Through his research on socially complex societies, scientist Robin Dunbar presented a theory to explain the number of meaningful social connections the average animal can build and maintain. He found that by doing some calculations that involved looking at the size of an animal’s brain, you could reliably predict the size of its social group. For humans, he offered Dunbar’s number: the average person can maintain approximately 150 meaningful connections in his/her life.

At a fast-growing company it would be tempting to give in to Dunbar’s number and accept that once it reaches a certain size, many employees will not connect with or even know the bulk of their teammates. With a mission of building a word-class technology company, FreshBooks has focused on growing its culture and fostering strong employee relationships as a strategy to building a great business.

Here are a few tips on how we’ve tried to do that:

1. Design the Office for Connections

Our past two  offices were designed to foster our company culture using a framework called the Three Cs: Connectedness, Collaboration, and Collision. The open-concept office helps everyone stay connected and creates a sense of community. We have plenty of meeting rooms and whiteboards to facilitate collaboration. We also create opportunities for employees to collide by strategically placing the kitchen, washrooms, water/coffee stations, and main staircase in areas that would facilitate people running into each other. The lack of separation between departments enables teams to interact and have unplanned conversations and interact.

2. Build a World-Class Customer Support Team

Our customer support team is the heart of the business. Made up of an eclectic group of individuals who care deeply about our customer relationships, it also helps to forge tight relationships within the company. All employees, regardless of their role, spend their first month at the company working in customer support before they are onboarded to their intended positions. Not only is it a great way for them to get to know the product and customers, it’s also a fantastic way to get to know their colleagues.

3. Hire for Culture Fit

In addition to hiring people for their skills, it’s important to hire for emotional intelligence and cultural fit. Building and maintaining workplace relationships ultimately comes down to the individual. You need people who are able to expand and improve the company culture, people you will enjoy spending time with. At our company, all staff involved in hiring are trained not only on how to interview for a specific skillset, but also on how to identify whether the candidate will be the right fit for our culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding only like-minded folk for homogeneity; it means bringing on people that are genuinely interested in building relationships with other smart and unique individuals.

4. Make Time to Have Fun Together

This sounds like an obvious one since hosting parties and events is fairly common in most workplaces. Nonetheless, setting aside budget and time for people to get out of the office together for some fun is a great way to form bonds and build a sense of shared history.

Since the company's early years, we’ve established a tradition to dedicate one weekend every June for all employees and their families to head up to a camp in cottage country a few hours north of Toronto. We dubbed the weekend PORCHFEST, an acronym that stands for our company values (Passion, Ownership, Results, Change, Honesty, Fun, Empathy, Strive and Trust). PORCHFEST is all about hanging out, having fun, and just enjoying ourselves outside of work. It’s a great atmosphere to get to know colleagues on a personal level, especially those who may be on completely different teams and don’t have many opportunities to work together.

We host an annual holiday party, Freshtivus, that goes beyond typical meal-and-refreshments style events. For example, it includes the release of our annual employee-produced yearbook, a dance party, karaoke and a friendly game of poker. This past Spring, we launched what will likely become another annual tradition, the Spring Fling, which was an after-hours social gathering complete with food, drinks, games, and a magic show.

Not all off-work time together is centered on parties. Some of the best connections are forged around a casual drink or snack during work hours. Having an open beer and cider fridge certainly helps facilitate casual encounters and social gatherings at the office any day and night.

It’s common for our employees to coordinate events, such as our “Blind Date” nights. Team members are organized in groups of four for a chance to spend some time with colleagues they wouldn’t normally work with. Forming groups, organizing activities, and making time for fun outside of work is highly encouraged and has become a key part of the culture.

5. Keep Tinkering

There are small things the senior leadership team can do to help keep connections going. For example, a few months ago, my co-founder, Mike McDerment, noticed a number of people walking through the halls with their heads down. At the next company meeting, he asked the entire company to make a concerted effort to introduce themselves to anyone they didn’t know, and it worked. We’ve seen more instances of self-introductions and almost everyone keeps their head up as they pass through the halls. Little tweaks like this will be needed on a regular basis as the company grows. 

Dunbar’s research likely holds true for the average collection of people, but our team is anything but normal. If our evolution continues on its current path, I suspect we may be much closer to zany than we are to normal, and we will be doing our best to fight Dunbar’s number every step of the way.

Published on: Sep 7, 2015
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