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4 Secrets to Company Culture

“Company culture” is a buzzworthy phrase that we’re guessing you’ve heard a few times. But when you get down to it, what does it really mean, and why is a positive company culture so important?

San Francisco’s Elefint Designs has created a positive, inspiring and challenging company culture as part of their successful design studio. In this week’s Design Your Life, Elefint co-founder Gopika Prabhu tells us why building positive company culture is important for the success of any business, and shares tips on how you can replicate the Elefint experience in your company.

When I first started Elefint Designs, my co-founder and I talked about a million things – where we wanted to be, whom we wanted to work with, how we wanted to grow. We talked about company culture, but until we started hiring employees, our ideas remained mostly hypothetical. While I knew that creating positive company culture was important, I struggled to fully understand the impact a company’s culture can have on achieving overall goals. Looking back almost five years later with a team of seven full-time employees, I’ve learned that company culture isn’t just about fun – it’s about creating a space where people can handle the entire range of emotions involved in the creative process.

Here are a few of the ways we’ve worked toward creating a positive company culture at Elefint:

1. Realize that culture is emergent and dynamic.

While mission statements are important, creating a warm and fuzzy mission statement about your company, mission and goals isn’t enough. The second you stop considering the people within your company, your culture gets stagnant. Compare this to the process of making chocolate chip cookies: You mix a bunch of ingredients together that you think are right, but it’s not until you taste the cookie that you can tell whether it’s a good mixture or not. At Elefint, we’re constantly changing things to ensure our core values remain a living, breathing organism shaped by our people. For example, our Elefint Opportunities meeting enables everyone to suggest specific causes and organizations they want to work with. I never would have thought that introducing this type of process would get everyone so excited and engaged.

2. Know your team.

At Elefint, we care a lot about what drives people. With this in mind, we had everyone at Elefint take the True Colors personality test. It not only educated me on the types of people that naturally gravitate toward certain roles (this is awesome when you’re hiring, by the way), but it also helped me empathize with one employee in particular who was struggling to be happy in her role as project manager. Rather than complaining or avoiding confrontation, we embraced the reality that unless we encouraged our employees to pursue what really excited them – even if that meant leaving the studio – they would become unhappy and the culture would suffer. The more you connect with your employees, the easier it is to communicate and resolve situations in a way that’s mutually beneficial. Being real and staying true to what is happening with everyone has been key to creating a strong and open culture where honesty and self-reflection are encouraged.

3. Invest in people – not things.

It’s important to give people the ability to develop their skills and be happy. We set aside a few hours each week for people to work on side projects they care deeply about. One of our designers, for example, is passionate about LGBTQ issues, so he devoted a significant amount of his professional development time to helping the Queer Oral History Project launch their new brand and website.

4. Use structure to support culture.

While culture is largely about people and values, corporate structure can also support what you’re trying to build. We became a B Corp because it helped us align our desire to be profitable with our commitment to doing good. The certification requirements helped our values permeate all areas of our business, from employee benefits and health and wellness initiatives to greater financial transparency.

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