After a decade of designing culture, nothing draws my ire like reading playbooks or utopian philosophies for company culture. Good culture is neither prescriptive nor unachievable. Culture is intentional, and it’s living.
Imagine an event, you create a holistic experience, but ultimately, success is based on how folks embrace, interact with and change the experience.
My inbox is an endless stream of — If you just had this tool, everything would be better. But culture isn’t one thing. Injecting an idea without care as to how it weaves in — builds a checklist, not an intentional being. Like a person, culture learns and evolves; it has roots, a personality, and more. Every company culture should be unique to its vision, values, and people.
Just as self-awareness seeks for an individual to understand their impact on the world and the world’s influence on them, culture leaders need company self-awareness of how everything ties together or doesn’t. What are the quirks, contradictions, and the things that just make sense?
Culture is in your policies, norms, meetings, training, slack chat, benefits, hiring/firing, total rewards, communications, and the ilk. It’s growing in the cracks in the ceiling. It lives, and it evolves. That evolution shouldn’t be organic. If I took the advice of every must-have idea or philosophical waxing out there, it’d be a muddy mess.
Culture is not a box, a team, a program. Culture is a foundation. It’s the rhythm of a company. It’s what people fear, love, and why they stay.
Nothing beats taking an intentional pause to observe, anthropologize, and understand your team’s inner workings, norms, and programs.
A program is never just a program. At its best, it’s an opportunity to underpin your values, often it’s noise, and at its worst, it drives bad behavior.
Since our world doesn’t come with a pause button, here are ideas from my time at Square Root for designing intentionality into a culture.
1. Bring your values to life via peer-to-peer recognition.
Platforms like Bonusly make it easy, but all it takes is a #kudos channel in Slack. Reading shout-outs lets leaders get a sense of what their team values and how their values are being shaped. The hope is that you’re building what the values mean in action together, but sometimes recognition reveals a seedy underbelly. Things like rewarding weekend work, heroics, visibility instead of balance, planning, impact can be at odds with the culture you’re designing. Recognition is both a tool for appreciation and a means to identify the ways your culture is and is not intentional.
2. Invest in growth.
Building loyalty comes by caring for and investing in your team. Square Root’s Learn Anything program allots $3,000 a year for individuals to learn anything. Not only does this infuse our team with empowerment + authenticity, but it also uncovers what interests our team. Sometimes their curiosities don’t directly tie back to work, but often, we’re able to carve future paths based on what they choose to learn. We crave innovation, creativity, and unconventionalness in our team, so we reflected those back in our learning experiences.
3. Craft a process for manager 1-on-1s.
The traditional structure of performance reviews and individual goal-setting looks back + forward. What about the present? There’s so much value in being reflective in the moment. Our managers (dubbed Sherpas) serve as a guide on the employee journey. Observing, listening, and posing questions for introspection allow everyone an opportunity to grow, course correct, and respond with humanity. My bi-weekly syncs help me connect the dots between company opportunities and individual potential. Everyone has equity in sculpting their career, and when life is tough, managers have the context to ease the burden. These meetings support-beam care, individuality, and growth.
4. Foster bonds between folks.
I’ve concluded that some folks bond at work through collaboration and some folks need an established relationship for collaboration to happen. Make space for both. We had an individual firmly in the first camp; he considered his work — a love language. Unfortunately, his first project was a solo mission. I discovered his lack of connection when he was my randomized lunch partner during my maternity leave transition. We immediately bonded as parents and started regular 1-on-1s. His feedback inspired a team shuffle and 1-on-1s with the team. The latest iteration of the program is Radical Coffee. We use the Donut integration with Slack to assign biweekly coffee dates. The bot asks silly get-to-know-you questions, encourages selfies, and keeps us connected while apart. Those bonds make it that much easier to collaborate, reach out with feedback, and feel like there’s a togetherness in our work.
5. Togetherness doesn’t need to be a high-effort, high-cost thing.
Every Monday and Friday, we gather as a team. Those meetings aren’t just bullet points on a slide. We kick ’em off with Happy News. Our group celebrates the big wins (I’m engaged!), milestones (My daughter learned to ride a bike!), and small stuff (It’s a lovely day!). It’s so much easier to interpret people in the best possible light when you get to know what matters to them. Those bonds grow. Our Design Director, Ryan, shared a story about his daughter loving Just Add Magic, which inspired my family to watch the show and make our own “magical” cookbook. It’s not about being best friends or forced fun. It’s finding joy at work, creating together, and building shorthand. Those ties make collectiveness come to life. You’re not building a family; you’re building an intentional foundation of trust and respect.
6. Leaders should test experiences to know what it’s like.
Root the act of caring into real programs. Ultimately, culture is how folks experience a company. Saying that we care about someone’s well-being is not the same as actually caring about someone’s well-being. When folks ask me for advice on company culture, one of my first questions is — What’s it like to be sick at your company? When I’m sick — I text my team, and they take it from there. Our People team notifies the right folks, moves meetings, and delays/delegates/deletes work. Before the day’s up, I’ll receive a custom care package — like soup, a new book, a houseplant, all of the above! That energy flows to our health insurance with offerings like telemedicine and mental health stipends.
7. How do we want people to feel?
In every venture, consider how do I want people to feel? For example, sharing ideas and feedback is crucial for company success, but it’s also an emotional endeavor. We all have individual experiences with authority and criticism. One of my favorite programs has been the intentional flow of training year after year. We craft custom training to move from leadership development to feedback, sensitivity, self-awareness, and back to leadership. Interlaced is a series of team surveys to underpin the training with the real-time sentiment. Mixing training with surveys tests out how well our words match the real-real.
8. Make it fun.
Everything has a theme at Square Root. Hackathon is more than just a time for experimentation and wacky ideas. Mad Scientist, Alice in Wonderland, Slash-a-Thon, and even Care Bears are past Hackathon themes. For the latter, we asked everyone to leverage user feedback, aka empathy, as the inspiration for their projects. Our office became the Kingdom of Caring, and we embarked on an Adventure in Empathy. We noshed on fluffy snacks, a rainbow cereal bar, and sipped Cheerwine. Awards included Forest of Feelings for most inspired and Wish Bear for most creative. Winners even got to present their ideas to our biggest retail client. Everything had a purpose in the event, just as everything should.
9. Always, always, always start with why.
Many moons ago, every tech company had a ping-pong table and free food. So, Square Root got a ping-pong table and free food. When you compete from the same checklist as every other company, salaries go sky-high, and you lose the ability to attract authenticity. If you’re everything to everyone, you’re nothing at the same time. Intention also means saying no. We decided to compete with a unique, people-first culture. To establish the heart behind our choices, we started with WHY! Like, why do we gather for lunch on Fridays? If you’re not clear why you’re asking people to eat free food, it doesn’t hold meaning for the team. It’s a checkbox, a must-have.
Moving to remote for the pandemic is another eye-opener. Not everything transitions from the office to remote. It’s important to get back to why you do the things you do. With free food, are you checking a box, keeping people at their desks, or are you creating bonds between folks? For us, it’s the latter.
Sharing a meal is an intimate act: the meal, experience, space, nurture relationships. Square Root launched a Friday Lunch program to give each individual the chance to pick lunch for the team from a local restaurant. On Fridays, we’d gather on the porch to share in that individual’s meal. It wasn’t just eating lunch; it was eating Courtney’s lunch, why I picked that restaurant, why I chose those items. Folks attended in curiosity. And we still laugh about the 15-pounds we all gained during the binge that was Gourdough’s Donuts, Pluckers Fried Chicken, and Homeslice Pizza. (Austinites get it.)
Now, sharing a meal means bring-your-own or food delivery gift cards. The intention to gather, to connect, to share the intimacy of a meal is still there. It adds a layer of whimsy at times. I guided my team through avocado toast making like I was on Food Network. Our HR Manager, Kelsey, got us all to make unicorn-themed cocktails in onesies. Coming together, focusing on the people, being curious together still binds us even if the distance is vast.
These programs + more have been in Fast Company, Fortune, Inc., and even PEOPLE. Some folks credit the quirky names, but for us, it’s the intentionality. Everything weaves together in a way that’s inspired and evolved by our team. We learned from that first ping-pong table; you can’t copy and paste culture.
Copying culture, adding the coolest and most outrageous perks, works short-term, but it’s not the long-game. I’ve learned that there is no perk, no flash in the pan, no item that can woo someone quite like intentionality. Saying who you are, who you’re not, and showing up as expected matters. Folks opt-in to Square Root because everything weaves together to show they are, in fact, empowered, trusted, accepted, and supported.
Intentionality shows your team who you are, what you value, and how you’ll treat them.
Hi, I’m Courtney. I’m on a mission to bring soul back to the workplace through intentional culture. My adventures in motherhood, liberal arts background, and fascination with people inspire me to design creative, feminine, and authentic employee experiences.
For more of my musings on company culture, check out:
“You Guys” Is an Act of Exclusion
It’s on all of us to harness the power of language and create belonging with our words.