There Is No ‘Startup’ Culture

There is only culture

Nancy Lyons
Jun 23, 2014 · 6 min read

These days you can’t open a tech mag or visit a business website without a lot of conversations about “startup” culture, or what people call “startup” culture. At times, they’re referring to actual startups, but often it’s used more conceptually. Startup is what we say when we’re trying to describe something that we don’t know how to articulate very effectively — because we know that typical work culture is broken and we want to make the distinction between broken and better. When we refer to this thing we call startup, we’re talking about things like a sense of ownership and empowerment and commitment and work ethic. This is all set in opposition to what happens as companies age — hierarchy supplants individual ownership, patterns of behavior become institutionalized, and specialized roles are entrenched. This “corporate” culture, or what is referred to as such, can result in individuals feeling like cogs on a wheel or names on an org chart.

“Startup” culture has come to represent, in theory as much as in practice, the time when flexibility and freshness dominate the workplace culture and environment. Yet culture is deliberate — it shouldn’t be characterized by the age of a company. If we carefully consider how we can cultivate different and better cultures within our workplaces, we could all do better work. It isn’t about “startup” culture or “corporate” culture. If we think differently about it, we can create environments where people thrive, where hard and smart work is done, where individuals are accountable, and where ideas happen, and are realized.

What do we need to change?

We can’t make people choose between what happens at home and what happens at work, or between their values and their livelihood. We want to work with people who have great ideas and families. We have to find ways to align those things so people can feel productive, included, heard, and challenged in the workplace. This will lead to more talent, movement, and innovation in the workplace as a whole and help the US keep up in a rapidly developing economy.

At my 12 year old company (hardly a startup), Clockwork Active Media, we experiment every day with ways to improve culture and, by extension, the energy at work and at home. We’re constantly exploring new ideas to underscore how much we value people and the environment we’ve created. We aren’t huge and we don’t have a ton of money to invest in shiny toys. But we do have the desire and the commitment to change, to hear each other, and to try.

And honestly, I’ve discovered over the course of my career, that what my colleagues really want is for us to hear them and to try new ideas. A few of the ideas that have stuck include how we’ve expanded the way we think about mentorship and professional development — to include things like peer leadership, an on-staff talent manager, interest groups that encourage learning and information sharing. At Clockwork communication is a priority, so we’ve instilled numerous ways for people to participate, engage, and feel recognized even if they’re not at the office: a low-fi emailed staff newsletter that fills everyone in on business development, department research, high-fives, and news; all meetings can be virtually attended and thorough meeting notes are circulated so everyone is filled in; and we celebrate Clockiversaries, Clockwork work anniversaries, with recognition and acknowledgement of personal contributions.

Both mothers and fathers need to feel supported by their companies and their cultures because families are about the whole unit, not just one member. How can we extend vacation time and benefits packages? How can we make them affordable? How can we improve the flexibility and telecommuting work possibilities? How can we scale up grassroots-level successes and findings about what helps families?

At Clockwork we welcome the children of our cohorts. We’re open to kids coming to the office with parents if parents have to attend a work event. We often host family game nights just to get to know one another. We empower our staff to set their work schedule independently (and responsibly) and time shift so they can do what needs to be done to keep their lives running smoothly. I still get raised eyebrows when I mention the “Babies at Work” program to people who are employed in large organizations. But, of course parents are going to have a difficult time transitioning back to work after maternity or paternity leave, so why not help them and their whole family with that transition? If we help them, they will be more engaged, feel a deeper connection and sense of ownership, and want to contribute to an organization that changed their life in a meaningful way. This connectedness contributes to healthy culture and bonds people to people, and people to organizations.

Over the years, HR has become fear-based and focused on prevention of litigation. We can’t afford to use HR as a mechanism to protect the organization, we have to use it as a mechanism to hear the people who work inside the organization. We have to empower HR teams to embrace new ideas and try new things that make work better for the employees versus deciding and dictating what “work” looks like and mandating it across the board.

All leadership and peers should have an open door policy that rewards conversations and information sharing — whether good or bad news. Peers should have as much a say in hiring as “management” does, and career paths should be employee-driven, not company-dictated.

There’s is a greater good for HR, and we’re totally missing it now. Humans aren’t capital, we’re people. When HR works for the people, they respond by engaging, investing, and excelling.

Fun perks are great, and maybe they help attract and retain talent. But perks aren’t culture. At Clockwork we offer all of the typical 21st-Century perks that tend to be the focal point of Great Places to Work awards banquets. But there are deeper meanings to culture and how we thrive within it, and we need to explore these. We have to make room for voices and conversations. Deeper, better solutions will come out of deeper, engaged conversations — but we have to cultivate them.

At Clockwork we do things like hosting (and attending) community and industry events, bringing a CSA day (organic farm vegetables!) to the office, having a walking work station and a Nice Ride MN bike sharing membership, and hosting an internal launch lunch where we share project learning and successes. Our monthly Lab Day — where employees can bring an interest or an idea to the table and dedicate the day to it — encourages creative curiosity and collaboration. We’re rolling out a variation on this concept this month with a Lab Day of Service, a day dedicated to helping an organization by donating our expertise and people power.

Culture is about how people feel at work and how they’re supported in doing good work. These “perks” are all part of a greater cultural value system that puts people first; a value set that thinks about what humans need to make their lives more balanced, healthy, and happy.

If we change what we think “work” looks like, and what “family” looks like, we can change what it means to be productive, successful, and meaningful. Work doesn’t have to be at a desk from 9-5 — as an employer I don’t want to dictate HOW people work. I need only expect that they perform well. And family isn’t just two parents and their children any more — I don’t get to choose what family means to the people with whom I work. The family construct is not simple and not really my business as an employer.

Work and family aren’t predefined, culturally-static things, they can be fluid and flexible if we think innovatively. Our workplace culture can be anything we want it to be as long as we approach it deliberately. Culture conveys and carries purpose. Culture creates empowering challenges and meaningful engagement. If we let all of this be compromised because we simply are more comfortable resisting change, then we are failing at culture and we are failing at work. But bigger than that — we are failing people.

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