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On creating a great work culture (and how not to lose it)

Nasser Oudjidane
December 19, 2022

Organisational culture is the secret sauce that separates the ‘meh’ companies from the major players. In these turbulent times, what can we learn from the Stripe success story, and are high-fives and high productivity a thing of the past?

Stripe’s culture-building success

‘Company culture’ is one of those great intangibles that most people agree is important, but few can define very well. Brie Wolfson, a former Stripe employee, has made a valiant attempt to do so in a blog titled ‘What I Miss About Working At Stripe’.

Stripe is one of the best run businesses in the world, and has an underlying ethos that a company’s culture is up to everyone to build. While Brie reveals that “the culture was demanding”, what’s striking is that Stripe employees, or Stripes, are described as 100% behind the mission statement  – ‘to increase the GDP of the internet’ – and are more than happy to go the extra mile.

“It felt like magic, but there was deep thought, care, and intention behind everything. I had a tingly feeling that I was part of an organisation that had cracked something about creating a great culture.”

What does this culture look like? Brie lists some of Stripe’s “culture-shaping initiatives”:

  • “Creating a forum for Stripes to share their personal histories with each other”
  • “Interviewing candidates including prospective company leaders on their cultural fit”
  • “Integrating newly-acquired teams” and embedding “inclusion principles”.

A culture is not just an idea on a flipchart, but a living, breathing thing. And at Stripe, that meant a lot of hard work, but also pride in the fruits of one’s labour. Brie gets misty-eyed about legendary late-night pizza sessions, and the satisfaction of solving problems in an environment where “it’s really, really cool to devote yourself fully to your work”.

But the world has changed, and is this 100mph work culture a viable hiring strategy in 2022?

Paradise lost

“I can’t help but feel like Silicon Valley has lost this culture”, Brie goes on to lament. 

Before we open the violin case, let’s ask ourselves: is Stripe-style productivity a thing of the past? And have we forgotten how to ‘operate well’?

A series of tweets by Amjad Masad, Replit CEO, certainly gives food for thought. Amjad cites Microsoft, who had 40 employees in 1980, in a world where software options were limited, and where outsourcing HR and payroll functions simply wasn’t possible. Despite this, Microsoft became a world-renowned tech behemoth. Amjad asks: “Most startups don’t have nearly the same level of productivity as startups in the 80s. Why?”

Explaining the culture change

We’re not going to have all the answers in one pint-sized blog, but there are various explanations as to why we’re seeing a shift towards a more casual, pipe ‘n’ slippers approach to work – what Brie calls a LGTM (Looks Good To Me) culture. Here are some competing theories:

  1. The hybrid and remote revolution

“The shift towards remote and hybrid work isn’t doing us any favors in the collaboration department,” Brie notes in her blog. “Coordination overhead is through the roof and colleagues are now literally and figuratively further away from one another.”

Even now, more than two-and-a-half years since the first COVID-19 outbreak, office occupancy is less than 50% of its pre-pandemic levels.

It’s hard to instill a culture of ‘all hands on deck’ if half those hands are at home. Even so, we’re going to have to get up to speed quickly, because a ‘default global’ model is emerging, where “new companies are no longer tethered to the hometown of the founder, nor limited to hiring local talent”.

  1. Changing perspectives

While it’s tempting to cite COVID-19 and remote work as the game-changer, even before the pandemic, economies like the UK experienced a much-discussed ‘productivity puzzle’, with “gaps in the digitisation of some core business processes” posited as one reason among many.

Could it be that people’s attitudes towards their work-life balance – Gen Z, we’re looking at you – are simply different than before?

“It isn’t so much that people have less ambition, but that their ambition is changing”, claims Julia Hobsbawm, author of ​​The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future.

  1. Demotivation in dark times

In her blog, Brie refers to “the crushing weight of the relentless stream of dismal global events over these last few years”, adding: “The reasons work life might not be number one on the priority list right now are not lost on me.”

Few would argue that the 2020s have been plain sailing, but as psychologist Steven Pinker points out, when we switch on the news “we’re getting a sample of the worst things happening on earth at any given moment”.

Finally, if you’re looking to battle-harden your hiring troops, here’s an interesting piece on the difference between ‘peacetime’ and ‘wartime’ CEOs.

Organisational culture can make or break a business, and we cover this theme in more detail in our guide to building a referral culture

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