Growing Into Culture

A search for deeper meaning than ping pong tables and free lunches.

As a designer who’s made the rounds at several different companies and teams, I’ve had my share of exposure to company culture. One thing I’ve noticed, through all the different roles I’ve had, is that culture is relative — so much of it is defined by personal goals and trajectory, and it can take many different forms depending on a whole slew of circumstances.

It was at a previous job that I was first exposed to a “curated” culture, meaning there was purposeful attention given to creating culture.

The office space was well-decorated and conducive to an engaging, productive work environment. The perks were focused on quality of life and happiness. Bonuses came quarterly. On the surface, everything about their culture seemed ideal, and I was excited to be a part of it. But as I spent more time within it, I began to notice something important missing:

Respect — arguably the most crucial cultural aspect of all.

Surface-Level

The conventional wisdom is that by showering employees with perks and fringe benefits, they’ll overlook any cultural shortcomings, and focus only on how good they have it.

How could you possibly be unhappy? Look at that pool table!

You know what? Sure, it’d be nice to shoot a quick game of 8-ball when I’ve got the time.

You’re thinking of leaving? Won’t you miss the catered lunches??

Well yea, who doesn’t love somebody else picking up the lunch tab?

But if the job I’m doing day in and day out lacks any real substance, and those in charge couldn’t care less whether it’s me doing it or the latest recruit, then what’s the point?

The realization that I eventually came to is, this isn’t culture. This is benefits in lieu of culture. A true culture fosters an environment that encourages and supports those within it. It empowers team members to make mistakes and to learn from them. It believes in process and a method for determining success or failure. A true culture understands that to be effective, it needs to be rooted in a respect for people and the work they do.

What Lies Beneath

It wasn’t until I recently joined Think Brownstone that I understood what kind of culture I wanted. If my previous job was the “adolescent” incarnation of culture, only concerned with superficiality and immediate gratification, then Think Brownstone was surely the more mature, “adult” version.

Gone was the ping pong table and Startup Vitamins wall hangings, replaced instead with leather couches and wood adornments. Spotify subscriptions and Seamless credits were eschewed in favor of full health benefits and unlimited vacation. Alcohol-based incentives and internal contests gave way to weekly 1:1's and knowledge sharing sessions.

But these are still surface-level considerations.

The main differentiator between adolescence and maturity is the respect a place like Think Brownstone affords each and every one of their team members. Respect isn’t a value you can bolt on to a company that’s lacked it since inception — it’s something that needs to be built into its very DNA.

Think Brownstone has a successful culture because the company is founded on values: excellence, kindness, trust, honesty, collaboration, respect. Every decision they make, and every initiative they undertake, is beholden to this core set of principles. To me, these principles manifest as the simple understanding that we’re people first — we’re intelligent and sensitive beings with underlying needs and wants and desires. It’s through this understanding that we’re able to focus on individual meaning, and how we can use that to improve the team as a whole. Because when the company constantly strives for something better, it’s going to breed team members who want the same.

When every cultural consideration is being steered by values instead of superficiality, it’s easy to see the effect it has on the overall health and output of the team, and the company.

Growing Up

In my musings about past experiences with culture, I naively believed that it was the surface elements that empowered me to be a happy, productive team member. I realize now that unless culture permeates through to the foundation of a company, it’s not going to be able to foster growth, purpose, and most importantly, respect.

Put simply, it’s time for the companies that believe culture ends at ping pong tables and free lunches to grow up. The perks are nice, but a workplace without meaning — and a culture that lacks a mutual respect between employees and employers — is only going to drive high-quality, intelligent folks away.

In the end, what really lies at the root of a person’s happiness? More often than not, the answer isn’t something that can be put on the company credit card — it’s an intimate understanding of what drives and motivates people, leaving them feeling fulfilled and valued .

Excellence. Kindness. Trust. Honesty. Collaboration. Respect.

When culture is built with these pillars, the rest will come naturally.