Past the Ping Pong Tables

Your internal brand matters more than your office perks

Back Article Feb 9, 2015 By MaryJayne Zemer

Thinking about progressive company cultures probably brings to mind businesses like Google, Twitter, Facebook — companies with ping pong tables, free snacks and bean bag chairs. It’s no coincidence that all of them made it into Glassdoor’s 2014 list of top companies for culture and values. 

But it’s not the toys and perks that create these cultures. Collaborative-style seating and ping pong tables are the side effects, rather than the catalysts, of enviable and innovative company cultures.

But if office perks aren’t the ultimate culture cure, then what is?

What Do We Value?

Authentic values and an aligned internal brand have far more impact on culture than trendy office perks.

A company’s culture is the intangible accumulation of its values, expectations, taboos and work styles. The behaviors that are rewarded and reinforced shape structures and processes, effectively creating the culture. Do we work late? Wear jeans? Work from home? Are new ideas and approaches encouraged, killed swiftly or ignored completely? Do we defer to the highest paid person’s opinion (known at Google as the “HiPPO”)?

Aaron Klein founded the Auburn-based Riskalyze, a web-based tech startup that helps investors analyze risk, in 2011. Because Klein believes that true critical thinking relies heavily on freedom, “it’s the core philosophy” under which he runs his company. “We don’t have a lot of rules, because we believe that smart people thrive on freedom,” he says.

To that end, Klein’s employees enjoy an open expense policy, which means there are no rules about what can or cannot count as a company expense. Riskalyze trusts its employees to decide for themselves what they should be reimbursed for and only asks that employees respect company funds the way they respect their own. They can also rest assured that no one will look over their shoulders to micromanage their to-do lists.

Make It Work

Minnesota-based multinational manufacturing firm 3M has set out to be a “global innovation company that never stops inventing,” and so actively encourages a practice known as “flexible attention.” If the answer to a problem just isn’t coming to you, 3M suggests taking a walk or playing a little ping pong.

Why? Because when our minds are at ease, the alpha waves in our brains work differently, triggering those “ah-ha” moments. That’s why so many of us get our brightest ideas in the shower, and it’s also why the offices of companies that value innovation tend to look a bit like the den in a college dorm.

In order for freedom to work operationally, Riskalyze prioritizes transparent communication. Team lunches allow leadership to fill everyone in on strategy shifts and progress made. Klein says that after each meeting, the team is aligned. Open communication and accountability ensures employees know that “if they do a good job, good things happen for the company and therefore, by extension, for their own career,” he says.  

The Pay-Off

Aligning the team to the strategy creates a culture that is managed by each individual’s personal commitment, making micromanagement and hefty policy manuals unnecessary. What those ping pong tables and flexible office policies actually do is empower employees throughout the entire organization to embody the company’s brand and deliver on its values. And employees who understand, commit to and embrace daily their organization’s vision stay longer and work better.

But this sort of work environment doesn’t just retain talent, it helps get them in the door. According to Klein, the autonomy offered at Riskalyze can be worth more to potential employees than a hefty sign-on bonus. A recent study by Global Workplace Analytics found that millennials on average ranked flexible work arrangements as an eight out of 10 in importance when it came to overall job satisfaction. Conversely, the flexible work style isn’t a good fit for applicants who are driven more by management’s expectations than their personal passions.

For Emma Fletcher, cofounder of local tech startup The Rocket Department, fitting into her company’s culture is even more important than having the necessary skills to do the job.

“Hiring people who fit the existing culture — that’s how you maintain a culture that you love,” she says. “You have to find the right humans. Skills are less important than personality. Skills you can train.”

But what will really ensure your company culture allows your business to thrive? Living it. Klein says it’s important to both think critically about what your company’s culture will look like, and then spend every day implementing it.

“Any massive multinational conglomerate can buy ping pong tables; that doesn’t give you a culture,” he says.  “A lot of companies print the values out and put them on the wall, and that’s as far as their values go. But it’s living values consistently, not just having them, that produces a true cultural return.”

So, put the paddles away. First, it’s time to operationalize those core values and build a culture you’re proud of. After that, maybe consider a game of ping pong. 

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