By Manick Bhan, CEO and CTO of Rukkus.
In modern companies, culture matters. In competitive and innovative spaces like e-commerce, company culture can be the difference between creativity and stagnation, productivity and malaise, or importing talent and losing it.
So when I began the e-commerce company Rukkus, I envisioned a strong and vibrant company culture. We have that now, but it's not exactly what I had envisioned. I now realize company culture isn't something that you control down to the last detail. It's something organic, and while it attracts great talent, it also arises from the work habits and ideals of the talent that you have in-house. If you have your talent, you already have your ideal company culture within reach. Keep the following in mind if you want to unlock it and manage it.
Employees, Not Management, Drive Company Culture
When I first founded Rukkus, we had just a few people on our team. Understandably, we had visions of a much larger company. We dreamed (when we had time to dream at all in those busy days) of a large and successful company that still had the same company culture that we'd developed in a group of just a few people. Without thinking about it, I envisioned very specific things: a distinctive look for the office, a certain vibe and dress code and espresso machines.
In a way, our dreams came true. But the company culture I envisioned back then isn't exactly the one that we have now. I pictured a larger company, but I didn't picture the exact employees we'd have, because, of course, I hadn't met them yet. As it turns out, it's the employees that defined our company culture. I, along with the rest of the management, have a role, but we can't mandate every employee's attitude and vision -- and we wouldn't want to.
Company culture is for employees, after all. It's not a customer-facing thing, and it's not something that has a direct effect on stock prices or company growth. Its effects are indirect, and seen through the productiveness of the employees: employees who, at the end of the day, are the only ones who are directly affected by company culture.
So why shouldn't they be the ones to define it? I'd suggest that they already do, in my company and in yours. The only real decision is, do you embrace that, or fight against the current?
Relaxing dress codes and replacing desk chairs with rubber balls won't change your employees' personalities. Customer-facing bankers wouldn't suddenly start wearing cutoff shorts if employers let them, and that's a good thing: It shows that they have a sense of their professional culture. Conversely, are we going to sell fewer Adele tickets if our lead developer wears flip-flops at his desk? We take a hands-off approach to company culture, regulating as few things as possible and taking employee suggestions on things like office decor (and yes, rubber balls for chairs).
Our employees don't get their attitude and work ethic from the office layout, decor or even our relaxed schedule. It's just the opposite: We've allowed our employees to create our company culture. We do little more than fund it and maintain it.
Shape Your Culture, Don't Manage It
This doesn't mean that we've done nothing to help nurse along our company's culture. It just means that we've been reluctant to limit our employees' freedom to create the culture and that we've facilitated the growth of the company's culture more than we've defined it.
What we have done is simple: we listened. If our employees want our office to look a certain way, we make that happen. We take reasonable suggestions on things like hours, office layout, dress codes and more.
When I look at what my business has accomplished in just a few short years, I see a lot of what I used to imagine and hope for. But when I look around the office, I don't see the exact vision of Rukkus that I saw in my daydreams. Lack of espresso machine aside, I'm proud of that. We've accomplished our goals in part because our employees have shaped the company to suit their work habits and their culture. Company culture is employee culture, and I believe that smart companies don't fight that. They embrace it.
Manick Bhan is the CEO and CTO at Rukkus.