Chris, and learned about Seattle. And some funny characters at Jones. At Zappos, the front desk friendly squad entertained us and gave us the pre-show to the company tour that would blow us away. At Twitter, whoever is within earshot will greet you with a friendly smile and make you feel welcome. Welcome. That's the key. Security is out. "Hello" is in.

Lobbies can rock.
Your lobby should be impressive. But not in a marble floors and 40 foot ceilings kind of impressive. Your lobby is the very first physical impression of your company's culture. The lobby at Zappos is messy. But you know what? I have never had more fun hanging in a lobby than we did at Zappos. There was food and entertainment (DDR!). Friendly employees. Conversation. Company history. Toys. Books. Drinks. The next time you're in Vegas - stop by and experience it yourself. You'll get the Zappos culture in about 30 seconds.

Get a Mayor.
Your company needs a mayor. Zappos has Jerry. While giving us a tour of the Zappos headquarters, Jerry greeted every single person from every department and every hallway by their name. Jerry knew every detail of the company's history. Jerry understands the industry trends and could remark on where Zappos was going. Jerry knew what couture was. I'm pretty sure that Jerry could replace CEO Tony in a meeting, if he needed to. Who's your Jerry?

I learned as much as I shared on this year's tour. Which is pretty cool. And you don't need a Plaid van or a summer tour to do the same thing. Visit firms outside of your industry. Who are the hot employers inside your market? Just outside of your market? You'd be surprised by what you can learn from a simple company tour.

Thanks to everyone who opened their doors to the Plaid van in 2008!


tinku said...

This is an awesome, awesome post. I have always wondered how people can put their employees in grey cubicles and expect that they are going to feel inspired and creative?!!

Physical environments contribute a lot to workplace culture and I love that you point out successful companies of all size who throw out the rules when it comes to what is allowed at work, in order to inspire commitment and creativity.

Ben Kunz said...

Right on.

Trouble is a lot of conservative companies don't see the return on investing in "culture" or "environment." This may be changing as HR depts realize the huge cost of replacing skilled employees.

First step is to get rid of all the damn ties :)

darryl ohrt said...

Thanks Tinku!

Ben - so right. The only tie that we saw on tour was in the coffee shop - where I taught a dude how to tie one, for his job interview. ( Hilarious. And ironic.

The only other consideration...the MadMen factor. They could make ties in the workplace cool again.

Unknown said...

Would just like to say that this post made my day a little better. It's nice to know that there are many people in the working world who agree that Windowless Beige Cubes are in fact stifling creativity. Sitting in a WBC myself, I pine for a DDR machine in the lobby. Seems like that should be standard issue!

Anonymous said...

If you want to learn more about company culture, then I would recommend the following book:

The character of a corporation by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones.

Here is a link that gives a brief overview:

I covered this book as part of my MBA, where I had to analyse & write a report my workplace at the time (Dell in Limerick, Ireland.)
It gives a great insight into company culture and it really opened my eyes.

A further point I would like to make, is national culture is usually more powerful than company culture, just something to bear in mind.

By the way great post !

Unknown said...

Very well written and timely post. ROI in the current climate is more important than ever. Culture can and does have an effect on the bottom line.

Godin's Survival Is Not Enough is also a good, quick read that touches on culture.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Darryl. We're currently remodeling our admin offices here. They were as depressing/unimaginative as you could get; grey carpets, white/beige walls, no artwork whatsoever.

We're moving toward something a bit more inspired/modern; I've blown up a few photos of mine and had them framed for our new space, and I've done some cool frosted vinyl graphics for the interior windows, which I'm excited about!

Though the renovations aren't done yet, the folks in the office have become a bit more optimistic and, dare I say that morale has picked up!

Happy employees = happy customers = happy employers.

Anonymous said...

It’s one of the things that struck me walking through the place too, that it felt more like an agency than it did a brand. But it’s not just decorating a cubicle or colorful lunchroom chairs. That stuff isn’t enough. It’s about an attitude that starts at the top down that lets everyone know they’re part of something.

Tally said...

Great post Darryl, I am sending right to our designer for when we move. No more grey/beige cubes at RMI!

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