How Startups Can Develop – and Maintain – a Winning Company Culture

Engaged companies have been shown to generate more profit and revenue growth, deliver higher levels of customer satisfaction, and overall work more productively–just check out this study performed in the UK.

Not surprisingly, founders of successful startups tend to epitomize what it means to have an engaged workforce. Driven by passion and yearning for success, and often parlaying full-time employment for the opportunity to create a meaningful career on their own terms.

I recently talked with David Zinger, renowned Employee Engagement Expert, about employee engagement in start-ups, why it’s important, and how start-ups can hold onto that momentum as they transition into an established firm.


Startups Have a Natural Employee Engagement Advantage

To launch a business model requires a consistently high level of engagement with the ability to do a lot with minimum resources, so even as a solo enterprise you won’t get very far without engagement. You personally need to be engaged.

While larger organizations often come upon times in which they struggle to maintain levels of engagement, startups tend to have less disinterest from their ranks. David explains, “You would expect that a startup would have a leg up on engagement. Novelty often engages. And it also may be easier to engage 20 or even 100 employees than to engage 1,000.”


Celebrating Successes and Dealing with Setbacks

But what about as a company grows, how do you keep that fire burning so to speak?  In response, David Zinger points to work done by Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Teresa developed The Progress Principle as a blueprint to “building a cadre of employees that have great inner work lives—consistently positive emotions; strong motivation; and favourable perceptions of the organization; their work; and their colleagues.”

In her book written along with Steven Kramer, they describe how to remove obstacles to progress including meaningless tasks and toxic relationships. They go on to prescribe the two types of events, required in regular doses, in order to develop and nurture an engaged workforce:

1. Catalysts: events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy, and;

2. “Nourishers”: interpersonal events that uplift workers, including encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality.

So, in short, choose your management team wisely, and invest in leadership development if you wish to avoid levels of engagement trailing off in the tail end of your company’s formative years.


Other Practical Steps

gShift Labs is a growing marketing analytics tech firm from Barrie, Ontario featured in Profit’s 2013 Hot 50. gShift provides its clients with industry leading SEO software. The company’s CEO, Krista LaRiviere ,agrees with David Zinger that finding people that “fit” into the corporate culture is an important part of keeping staff engaged.

In addition, Krista says “gShift aims to keep employees engaged by empowering them to pursue innovative technology solutions.” She adds, “We also offer fair compensation, an employee referral program to identify new potential team members and an Employee/Peer Recognition Program, which rewards those who go above and beyond to help the company succeed.” 


Where do Foosball Tables Fit In?

With all of the attention the presence of pub-style recreational activities at start-ups receive, I had to ask David about the importance of foosball in nurturing a happy and productive workforce. 

“I like having fun and I appreciate the importance of breaks and getting away from nonstop work,” said David. “Yet to me, full engagement is more about immersion than diversion. Diversion games may offer a break from demands and may offer a chance to recovery while bringing people together. But for sustainable engagement, I would take the principles and practices of games and integrate them into the work we do that matters. Games engage and thus, we can learn a great deal about how to heighten engagement at work by applying the principles and practices of gamification.” 


What Role Can Gamification Play in Developing Company Culture?

I spoke with Jacob Shriar of OfficeVibe to learn a little more about Gamification and how it helps develop a positive company culture.

“Gamification,” Jacob told me, “is really just adding gaming elements (like points, badges, achievements), to something that’s not yet a game (i.e. work).

“Our product, Officevibe,” he continued, “is a collection of hundreds of activities that employees can do to make themselves and their coworkers happier, healthier, and more productive. Our application is gamified, because we want to incentivize, and encourage users to keep doing these things over and over, because they’re so beneficial. While foosball tables and Playstations may send a positive signal to employees, which is: management wants them to relax and have fun at work, actually integrating fun into work is that much more of a powerful way to improve productivity.”


Growing in the Right Direction from the Start

Finally, I asked what advice he would give early-stage start-ups to help them cultivate a winning company culture from day one.

“Give people a say and let their voices be heard,” David replied.  “Culture can be created one conversation at a time and is something that resides in employees rather than on a poster hanging from the wall.”