By Kirsten Behncke Colyer, VP of People & Talent at Justworks
As a growing business scales and becomes more complex, it becomes harder to maintain company culture. Kirsten Behncke Colyer, VP of People & Talent at Justworks, the fastest growing HR technology platform, shares insights and tips for addressing common pitfalls.
Building company culture may feel straightforward for small to mid-sized businesses with one main office location. With the whole team in one place, it’s easy to get face time with one another, participate in activities together, and bond as colleagues.
But as companies grow and scale, things get more complex. Maybe you create more levels of management, open another office, or hire remote employees. The more complexity you add, the harder it can be to maintain the company culture that came easily as a smaller business.
There are many cultural pitfalls to be aware of as you scale — some avoidable, and some not. In this post, we’ll explore those pitfalls, and discuss what you can do as an employer to steer your company in the right direction.
Stressing Your Company Culture
For growing businesses, headcount isn’t the best way to predict when you’ll begin to see the problems due to expansion take shape. It’s not only about the number of employees, but rather about how many layers and stresses you’re adding to your organization.
At Justworks, for instance, our entire team works from one office. Because of this, we may have fewer problems with company culture than a business that has the same amount of employees, but operates on a global level. When you keep the complexity low, you can keep your current structure in place longer. If you add complexity, like additional levels of management or remote teams, the system is going to break much faster — unless you build more structure.
That said, there are some typical “breaking points;” generally when a company is moving toward 100 employees and again over 300 — depending on whether the company is in multiple locations. The reason for these breaking points is created by the levels of management between employees and the founder or CEO. Every level of managers makes it more difficult to keep the culture intact, as managers may not be as aligned to the company values.
Even knowing all this and preparing however you can, there are a couple of pitfalls most businesses simply won’t be able to avoid. These include communication, and “being in the know.”
As you grow, you add layers to your company. Every layer you add pushes on your communication and stresses it. Eventually, it starts to resemble a kids’ game of telephone — the message you start with is unrecognizable when it comes out on the other end. This kind of confusion is what happens unless you build a support structure.
A support structure is essentially the additional means of communication that you didn’t need when your company was small. With the added employees and layers of management, you’ll need to become a little more formal. Maybe you add All Hands meetings to the company calendar, or maybe you send more company-wide emails on specific topics so that everyone has the right context and information. It’s up to you to build a support structure that suits your team and culture.
As you get even larger, you also need to train all your managers to enable efficient communication all the way down the ladder. It’s often the case that the people at the top — the leadership team — communicate well with the handful of people who report directly to them. But that next layer of managers might not be trained well enough to pass information down correctly to their reports. In other words, key information doesn’t flow down properly, and many employees feel left in the dark. Ideally, you want every single layer to be good at communication for the business to run effectively and maintain the company culture.
“Being in the Know”
It’s also important to understand what’s critical for everybody to know, and what’s white noise. For example, at this point in Justworks (now well over 400 employees), no single person can know everything that’s going on — it’s impossible. There aren’t enough hours in the day! And when you communicate too much, people tend to get overwhelmed and stop listening.
For a growing business, it’s crucial to differentiate between what people need to know to do their job, and what they want to know to feel they’re informed. Those can be two different things, and there’s certainly an emotional component to it. For instance, an employee doesn’t need to know how their compensation is structured to do their job well. But if they don’t know about the salary policies in place, they won’t feel informed. They may also feel less motivated, less valued, and less in control.
Nowadays, when it comes to company-wide information that’s not directly job related, my advice is to err on the side of oversharing. Why? More and more employees tend to prize transparency and have a mindset of expecting it from their company. When employees feel informed, they likely have more trust and confidence in leadership, and are more open to building and maintaining company culture.
It Starts With Hiring
It may seem obvious, but if you want to maintain company culture, you should hire for culture fit — not just technical expertise. At Justworks, we live and breathe our core values, and they are ingrained in our interview process. Empowering every person within the organization to know the values inside and out — and look for those values in every candidate — is one way that we maintain our company culture as we scale.
Developing similar strategies that suit your own growing business is a good first step for any employer to set off in the right direction. It is so critical to assure that every new hire has the potential to be a culture carrier who will help ensure the company grows in the right way.