How we are building a company culture around our people

Catherine Heath | May 10, 2019

We spend so much of our time at work. And yet many people feel disconnected from their jobs, and they can't wait to go home. This is bad news for employees, for customers, and the productivity of companies in general. 

That's one of the reasons why we think it's so important to build a people-focused culture here at KnowledgeOwl. We believe that when we are connected to the job and our coworkers, we also feel more connected to customers and users. We are being fully human at work instead of just being “on the job” and running out the clock.

You need to keep your emotions switched on to do your best work, instead of numbing out through frustration. Staying switched on happens best in a positive, supportive work environment where people feel safe enough to be themselves.

Most companies would agree that your people are your most valuable asset. People-first cultures stem from one value only: putting people first. So how can we actually put people first in practice? The methods will be different for each company culture, since each company and its founders is unique. 

These are some loose recommendations that are working well for us, and that we hope by sharing can inspire you.

Spend time on your application form

“We focus on two things when hiring. First, find the best people you can in the world. And second, let them do their work. Just get out of their way.”Brian Halligan, co-founder of HubSpot

The recruitment process is often a potential new team member’s first encounter with your company. Don’t be afraid to show a bit of personality in your application form, and allow candidates to share the information they think is important. 

Here’s an example we've used:

If you're a startup or SME, hire new employees slowly and compensate generously. Allow your employees to set their own hourly rates and define the number of hours that they can work. And then pay them what they’ve defined themselves as being worth. 

Ask new team members what their ideal rates are, and live your values by “putting your money where your mouth is”. We work with our employees as remote contractors, so we ask people to factor in their other expenses like equipment and time off. We are willing to hire only the best for our support team, because we are a customer support-focused business.

Think this all sounds crazy? 

Promises of compensation based on future profits excludes many people from your applicant pool. Don’t allow money to be an issue when it comes to hiring the best candidates. If people feel paid what they're worth, they'll do their best work. 

Allow people to define the scope of their work

We don't make rigid job descriptions, although we have to hire people to perform certain jobs. We want people to carve out the role that suits them, and we don't box them in. 

Allow people to direct their own work and make that happen. Employees set their own schedule that suits them, as long as they feel they can get the job done and we have broad enough coverage of support hours. We don't have complex systems for our support folks to follow so they can help customers. Any of our customers can book time directly with any one of our support team, with no hoops to jump through. 

It’s better to get the right people in the job in than to be overly rigid about how people should work. Some people get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. We should work to live, not live to work. 

Most people wonder, what’s the catch in all this? The catch is that you need to hire autonomous and autotelic team players who can manage their own time.

Encourage employees to choose their own job titles

We encourage our employees to pick their own job titles. 

Names are important. They form a big part of our identity. Not many people want to be called a "Customer Response Advisor". 

Of course, job titles have to make sense, and custom job titles won’t be appropriate for every industry. But designing your own job title helps people feel more ownership of the work they do. And customers love it.

For example, I am a Community Builder. Other people are called Knowledge Goddess & Chief Executive Owl, Support Sorceress & Cheesemonger, Support Pyromancer & Project Pyromaniac, and Knowledge Sheriff.

It creates a more informal atmosphere that shows we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we like to have fun. It also allows customers to be more relaxed. We think that having fun names helps break down that wall the makes us forget we are all people at the end of the day.

Learn about people in interviews

When we interview someone, we don't just ask them about their past experience and whether they can perform certain tasks. We also want to learn about them as a person. 

When you interview someone for a potential role, ask them about their personal life. Don't go too deep, though! Just find out what makes them passionate and what they do for fun. If you also share things about yourself as a person, this encourages the other person to open up more.

By asking about their personal pursuits, this puts the focus on your interviewees as people. Of course, you need to make sure any potential employee can do the job. Personality fit is no replacement for technical competency. But your aim should be to find the right people to fit into your team. And this way, you can also hire people with potential to develop into the role.

Help them develop

So far, these tips have focused on the recruitment end of the job spectrum. Recruitment is an important phase, but most culture happens on the job after you’ve hired someone.

Help your employees to do the things that make them better as people, both professionally and personally. You can support their activities outside of work, for example. Let them have time off to go for their daily swim or run. Far from these activities being likely to take them away from work, people will feel fulfilled and more motivated on the job.

For example, if one of your employees is putting on a comedy show, you can help financially support it. You could make it the focus of the yearly company meetup. We had a company trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, for the Fringe festival in 2016, to do just that.

Of course, people need to develop within their job as well. Paying employees to learn new skills for one day a week encourages the right attitude in work. We pay our support folks to spend one day a week on learning anything they want.

Foster a customer service culture

"The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people."Tom Peters, Speaker and Author

As we've already mentioned, we have a customer service-focused culture. We want everything we do to revolve around our customers. 

Putting your customers at the center naturally develops a focus on your own people. You need to treat your employees as least as well as you treat your customers, since these folks are the ones dealing with customers every day. These are the people who will be building relationships with your customers.

In many companies, customer support teams can feel that they are at the bottom of the pecking order. In contrast, our support team is at the heart of our company culture. This shows just how much we value our customers. And our developers also do customer support when they need to. 

We meet as many customers as we can at conferences we attend, like Write the Docs and STC Summit, which we try to attend as a team. Customers are not just numbers to us. 

Consider a flat company culture

Employees play a big role in the formation of the company, especially at the early stages. At KnowledgeOwl, we have no middle management structure, and people are empowered to get their work done. 

If someone has an idea, they can implement it right away without having to follow the chain of command. Anyone can make a decision. Self-managing teams get work done faster. Executives make the final decisions affecting the whole company, but there is a large amount of autonomy for individual workers. 

For example, support folks can make high-level decisions about how to help customers, and are free to decide what to do with their time. If they want to implement a new process, they can do so with minimum fuss. 

New ideas are welcomed and open communication makes launching new initiatives very fast. People are encouraged to work outside their chosen “discipline” and there is cross-pollination.

Open communication is about making the conversations you have visible so everyone can look back on the history. For example, we have created Slack channels for every major project or activity, and we use Asana to track tasks. This is a great way of capturing knowledge and collaborating. 

Celebrate your wins

It's easy to move so fast in a small, remote, company that we don't take the time to smell the roses. Luckily, we have found a way to easily share wins that help us all stay motivated. 

You can take the time to highlight when good things happen at work. For example, if a customer says something nice in a support conversation, share this with the team. We have created a Slack channel “warm-fuzzies”. Each time a customer feeds back something nice, anyone can post it in the channel. 

Make it a habit to post in the channel whenever a customer says something nice about something your team has done. This also has the effect of helping non-customer facing employees feel closer to the customers.

“Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why

Live your values

In the professional world, people are often not the focus of a business's activities. As a result, employees do not bring their whole selves to work. They come in, do a job, and leave to live their real lives in the evenings and at the weekend. Often, these same companies struggle with cultural problems, and employees are "disengaged".

You can’t have every need met by work, but work is a very important part of life. That's why it's so crucial to live your values as a company, and support your team to be a whole person. This includes supporting people through difficult life experiences, which show the true nature of a company. That being said, don’t just help your employees when they’re visibly struggling. Actively work to help them build a role that they love.

Putting people first is all part of living your values, but the leaders of an organization embody the values that define the culture. You can say that you put people first, but if you don’t do it in practice then it won’t become the reality of the team.

“Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture.”Brittany Forsyth, VP of Human Relations at Shopify

Putting people first is an important value. But in a lot of businesses, naturally the focus is on the bottom line. While making money is important for any company, this shouldn't be the ultimate goal.

Fostering loyalty with team culture

Building a people-first team culture is rewarding in itself, but it also has some important secondary wins. These kinds of cultural practices foster a deep loyalty in your team members. You have given them something valuable, so they naturally want to give something back. Even when they leave, your former employees will rave about you. 

When people are emotionally committed to a company, you need fewer rules and regulations. People instinctively gravitate towards the right thing to do. It’s never about sugar-coating the reality of the work, but employees feel warm about the company

Let’s finish on this great quote from Clarence Francis:

"You can buy a person's time; you can buy their physical presence at a given place; you can even buy a measured number of their skilled muscular motions per hour. But you cannot buy enthusiasm ... You cannot buy loyalty ... You cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, or souls. You must earn these."Clarence Francis, Former Chairman of the Board General Foods Corporation

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About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 


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