Most startups recognize that it takes talent to stand out in a competitive market.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, factors that were once considered key points of differentiation are now commoditized. They’ve been replaced by the biggest indicator of a startup’s success—its PEOPLE.
So how does a bootstrapped startup with barely enough money to pay the founders’ wages attract the best people away from the big guys with the big salary packages?
At our company Buzinga App Development, my cofounder Graham and I found it was simple: build a workplace culture that people want to be a part of.
Most people will sacrifice a small cut in salary if they are happy and doing work that is fulfilling. Once I realized this, I started to reimagine Buzinga’s strategy around people and culture, making workplace culture our key growth strategy. Three years later, Buzinga’s culture has won multiple awards and our clients absolutely love when they come into the office.
Workplace Culture Starts with Human Needs
Before I dive into the steps to creating your dream workplace culture, here are some basic principles to keep in mind when it comes to what it takes for the average person to feel content in their jobs.
- Certainty: If you knew that the world was going to end tomorrow you wouldn’t be bringing your A-game today. Your staff wants to feel a comfortable level of certainty that if they do good work, there will always be a place for them.
- Uncertainty: As much as we love certainty, we also yearn for some variety that keeps us on our toes. Give your staff something to strive for.
- Significance: Show your staff that they are important to you by connecting with them regularly. One-on-one lunches, regular performance reviews, and even just casual check-ins with individual team members will show them you care. It’s important to also talk about their goals. This makes them feel like they aren’t just another cog in a machine working to further YOUR startup goals. Their goals are important too.
- Connection: If someone doesn’t connect—with their boss, coworkers, or customers—they will quickly realize they don’t belong, and they will leave. HR is an enormous cost to businesses, so spend some time choosing the right people in the first place. By choosing people who share the same values and mission, connection will happen naturally.
- Growth: Personal growth and constant learning are so important for a startup team, simply because there is so much to learn. Ask your staff members what they’re reading or listening to in the way of personal and professional development. Encourage them (with financial support, if possible) to enroll in courses, workshops, and seminars that will improve their professional identity capital. Build your team into an absolute powerhouse by making them all indispensable.
- Contribution: The feeling of knowing that you being there made the world a better place, that there is something bigger than you that makes all this worth it. Good news – You don’t have to be a nonprofit to make your team feel like the work they’re doing is helping people.
The other thing to be aware of is that our happiness is manifested through chemistry. We are biological organisms, after all, and chemical processes lead to our feelings of well-being. It might sound clinical or forced, but if you really want to build a fantastic workplace you need to “manufacture” happiness. That doesn’t mean fabricating emotions, rather, it means knowing what external factors need to be in place to trigger the right ones. We also all share certain neurotransmitters that are directly connected to our happiness:
- Endorphin – masks physical pain, assists with endurance, released during exercise.
- Dopamine – ensures we strive to achieve, released when kicking goals, winning, getting stuff done—and it’s highly addictive.
- Serotonin – connected to leadership, pride, and status. We want to feel proud of ourselves and equally want our boss, friends, and parents to be proud of us.
- Oxytocin – attracts us to people with shared values, is released through physical contact, hugging, and shaking hands.
How to Create a New Culture in the Workplace
Now, all that may sound a little academic, or mushy even, but the importance of cultivating happy employees is anything but. There are concrete, business benefits to this strategy of putting your people first. Since we made workplace happiness a core part of our mission, the results have been phenomenal.
- Lower staff turnover
- Improved quality and quantity of output
- More deadlines met
- Reduced number of annual sick days
- Improved customer satisfaction
- More great ideas
- Fewer staff complaints
Let’s now explore step by step how you can create your dream workplace.
1. Start with Your ‘WHY?’
To build the best workplace you need to give people something to fight for.
If you haven’t already, this is the time when you need to get crystal clear on your grandiose vision for the future of the company. This speaks to the human need to feel a sense of contribution and achievement.
What drives you? What inspires you?
We did this by following Simon Sinek’s ‘5 Whys’ formula. You begin by asking yourself a broad initial question like “Why am I building this company?” To each response, force yourself to answer “Why?” Repeat at least five times.
This is a great technique for finding the root cause of any problem. Once we did the 5 Why’s we realized what was actually driving my cofounder Graham and me.
Our goal for Buzinga wasn’t to be the biggest app development company or even to have the most money. We wanted to be the leading authority in the industry, and we wanted to build mobile applications that meant something and solved real-world problems.
What is your why? Write it down.
2. Decide Your Values
When you begin your own company, you’re in the privileged and rare position of being able to make a real difference. So, exactly how do you want to make a difference?
Jot down a few fundamental issues that are important to you. For us, for example, these were environmental sustainability, personal development, and mental and physical health.
Once you set out your vision and your values, it’s clear that anyone who wants to be a part of your new culture has to be passionate, driven, and share your vision for the future of your company, and more importantly, the future of your industry.
If they don’t share this belief, they will surely feel as though they are fighting for someone else’s cause, and desperately lack that feeling of belonging and connection. They will never feel as if they were part of the bigger vision, and they will leave.
Make sure everyone who works for you now, and everyone who will work for you in the future, knows these values.
Even now, Whatsapp cofounder Jan Koum still has taped to his desk the company’s original values written by the other cofounder Brian Acton: “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!”
3. Build Your Community
Take your values and your vision and put them in your mission statement. For Buzinga, this became:
“Buzinga was named the Best Workplace in Australia. We believe that through inspiring our people with education and by creating an environment where they love to be, we can generate more ideas, optimize performance and manufacture happiness.”
Use all or parts of your mission statement in your communications and when you’re recruiting.
- All publicity appearances
- Press statements
- Job advertisements and interviews
- Throughout your website content
- In all guest posts on other websites, event sponsorships, or partnerships you undertake
Basically, explicitly mention your vision anywhere you have the opportunity. It will go a long way to communicating your brand and raising awareness of who should want to be involved.
We would also communicate it in quarterly company-wide meetings, during casual conversations with the team, and with new recruits. Later, we even used it to qualify new customers. We figured that customers who liked our mission would have a much higher success rate with us, as opposed to someone looking for a cash-grab.
By getting used to talking about your vision with every current and potential stakeholder your business comes across, you’ll find that you naturally start attracting the people whose visions and values align with your own.
4. Sell the Vision
In order for a vision to become commonplace in an organization’s activities, it needs to appear on a regular basis, and it needs to be linked to real business goals, actionable tasks, and achievements.
How can you hammer home the vision of your company?
One of the simplest (and cheapest) ways to do this is to hold a monthly or quarterly company planning meeting. In this meeting, you can talk openly about big picture stuff—how the company has been progressing, what problems or opportunities have presented themselves, and what the plan of action is for the next month, quarter, or even year.
It’s also an opportunity for team members to offer their opinion on key projects or topics and for your to follow up with feedback. This brings anything lurking beneath the fold up to the surface before it gets out of hand. Bonus, this is a great way to get new ideas from your team.
By selling the vision, you’re feeding directly into a number of those human needs, especially contribution, ensuring your team knows they are working towards something bigger than just making money and doing the 9-5. But it also gives a sense of connection, certainty, and growth.
5. Create Your Own Traditions
What are some concrete ways that you can translate your values across the everyday operations of your workplace? What activities will help you achieve your vision faster?
Traditions don’t always have to manifest organically. By consciously implementing your own traditions, you can create those you want.
For Buzinga, these included quick Monday morning pep talks to get everyone pumped for the week ahead, end-of-month parties, quarterly awards nights, Friday catered lunches, Friday night drinks in the office, Secret Santa… The list goes on. These activities release serotonin because they recognize awesome work and attitudes, as well as establish human bonds that release the oxytocin neurotransmitter.
Of course, there are no rules to what traditions you want to create, only that they should represent your values and work toward your vision. I’ve heard other companies have enormous success with hackathons or “innovation days,” team-building retreats, regular speakers, and adaptations of Google’s 20% free time rule.
You might not have the budget to do this just yet, but you shouldn’t be deterred. The small, cheap traditions are the ones that can make the biggest impact.
Get feedback from your team to see what they would respond best to. You might be surprised by the answers you get.
6. Manufacture Happiness Day-to-Day
This ties back to our key principles above and should live throughout your company’s practices. So many studies have shown that people are most productive when they’re happy, and they’re most innovative when they feel comfortable offering new ideas around their peers.
Fear and stress are not conducive to greater quality or quantity of output. By creating an environment where people feel safe, supported, and inspired, you can drive people to achieve their personal and company goals.
This stimulates the dopamine neurotransmitter by helping your team members set personal goals for themselves, and supporting them in any way you can to achieve them. We give every employee management responsibility to some degree. This not only frees up time from us having to constantly steer the ship, but it also gives the individual a feeling of being a leader in their own right.
Foster a culture that stimulates the right chemical responses, and you can design a workplace culture based on happiness. Releasing endorphins is one of the easiest ones to tackle first. By being open about health foods and the benefits of exercise, teams will become receptive to the message you’re spreading.
You might encourage your team to get outside and soak up some sunshine on their lunch break, walk or ride to work, or host casual sports games.
Build a Workplace Culture of Learning
Building a workplace culture that your people love doesn’t have to be hard. A lot of it is just being a good human being.
But it also isn’t something you can just forget about and hope it happens. By focusing on basic human needs, brain activity, and creating traditions that express your company’s vision and values, you’ll see fantastic results.
It’s worth it. Approximately 80% of people don’t enjoy the work they do. You have the chance to make sure none of your staff members are part of that 80%. Why wouldn’t you want to work in a culture where people thrive and are happy every day?
Building a workplace culture isn’t a destination, it’s a continuous practice in listening and learning. That’s why we’ve gathered the most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders from across the globe so they can share their wisdom and help you develop a workplace culture of learning. Check out our collection of free business courses and start learning.