3 Tips for Building a Lasting Company Culture

Employees are the backbone to any company or organization, and a strong workplace culture is key. After all, an exemplary culture creates a happy workplace, which leads to higher retention. But what exactly makes up a company culture? Is it just free stuff and a cool office space? To find out, I sat down with several Watershed employees to discuss their perspectives on cultivating company culture.

Years ago, our co-founder Mike Rustici, worked for a company that enforced rigid corporate guidelines, which meant he had to wear a suit and tie everyday even though he spent most of his time hidden behind a computer screen. So, when he set out to start his own company, he already knew what he did and didn’t want in a culture. He made—and continues to make—a point to create a space that nurtured an open environment where employees enjoy working. 

1. Build a good foundation for your company culture.

According to Mike, one of the biggest factors in building a positive company culture starts with fostering healthy relationships between everyone in the office. Here are a few guidelines for laying that foundation:

  • Create a peaceful setting by respecting your coworkers and accepting them for who they are.
  • Give everyone autonomy. This can significantly impact satisfaction and productivity because people thrive in workplaces where they feel they're making sizable contributions to the company as a whole.
  • Authenticity also plays a major role in building these relationships. At Watershed, we promote the idea of embracing positive debate, or “presumption of positive intent.” This simply means that coworkers can debate an issue, while assuming the other means well.
We believe in the idea of positive debate so much that it's displayed in our office.

2. Be mindful of the dos and don'ts along the way.

To sustain positive culture and values, you need to know what factors can support or jeopardize your efforts. Employees greatly benefit from being able to try new things and having the opportunity to make a big difference with their work.

Having a sense of autonomy is highly motivating and helps people look forward to showing up every morning. David Ells, our director of technology, says, "If you give people trust and autonomy and treat them like adults they will rise to your expectations.”

Also, building relationships with colleagues, allowing for a more light-hearted atmosphere, while emphasizing the importance of having a life outside of work makes people happy. On the flip side, when employees are looked down upon by the higher-ups and feel like every decision is highly monitored and controlled, the effect can be counterintuitive.

Conversely, tolerating bad apples, can quickly kill a positive culture. It’s one thing to tolerate a bad apple because it wasn’t immediately clear. But as soon as you notice one, eradicate the issue immediately.

Your biggest mistake is letting good performance excuse bad behavior, which only encourages that person’s behavior. When a company grows to 1,000 people, not everyone can walk into the CEO’s office whenever they please, but the core values should remain the same.

Remember, authenticity and consistency keep culture afloat. You have to follow through with your words. When you say that employees are your most important asset, just one inconsistency with that statement can cast doubt.

Following through becomes increasingly important as your company grows, but it can also become increasingly hard for a CEO to enforce culture when more people come on board. Empower people who exemplify culture to monitor and reinforce the culture to ensure the company’s values and mission remain clear to everyone.

At the end of every quarter, the team gets together for a quarterly planning session we call Fiesta. This allows everyone to rehash what's happened in the previous three months and plan for the upcoming quarter.

3. Maintain your culture while being mindful of scalability.

As your organization grows, though, how do you face the pressure of cultivating a culture that pleases everyone? And how do you continue to afford great benefits as your company grows to hundreds or even thousands of employees?

In Mike's experience, benefits as a percentage of salary shouldn't change. When it comes to pleasing employees, the tangible perks don’t matter as much as the benefits. Mike calls workplace features—such as ping pong tables—symptoms, not causes of culture. He also believes that people are inherently reasonable, and part of his strategy is to talk to employees from the very beginning.

“We always talk about culture so we can get ahead of expectations,” he says. “When you do something with good intent, people are generally accepting.”

“Benefits have a lot do with the level of gratitude we end up with,” David adds. “The benefits package offered at Watershed compels our team to do their best and add value to the organization. Burning the candle on both ends with no break, no benefits, and no joy leads to burnout. With paid health, dental, and vision insurance, flexible work hours, and more, we feel motivated to work on projects for more extended periods of time.”

And in general, three big reasons why we've stuck around for so many years are:

  1. We enjoy working with highly intelligent and motivated people who take their work seriously.
  2. We appreciate the autonomy that we’re given at Watershed.
  3. Our culture allows for people to work around important events in their personal lives.

Why does it matter?

If you're new to creating and growing a positive culture in your organization, here’s some parting advice:

  • Do it deliberately from the start. Practice what you preach and your employees will follow suit. Create a place where you want to work. Think of employees as people and not servants.
  • Building a company is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep people going at a sustainable pace to avoid fatigue or burnout.
  • It all starts from day one. Everything comes down to who you are and the decisions you make from the very beginning. Culture is ingrained in who you are.

To put it simply, culture matters because retention matters. When employees are happy and feel valued, they look forward to coming back to work. People want to get more out of work than just a paycheck, so make their time spent in the office worthwhile. After all, engaged, productive employees are key to an organization's success and longevity.

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