Company culture can mean something different to everyone, depending on which company you’re talking to. With some of the world’s top companies leading the way, there has been a lot more discussion around what exactly company culture is and what value it has.

We’re going to take a look at some of the more meaningful approaches to company culture—beyond the fridge of beer and ping pong table—and share some insights into what company culture means to us at 99designs.

isometric illustration of company culture with teams working together in an office
Every organisation has its own company culture. It is reflected in the way people in an organisation work together and treat each other. Illustration by AndresEs.

Company culture is a lot more than perks, though it is of course nice to have catered lunch. If we dig deeper into what workplace culture really means and how it can be nurtured, we need to talk about communication style and tone, trust, responsibility, vulnerability. Then those material perks are a visible extension of that—though of course perks lose their value without the deeper culture behind them.

Why does company culture matter?

Your company culture matters because by establishing your values and mission, you will attract the right people who vibe with what you want to achieve.

In this piece proposing that company culture should be treated like a product, Emma Brudner, the Director of People Operations of travel management app Lola.com says, “When culture isn’t defined and you’re relying on an assortment of perks to fill the gap, you always have to keep up with what your competitors are offering.” Brudner goes on to say that a product that relies on “meaningless bells and whistles” to stand out won’t last long in the market, and the same can be applied to your company culture.

When you’re relying on an assortment of perks to fill the gap, you always have to keep up with what your competitors are offering.
- Emma Brudner, Director of People Operations Lola.com

If you value finding the right people to be part of your team, your company culture is what will help you stand out in a sea of companies offering the same old perks. Brudner also makes a great point that company culture can help with internal processes, to define things like management practices or employee training and development.

Illustration of three smiling women working together
Design by migoibonmat

“There are no shortcuts,” BambooHR CEO Ben Peterson says, in this entertaining video about company culture. BambooHR provides human resources software as a service.

“Company culture is ultimately about how we treat each other. How people within an organisation interact with each other and work together,” Peterson explains.

If you’re wondering how to establish a company culture, Peterson has the following tips:

  • Define your mission (…apart from making money)
  • Define your vision: what do you want to accomplish in the long term?
  • And define your values: what are the fundamental beliefs you share on how people should act and be treated?

“When you center your culture efforts around people and how they should be treated, everything else falls into place—this is what the best companies do,” Peterson says.

When you center your culture efforts around people and how they should be treated, everything else falls into place.
- Ben Peterson, CEO BambooHR

Your company culture might be happening when you’re not looking

Every company, no matter how small, has a culture—whether you’re actively trying to shape it or not.

Ben Horowitz, the technology entrepreneur and author of the new book aimed at educating executives on company culture, What You Do Is Who You Are, has an interesting take on company culture. Horowitz believes that your company mission statement is not your company culture, but rather your culture is about proactively setting positive guidelines, instead of letting things slide.

If you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.
- Ben Horowitz

Horowitz takes a philosophical approach to company culture to come up with the following: in an excerpt from his new book, he explains, “Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake,” he goes on to say, “if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.”

How we approach company culture at 99designs

At 99designs, our guiding principle is to foster a collaborative and fulfilling workplace and our shared values are:

  • We believe in putting people first.
  • We believe design has no borders.
  • We believe in people helping people create their own success.
  • We believe the journey should be fun.

Our values influence everything from the way we treat each other to the goals we set and the people we hire.

Here’s Kathrin Düring, Managing Director of 99designs Berlin, on the importance of one of our core values—putting people first: “People have always been at the core of our business—whether it’s designers, clients or our employees. At 99designs, we believe in people helping people create their own success. That’s what has inspired me from my beginnings at the company, when I started building out our European Support team. In my hiring decisions I’ve been putting considerable value on a supportive and respectful attitude in candidates, which I think has contributed to a strong team spirit here in Berlin and has positively shaped our company culture.”

I’ve been putting considerable value on a supportive and respectful attitude in candidates, which I think has contributed to a strong team spirit.
- Kathrin Düring, Managing Director 99designs Berlin
The 99designs team in Melbourne
The 99designs team in Melbourne

Every year we send a survey to all 99designs employees, so that everyone has a chance to share how they’re feeling and provide anonymous comments and feedback. This is a company-wide check-in, which helps to measure engagement and highlight possible room for improvement.

Previous survey results showed a desire for development and learning, which was addressed by setting up a mentorship program within the company, providing a free Skillshare account for each 99designs employee, and initiatives like 99time, which allows members of staff to take a day each month to work on a project indirectly related to the company. (I’m writing this article on my 99time!)

99designs team at global climate strike in Berlin
99designs team at global climate strike in Berlin

Last year our survey results have shown that the team had a strong interest in giving back and sustainability, so we introduced a volunteer day, and tried to become more sustainable in our office environments.

In Berlin, our office attended the global climate strike as a team, we started a regular group activity to pick up rubbish from the streets around our office neighbourhood, and we stopped ordering meat products and bottled water—switching to filtering our delicious Berlin tap water.

We all do our part in creating a supportive and respectful environment every single day. And by giving everyone a chance to be heard and to contribute we’ve created a motivating and fulfilling atmosphere for the whole team.

How can you establish a company culture remotely?

Creating a great company culture always takes work, but it is particularly challenging for remote teams.

In this insightful blog post by Close.com CEO Steli Efti, he shares how they manage to run a fully remote team of over twenty people with the help of shared weekly team goals and a monthly review, a weekly company-wide video call, and 1-1 chats, which help to keep everyone in the loop.

Modern, minimal illustration of woman working at a desk
Illustration by spoon lancer

Twice a year everyone on the Close team gets together in person for a company retreat. Close also helps staff to pay for a coworking membership, “We want people to leave the house. Interact with people. Go to events and network,” Efti says.

To help new hires settle in at Close, new starters fill out a “Guide to you” form about their work and communication preferences, which is then shared with the company.

An informal chat room for sharing gifs, articles and jokes helps to replace the chat the remote Close team might normally have with colleagues over a coffee in a normal office environment.

Help Scout is another fully remote company, with 75 employees working from twelve countries around the world. Help Scout co-founder and CEO Nick Francis emphasizes one of the major advantages of working remotely—that also benefits and contributes to their company culture—is having access to a wider pool of talent, “What’s most exciting to me in life is working with people who are a lot better than me and who force me to learn at a high rate. I can’t get enough of it, which is why I’m so fiercely committed to this way of working,” Francis says.

Communication at work is paramount to getting your work done, and impacts highly on how your team feels at the end of the day. 99designs is a global company with offices in Berlin, Melbourne and Oakland, and remote teams and workers in Brazil and the Philippines—so making sure our global team feels connected, is a big challenge for us. We tackle this technically with handy tools like Slack for anything brief—as well as the latest Keanu gifs—and Zoom, so we can attend meetings together across various time zones.

Additionally, we have the option to visit and work from another global office for a week, to get to know our colleagues who are working when we’re usually sleeping. As I write this article, my colleague Connie is visiting from our Oakland office, and last week Dennis from Melbourne was with us for a week. Occasional in-person visits like these are irreplaceable and really help everyone to feel more connected.

What really matters to employees?

In a collaboration earlier this year between Glassdoor and Sloan business school at MIT the Culture 500 tool was created, analyzing over a million reviews from Glassdoor that employees have left for companies they’ve worked for, in order to compare company culture across a range of companies that collectively employ 34 million people.

Through analyzing data available from ten years of employee reviews on Glassdoor, nine key cultural factors emerged that matter most to employees:

Illustration of people next to large gear
Illustration by Depanda7
  • Agility
  • Collaboration
  • Listening to the customer,
  • A diverse and inclusive workplace
  • Empowering employees to act and be accountable
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Performance
  • Respect

Netflix employees for example, felt positive about innovation and operations at work, but rate the company low for integrity and listening to the customer.

Company culture is among the top factors that job seekers consider as part of their job search.
- Glassdoor

In a Glassdoor blog post about the Culture 500, the platform says that, “company culture is among the top factors that job seekers consider as part of their job search.” Nearly half of the key factors in the Culture 500 are those that contribute to a meaningful company culture—collaboration, diversity, integrity and respect.

Perks hardly make an appearance—perhaps under the umbrella of “Performance”, for compensation and recognition. Glassdoor hopes for the data to help companies to understand the importance of these core factors for employees, and ideally to implement them into the workplace.

Give your company culture the attention it deserves

Company culture should not be something that is simply left to figure itself out—it benefits from thoughtful consideration and proactive planning, instead of applying a band-aid of surface level perks, which just can’t replace meaningful aspects of the workplace such as communication, diversity, and responsibility.

Growing a healthy company culture will not only widen the net for what kind of talent your workplace can attract, but will help you to establish the values you want your company to reflect and strive for. By all accounts a meaningful company culture where employees feel heard and respected is worth taking the time to consider, to figure out what kind of company culture you want to have, or contribute to.

Have any tips for creating a thriving company culture? Share them with us in the comments below!