Ping Pong Tables, Free Craft Beer and Dogs: Corporate Culture in a Nutshell

Man playing ping pong

I know you may be thinking, “OK, you grabbed my attention with that headline, but what do ping pong tables, free craft beer on Fridays and bringing your dog to work have to do with corporate culture?” Not much actually. I admit to baiting you by highlighting some of the more sensational corporate perks I have witnessed. But, keep reading and you might be surprised to learn the real secrets to building an enviable corporate culture.

Corporate Culture By Definition

From Investopedia, “Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees, management and customers interact. Typically, a company’s corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time. A company’s culture will be reflected in its dress code, business hours, office configuration, employee benefits, hiring decisions, operational approach, treatment of clients and financial structure.”

Like it or not, by design or happenstance, every organization has an inherent culture. In an effort to establish one that would appeal to techies, some Silicon Valley firms famously purchased ping pong tables, bean bag chairs and foosball tables to attract and retain top tech talent. These companies were apparently not run by techies because we all know you attract more techies with free food and beer! And while Silicon Valley icon Google does not offer their employees free tap beers, they are well known for their employee friendly corporate culture. Offering unconventional perks such as on-site doctors, car washes, hair stylists and massages, along with more conventional perks like flextime, tuition reimbursement and telecommuting.

By now, most companies realize that establishing a desirable corporate culture is as critical to the long term viability of a company as creating and delivering high quality, desirable products. But unlike product development, few companies consciously apply significant effort into engineering their corporate culture like they put into developing their production and marketing strategies. Typically, corporate culture establishes by chance and once entrenched, it’s difficult to quickly change course. Much like turning an aircraft carrier on the open sea. It takes planning, time and plenty of room to absorb the steering inputs.

Corporate Culture By Design

So, you feel like your corporate culture isn’t what it needs to be. You’re ready to make changes, but you are in a fog regarding how to get started. As with most problems in search of a solution, it’s always best to define where you are going before you set sail. First, let’s identify a simply stated goal: I want to develop a corporate culture that caters to happy, loyal employees. Why? Because, broadly speaking, happy, satisfied employees work hard, stick around and produce great products for your customers.

So, how do we make our employees happy and satisfied?  Believe me, it’s not always the first and most obvious things that pop into your head, such as salary and traditional benefits like vacation and healthcare. Sure, these are important, but most employees would rank these benefits somewhere below their top three.  Remember, there are thousands of ping pong tables gathering dust all over America in former warehouse spaces, now converted into tech lofts.

So, what do employees really want?

Their primary needs fall into three broad categories: meaningful work, fair treatment and real work/life balance.

  1. Meaningful Work – People want to build meaningful things or have a material impact on people’s lives. At the end of the day, they want to feel like their craft is important and they can be proud of their accomplishments.
  2. Teamwork – All companies are symbiotic organisms. Everybody should know their role and just how vital their role is in supporting the organization.
  3. Respect – People need to know that their ideas and opinions are valued by peers and management. And while there may be hierarchical job roles in any organization, that doesn’t have to translate into class distinctions. Believe it or not, it means a lot to people when all employees share the same break-room facilities and when management keeps an open office door policy. People appreciate that leadership want to get to know them on a personal level and are open to hearing their ideas and opinions.
  4. Fairness – Nothing will sour a corporate culture with greater certainty than the evil “isms”: nepotism, cronyism, sexism and racism. Employees will flourish if they know they work in a fear free environment. One where their value is based on things they can control like creativity, productivity and commitment. They should know the path to promotion and pay increases and that they have an equal and fair shot at advancement.
  5. Corporate Transparency and Integrity – How is the organism doing? Are we healthy or not feeling so well? Management should routinely provide feedback in written form reporting the good and bad, regarding financial performance, production goals, hiring goals and company awards or setbacks. We all deal with ups and downs in our personal lives and can deal with similar issues regarding our careers. Employees want to be part of an open and honest organization. One where they can be proud to proclaim they are employed.
  6. Work Life Balance – Let’s accept that people have busy lives and commitments outside of work, which may involve some work/life schedule juggling from time to time. Without diving too far into the weeds, it’s important to develop policies that provide employees the tools to effectively balance work and life. Common examples include flexible work schedules and occasional telecommuting.
  7. Non-Traditional Benefits – While important and personally appreciated, I consider this category to be secondary in importance to any of the others listed above. Let’s face it, these perks are a lot easier for most companies to establish, but their importance to a top tier corporate culture should be considered just icing on the cake. That said, companies can utilize a variety of avenues to show their appreciation for employees and allow them to proclaim their individuality in a fun and beneficial manner. Ideas include catered corporate lunches, ugly sweater competitions, healthy snack bars, holiday and other seasonal parties, hockey and baseball season tickets, post graduate education benefits, gym memberships, fitness competitions and the list goes on and on.

The Bottom Line…

While there is no one size fits all approach to developing a desirable corporate culture, companies can improve their standing by strongly addressing those areas considered most important to employees. It will take some time and effort, but the payoff will yield benefits in the long run.

For the past few years, the company I work for, Saturn Systems, has won two prestigious awards given to top workplaces in the state of MinnesotaThese awards recognize companies that have established employee friendly workplaces as surveyed by their employees. I can’t speak for the other awardees, but in our case, this honor is the result of many years of planning and implementing our corporate culture with the simple goal of building an atmosphere where employees actually enjoy, even relish spending 50% of their waking hours.

About Mark Chmielewski

Mark ChmielewskiMark was born and raised in a small farming community in central Minnesota, but moved to Duluth so he could live closer to the wilderness and pursue his childhood dream of a career in engineering (seriously). And after more than four years, he graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in Computer Engineering. Mark now serves as Senior Vice President and partner for Saturn Systems, which provides a never ending queue of technical and business issues in need of solutions. Isn’t that a dyed in the wool engineer’s dream job? But there is more to life than solving problems. In his free time, Mark enjoys spending time with his family, and cross country skiing and mountain biking on Duluth’s conveniently close, world class recreational trails.

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