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Why artefacts and symbols matter to a great culture

Broken chairs. Strict dress codes. Dead flowers. Awful coffee. It’s amazing what everyday things can tell you about the culture of a business and the people that work there. It matters because it’s culture that drives engagement. Get it right and your staff will willingly work harder, longer and more productively. Get it wrong and your bottom-line performance can be trashed.  

Clients ask for my advice to transform their cultures and increase productivity.  I tell them to take a long, hard look at their office environment and the symbols within it. What are they telling them?  It’s easy to overlook seemingly small things thinking they’re not significant. But they are often symptomatic of a deeper malaise that needs resolving.

Artefacts and symbols are like triggers. They remind people who are part of a culture of its rules, beliefs and meaning (in good ways as well as bad). They also encourage certain behaviours. Why is this important?

Staff feel valued

When I was MD at Peer 1, I wanted us to be Southampton’s top employer of choice. The aim was to give the place real ‘Wow’ factor. First priority was creating an office that staff loved. And the best way to do that? Get them to design it! 18 months before we moved, I organised a ‘snog, marry or dump’ discussion. What did they love/hate about their current environment? What was on their wish list? And then we made it happen.

The new office had a slide, cinema, cafeteria, even a pub! Everything was picked and organised by the team.  It may sound expensive until I tell you they managed to stick to the budget. The office fitters told us it had cost a third of the price of other offices they’d worked on.

So many small details made it a great place to work.  There were special places to hang-up your bike if you cycled in, meaning you didn’t have to lock them up. There were showers.  Free ice cream.  Decent coffee.  You could even bring your dog to work.

Our guiding principle was, ‘How can we make your working life easier?’ We bought everyone wireless headsets so they could walk around whilst talking to clients or on a conference call.  There was quiet space where they could work undistracted and everyone had laptops to give them flexibility.  All these things made staff feel the company was investing in them. We’d created somewhere that gave them a buzz.  It made such a difference.

    Encourage a sense of pride

    Do you impose a dress code on your staff? It’s interesting – at Rackspace, the majority of employees would wear some sort of branded company t-shirt or polo shirt. It was ubiquitous. But the difference was, they chose to wear these things because they wanted to feel part of the company. They were proud to be ‘Rackers’. It wasn’t a uniform they were forced to wear.  Too often, imposing rules can encourage rebellion and defiance, behaviours that you don’t want in an organisation.  Just think about what used to happen at school!

    It’s important to make sure that if you give people stuff like this, it’s good quality.  So often, companies give their staff t-shirts or polo shirts that are made from cheap fabrics. It’s not surprising they don’t want to wear them!

    At IT Lab, we decided to poke fun out of the whole ‘dress code’ thing.  We introduced ‘dress up Friday’ once a month where you could wear the suit you’d worn at interview or another ‘power-dressing’ outfit.  The whole thing was tongue-in-cheek, reminding staff that we were different and didn’t believe in corporate bulls**t .

    Positive first impressions

    It’s a cliché, but first impressions count (for customers as well as potential staff.) At Rackspace, we didn’t have a ‘Receptionist’.  We had a ‘Director of First Impressions’ instead.  It’s such an important role yet often front office staff are undervalued and dumped on.  We gave ours a budget for amazing flowers in reception. Her sense of pride was palpable. Everything was immaculate. Psychologically this set the tone – you walked in and instantly felt, ‘This is where great people come to do great work.’

    Another artefact was our welcome cake.  This arrived as soon as a client came to us for a meeting.  It created a sense of theatre around the sales process. It instantly said, ‘We’ve made an effort’ and gave prospective clients a sense of the service they could expect.  The cake was a big part of this. Huge and chocolate. They had to be homemade (often by a member of staff’s mum). A bought cake wouldn’t have cut it. Our quote conversion rate rose from 40% when we visited clients to 80% when they came to us and were given Sam’s mum’s cake!  

    On their first day, we gave all new staff a little black book.  Not just any old black book but a quality item like a moleskine. I’d tell them a story.  When I was a student, I’d rented a flat with a purple carpet, orange curtains and hideous brown sofas.  I hated them from the start but, after a while, stopped noticing them. In the same way, I’d say, ‘You’re new and I want to know what you think is strange, weird,  or badly done around here. Write this down and we’ll fix it.’ This was incredibly effective. It got rid of low level annoyances in the office and also modelled how to behave in the organisation from the very start.  

    These things have to be done right, though.  The black books worked for us because they were high quality and individual. I remember a conversation with a firm I visited after they heard me speak at an event.  They loved the idea and tried to copy it. They said it hadn’t worked. I asked them what they’d done and they said, ‘We loved the idea but decided on a red book in HR.  We told new recruits to come to our department to write their suggestions in it. They never did’. I wonder why?

    Motivation and reward

    Once staff had finished their probation period at Rackspace, they were given a branded backpack.  This was presented to them in public at the monthly All Hands, with the whole team applauding, and it said to them, ‘You’re now one of us – a ‘Racker’.  Even the nickname gave a sense of belonging. Staff visiting from the US were given these backpacks too so that, when they returned home, they symbolised to their colleagues that they’d been on a tour of duty to the UK.

    For every year somebody had worked for us, we’d put a gold star on the handset of their phone. These symbols of longevity cost nothing but told members of staff that we valued their commitment.

    At IT Lab, we produced Employee Benefits Statements on 1stJanuary every year.  These laid out exactly how much we’d spent on them.  Not just salary and bonus but also how much their training had cost, their free parking, the free ice creams, crisps, cereal.  All the ancillary stuff.  This significantly reduced staff churn as it was really clear to staff what they were getting.  And it was hard to beat!

    Represent shared achievement

    Artefacts and symbols can be used to bond teams together with a sense of shared achievement. I love this example.  As part of the recruitment process at IT Lab, interviewees were given a blank sheet of paper and some coloured pencils. We gave them 10 minutes to draw something that motivated or inspired them.  After the initial shock, they’d draw pictures of houses, families, holidays, hobbies – anything that inspired them and gave them joy. We asked them to sign and date the picture and, if employed, it was framed and put on the wall with everyone else’s. This ‘gallery’ was a visual expression of all the people in the team and provided a massive talking point. It also generated a huge amount of laughter!

    As well as this, we had a big, brass ship’s bell on the wall. Every time someone made a sale, they’d ring the bell, everyone would stop what they were doing and reward them with a standing ovation. This added to the positive energy in the air and the sense of purpose shared by every member of the company.

    Ultimately, good organisations look after their staff. And it’s the small things that matter.  Put time, effort and money into this.  Don’t scrimp or cut corners.  You’ll find better engagement in your staff can lead to an increase of 40% of discretionary effort.  That’s a huge gain, making it far easier to scale-up and grow your company.

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    Written by expert business coach Dom Monkhouse — founder of Foundry Media. Find out more about his work here.

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