Culture: Beyond Bean bags & Foosball tables

Abhishek Paul
4 min readFeb 15, 2018

Which company has the best culture?” or “ What is your company culture like?” are increasingly becoming a part of the FAQs of potential hires. In the era of social media, there is no dearth of responses either from business publications (Forbes, Inc, etc) or individual employees themselves (on Twitter, Facebook, Quora).

Irrespective of who creates the list, I found that there are definite commonalities — Fancy office spaces (bean bags, art work, open floor), Food (preferably free), Games (foosball, pool, video games), Parties and finally a Social media presence that highlights all this (so much so that it looks like an episode from MTV Cribs!).

A few articles have gone deeper to talk about the flexible work hours / locations, the flat reporting structure (no hierarchy),etc. I am in no way discounting the benefits nor the positive feelings all these build within the employees. I only wish the conversation went further and deeper.

To build a great and enduring (this might be more difficult and hence a better metric) culture, the tendency is look towards other companies ( WWGD — What Would Google Do). While this might be acceptable for a novice, a seasoned HR professional needs to contribute something more intelligent to the conversation ( not throw out platitudes like diversity, millenials, engaged workforce, digital transformation, etc). Interestingly, larger companies seem to have stopped trying to differentiate themselves on their culture, have they thrown in the towel? Is structure, process and security the price to be paid for fulfilling work? Pink Floyd puts it best, “ Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

I would dare us to look outside our bubble(s) and look to solve from “ first principles”. A good place to start could be looking at intersection between the critical needs of the individual and that of the organization and solving around this. This approach has both parties working in tandem and removes the friction that arises when there is a perception that one party has to necessarily sacrifice for the sake of the other (eg, business feeling that they have to spend large amounts of money, time or lower / soften standards to satisfy the employees).

In building a culture that is both organic and enduring, both research and practice agree on the following needs that cause an individual to thrive. I have relied on the concepts of Self Determination Theory (SDT) (I know most would go for Maslow’s Hierarchy :-)) and Dan Pink’s “Drive — The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us”.

1) Autonomy — Freedom to think through and execute one’s unique approach towards the task with minimal direction. Held responsible for the outcomes and encouraged to learn / discover new approaches to deliver results. Increases ownership and self confidence.

2) Mastery — An environment that consistently provides opportunities to develop expertise. Intentional and valuable learning takes place with the employee having a strong sense of progress.

3) Purpose — A sense that their role is part of larger, more exciting and meaningful goals. Increases their perspective, helps deal with short term changes / failures and also appreciate the importance of other teams.

4) Belonging — A sense of camaraderie with the colleagues, where the feelings of respect for their skills, liking as a person and trust that no harm will be done are all present. This creates an environment where people are energized by their colleagues, knowing they have their back and can focus on their tasks.

A company (or a team) that is built around these foundational principles will have a culture where both business and the individual are pushing themselves ….and enjoy doing it everyday! Others will continue being busy redecorating offices, running college level cultural events or prettying up their online presence.

PS: Simpler principles does not mean easier and in the upcoming posts I will write about the different practices that can be used to bring these principles to life, including those we are currently experimenting with at Orangescape.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on February 15, 2018.

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