May 15 2013

Stop Planning Great Culture, Start Living It

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Working at digital-telepathy is a wonderful thing. It’s a place where ideas flow freely and we have fun, whether we’re solving complex challenges for clients or having a couple beers at happy hour. Every day, I’m surrounded by incredibly talented people who work hard and are passionate about creating a better web through design. As a matter of fact, our company culture is one of the main reasons why people want to work at dt, so we hold this point close to our hearts. Our team certainly remembers the holiday parties and happy hours, but those occasional events are not what create and nurture culture at dt; it’s our everyday actions that shape the greatest memories and experiences in order to create genuine and long-lasting happy bonds.

Great culture can start happening any time. You just have to start living it. Here are some considerations near and dear to the folks at DT that might give you inspiration for building great culture within your own company:

  1. Giving a Fuck: Hire People, Not (Just) Skills
  2. Welcome Wagons Go Beyond Baked Goods and Happy Hours
  3. Your Space Matters
  4. Open Space, Open Culture
  5. Fluffy Slippers Deliver Great Results
  6. Encourage Chattering About Nothing
  7. Without Humor, Life isn’t Worth Living
  8. Get Out of the Damn Office
  9. The Small Things are Just as Important as the Big Things
  10. Lunch and Nutrition: Good Fuel Means Happy Bodies
  11. Breaking Bread: Everyone’s Gotta Eat
  12. Foster the Shangri-la of Creative Opportunity
  13. You Are Not a Cog: Autonomy Creates Accountability
  14. Areté: Reach Your Highest Potential
  15. Everybody’s a Closer


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Giving a Fuck: Hire People, Not (Just) Skills

Finding the right people to join your team is among the most important things to consider when creating great company culture. There’s no chance in hell you’ll build a vibrant culture when you’ve got a wrong group of people to start with. In our interviews, we hire based on a multitude of factors, but few are as important as how we converse with our future teammates. Between the technical interview questions, skill tests, and references, we fill in the blanks with conversations that let us really gauge a candidate’s level of gusto, passion, and giving a fuck. After all, we want everyone we hire to genuinely give a fuck: about life, design, working with our team, being a good person, and lots of other things that make them great people. The people we hire aren’t just fascinated with the design of the web; but with that of nature’s beauty, architecture or arduino-powered robots…


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Welcome Wagons Go Beyond Baked Goods and Happy Hours

Okay, so that’s not entirely true; we do enjoy some delicious baked goods and booze every now and then… Seriously though, getting the right people hired is just the start; there’s a whole onboarding process that we’ve created to make sure that every new person feels right at home from the first minute they walk in. It’s more than just being neighborly; it’s about removing the feeling of being an outsider.

There’s nothing worse than starting a new job and feeling like people are too busy to spend time with you and show you the ropes. That’s why we schedule orientation sessions during week one with each of our department leads (products, vision, operations, services, design, development). And the “welcome wagon” doesn’t stop with orientation sessions. We team up each new employee with someone in their same department to be their “buddy.” I know… it sounds hokey but it’s hands down, the best way to bring someone into their new job. Even if they’ve done the “same” job at another company, doing the job at dt is different. Our way of doing things and interacting with one another supports our vision of betterment through design – this is our special sauce. These are things that cannot be learned through a manual or a meeting; instead they are learned by doing.


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Your Space Matters

Unless you’re an insomniac, you probably spend the majority of your waking hours at work. Knowing this, it’s even more important to make sure you have a great space to live… er, I mean work in. Here are a few things we did to making our space conducive to creating creative thinking/strategizing while smiling all the way.

  • Lighting Upgrades: Before we moved in, our space had mercury-vapor industrial lights that hummed and cast this bluish-white light. We’re not growing pot, nor is this a warehouse for storing shipping containers. If the color spectrum of the light wasn’t bad enough (skintones = morgue), the hum was enough to make you tear your hair out after 15 minutes.  We replaced them all with silent, dimmable LED lights (both direct and indirect).
  • Comfy Zones (Lounges): There are at least 3 (and soon to be more) areas where the primary seating is comfy sofas. Writing, reading, meeting or napping are commonplace in one of these spaces.
  • Excellent Ventilation: Having poor ventilation is a productivity and mood killer.  We are lucky to live in San Diego, where the weather is great 275+ days out of the year.  Regardless, we made sure that our office has an abundance of fresh-air cross-ventilation, fans, and twin HVAC systems.
  • Natural Light: In addition to the lighting that we installed, there are lots of tall windows on each side of the building, and enclosed conference rooms are predominantly floor-to-ceiling glass.


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Open Space, Open Culture

Culture grows from more than just the physical office perks. It’s also about providing an environment where everyone, intern or CEO, can interact with one another. A prime example is our seating layout at DT: there are no cubicles or personal offices. Yes, we have a row of beautiful glass rooms, but they’re for community use, not for execs and managers. All of the management sit out in the open, alongside everyone else, where they can witness and participate in our day-to-day. And while everyone has their own area to nest in, it’s commonplace to see people switching desks (and couches and offices) throughout the day.


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Fluffy Slippers Deliver Great Results

Being casual and relaxed is present in lots of ways: I wear shorts 300 days a year and several people own “work slippers.” Impromptu meetings are never a problem, and any person can talk to anyone else, at (almost) any time. There’s no required hierarchy or chain of command that people need to follow to have conversations, which can be had on walks, on a sofa, in the kitchen or almost anywhere else. Even our interactions with our clients are casual. We don’t wear suits when our clients come to visit (they’d probably laugh at us anyway), but we do spend time to get to know who they are and what’s going on in their lives. Having this level of comfort means that nobody has to put up any bullshit fronts, and can spend their time and efforts focusing on what’s important. After all, building great business relationships means 1) being comfortable and confident with who you are, and 2) getting to really know and appreciate the people you work with.


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Encourage Chattering About Nothing

To really connect with people, you have to get to know the layers underneath. We love to connect through the layers outside of the standard work lingo. Android vs. iOS and Spotify vs. Pandora are heated (and quite comical) conversations that you’ll often hear in our office. A few of us nerded out about woodworking equipment and techniques the other day; and talking about cars, bikes, video games, and movies are pretty much a constant day-to-day discussion. No matter your position on a topic or conversation, you’ll always find someone passionate to discuss with with you. Remember, part of our hiring process is focused on ensuring that each person is a good fit, and a big part of that is understanding how well they’ll fit into our “family” of individuals. We strongly support each individual’s right to believe whatever they do, and to live their lives how they want.


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Without Humor, Life isn’t Worth Living

The world is such a serious place. Long hours and heavy brainpower are the norm for us because we solve complex challenges for our customers everyday and bust ass doing it. That being said, laughter is absolutely essential to the vitality of our culture. It’s refreshing and helps us be sharper and more creative. Therefore, we laugh with each other, at each other, and with our clients. Evidence of this can be found in one of our Dropbox folders containing of dozens of staff Photoshops (Photochops) that we’ve created over time to poke fun of one another during all the right moments.


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Get Out of the Damn Office

In addition to having great memories inside your office walls, it’s important to change up the scenery every once and awhile so that you can spend some quality time with everyone outside of the work environment. We’ve gone go-kart racing, cleaned beaches for Earth Day, survived SXSW, taken trips to San Francisco, seen movies and movie-marathons, spent an incredible day at Universal Studios as VIPs, and have done just about everything else in between.


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The Small Things are Just as Important as the Big Things

Of course there’s a beer fridge (admittingly, our regular fridge gets overrun with beer too occasionally…), but that’s just the least of it. We have snacks in the cupboards and the coffee is brewed fresh throughout the day. Our toilet paper doesn’t feel like sandpaper on your ass, and the paper towels actually dry your hands without breaking into ten little pieces.  All of these things may not be game-changers, or make people leave their jobs and come work for dt, but sometimes it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference.


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Lunch and Nutrition: Good Fuel Means Happy Bodies

Beyond the endless beer and beef jerky, we really do know that (while it’s tasty and easy to come by) surviving on snacks from day to day can turn deadly. Since everyone’s always going at 130% here, we want to make sure they’re topped off with the best fuel (food) possible.

Organic, locally-sourced catered lunches are served at least twice a week in the office. And we also hold a weekly vitality program, where our team is educated on nutrition, healthy eating, and individual happiness. We also make sure that we have a stockpile of healthy snacks and drinks (mostly water) to keep people going during the in-between times.


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Breaking Bread: Everyone’s Gotta Eat

Speaking of meals, good culture can really grow from the times shared enjoying a warm meal and simply being in one another’s company. As your company grows, you’ll find that it gets harder and harder to get everyone together in one room. Fortunately with lunches and breaks comes an opportunity to spend time with others (that aren’t just in your department) on a regular basis.

While eating, we might have a laugh about the latest insane YouTube video, look at kid pictures, watch trailers, and talk about great restaurants that we’ve discovered over the weekend. Communities have always been built around meals, and we work to grow ours in every way that we can.


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Foster the Shangri-la of Creative Opportunity

While you may be in a creative industry, you should be careful to not underestimate how easy it can be to stifle creativity. Build opportunities for creativity and imagination to thrive. It’s not just about finding the most variety in projects for your creatives to work on. It’s about creating an environment where people really do feel like there is no bad idea. Promote different perspectives and approaches to any task. Don’t bog down your creatives with impending deadlines of doom. Make sure your creatives feel like anything is possible. Value thoughtful and passionate ideas, where a creative’s every consideration is as clear as day.


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You Are Not a Cog: Autonomy Creates Accountability

There’s an incredible amount of creativity, initiative, and momentum that can occur if you promote a little more autonomy and ownership in your workspace. By letting your team members own a lot of the decision-making process, you free them with the ability to go full-speed for the finish line.

Increased autonomy also increases responsibility due to the inherent accountability it adds on, so you can see how adding a healthy dose of autonomy can promote greater accountability – especially in one’s day-to-day actions.

Each and every person at dt is encouraged to always speak their mind, bring new ideas to the table, and help shape what we do. A great example of this is Filament; a platform that grows digital inventions that improve the web. The team can conceptualize ideas for new products, and pitch these ideas to their peers for feedback and hopefully, a green light. If you make space for innovation to be born and bred from all levels of your organization, you can create a flourishing, positive culture of growth.


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Arete: Reach Your Highest Potential

Spend a day in the office and you’ll be sure to hear the phrase “how can we make it better?” thrown around several times. It’s actually in reference to one of our guiding principles in the company called betterment, and it’s all about striving to constantly improve and better ourselves in everything that we do. The end goal of this betterment principle is to reach the areté, or full potential, of not only our company, but of ourselves.

So you can guess how betterment and areté aren’t just principles that live on a wall and get referred to once a quarter. They are things we think, breathe, and live in everything we do. On the company side this means: creating betterment initiatives through bonuses, watching inspirational Ted talks, or planning field trips that expand our minds. And on the individual level, it can involve: caring about vitality (through organic meals, snacks, exercise, etc…), implementing betterment goals (that can be personal or work related), having group critique sessions, sponsoring education and the furthering of personal growth (through books, classes, conferences), and so much more!


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Everybody’s a Closer

Harry Truman hit it on the nail when he said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” What this means is that it isn’t about who brings the brightest idea to the table or who spends the most time on the project. Everyone’s contribution matters, and no one person can succeed without everyone else succeeding as well.

It’s important to advocate an environment where there aren’t stars or divas, but rather, one giant engine working together towards a single goal. So encourage your team members to support one another in any way they can. I’ve spent plenty of time making coffee, doing level 1 support for SlideDeck, moving stuff, cleaning, QAing sites, providing feedback on designs, and working through product marketing and development strategies. Technically speaking, none of these things are in my job description. However, I am happy to do all of them; it keeps me close to the family that we are, and it helps keep our team running strong.

In Closing

Building culture takes more than just planning sporadic events and having a “fun committee.” Creating great culture means that each interaction and conversation you have with your fellow teammates is genuine and intentional. Not only do you get to work together, you get to truly know one another. Too often, people that work together are just acquaintances, and not friends. We’re working hard to change that. If you’re doing neat things in your organization that help to build your company culture, please feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading!

About the Author:

Arnold Yoon is the President and official coffee maker for digital-telepathy. A technologist and engineer at heart, his love for design helps to fuel service and product development in the company’s quest to change the web.

Leave a Response

48 Responses

  1. May 15 2013
    Jamie Hamel-Smith

    What a brilliant post! I love it. The photos are pretty sweet too and I recognize a few of them.

  2. May 15 2013
    Chuck Longanecker

    Thanks for the completely authentic post and soft TP, Arnold. I’m proud to with with you everyday.

  3. May 15 2013
    Melanie

    Sounds like an amazing company. Thanks for sharing some of the things that can foster a great working environment. Thumbs up for nutrition and happiness education!!

  4. May 15 2013
    Ailish Lydon

    This makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Can I please work for you? Great article with really valid points. Thank you!

  5. May 15 2013
    Ailish Lydon

    Thanks Arnold, but I’m based in Melbourne, Australia! I’ll get in touch if I’m ever on your side of the world.

  6. May 16 2013
  7. May 16 2013
    TheeDesign Studio

    Great post! Company culture is super important. We do similar things as well, weekly team lunches, lunch n learns, etc. We are like a small family, it truly makes the office more fun and positive!

  8. May 16 2013
    Hal Estes

    Bookmarking your site now! Only found this through google, thanks very much :)
    Bookmarked your site, thanks for the blog! :)
    Brilliant blog, thanks very much!

  9. May 17 2013
    Alex Ramadan

    Great insight into what makes DT so unique. It’s no wonder you guys put out great products, everyone seems to really enjoy their time there and is encouraged to do their best with out the corporate red tape to get in the way.

  10. May 23 2013
    Surrey Web Design

    Everyone loves to work in your company with this stunning culture. You are right in common view companies emphasize in hiring skills instead of hiring people. I think instead of hiring skills companies should hire people who have some courage to work. Secondly, company environment matters a lot. If environment is not supportive for the office crew, then it will decrease their efficiency to half. Thanks Arnold for bringing up the tips to create a working environment in company.

  11. May 27 2013
    Bojan Majnaric

    This has to be one of the brightest gems in terms of blog posts I’ve ever seen. It’s like a blueprint for what I’m trying to accomplish with my own start up and I firmly believe that each and every CEO should read this a few hundred times. At least. Brilliant!

  12. Jun 03 2013
    Matt Lingner

    Arnold, like everyone else has said, this is a really outstanding post. I really like the images too. Very nicely done.

  13. Jun 03 2013
    Bojan Majnaric

    Sure, I’d love to get some feedback. Just let me know how to get in touch and I’ll gladly shoot you an email.

  14. Jul 10 2013
    Andrew Begin

    Fantastic post. The underlying passion and conviction shines through clearly. Inspired!

  15. Aug 13 2013
    mark drozda

    Amen, Arnold. Build it and they will come.

  16. Aug 15 2013
    Jenny Gorokhovsky

    Arnold, this is amazing! I clicked on your facebook post and got sucked into reading about your awesome company. I’m sold. Do you have any need for a speech therapist? I can clean bathrooms, too, just as long as I can get the coffee and organic meals! :)
    Keep up the great work!

  17. Sep 16 2013
    Rich Van Meter

    Phenomenal post about living a great culture. If you have the time to discuss the overall experience, please let me know.

  18. Oct 01 2013
    Nikhil

    Nice article

  19. Nov 05 2013
    David Arancibia

    Rule #1, I’ve used it in a couple of occasions when asked “why do you care? its fine the way it is. Why do you get so upset?” Cuz it does not feel right and I give a fuck. I might not know the answer but I know this is not right. I get upset when I find out I work with people that clearly don’t care as much as I do. This more or less got me “laid off”. But that was the kick in the ass that I needed to go find a team I really fit in and improve my skills. I’m still searching. I really appreciate your list, I wish there were more companies like yours around here where I live. There is only one I’ve found, and they won’t let me in, which is good, because it means I need to push myself to get better.

  20. Nov 10 2013
    Coralyn Lee

    This is such an amazing article, I’ve gone through it multiple times. So inspiring and refreshing to read of an agency that really values their culture and employees above all else. I know DT is more design and development, but if you’re ever on the hunt for a candidate in brand marketing and communications, I’d love to connect!

  21. Dec 16 2013
    Anthony Hydron

    Great post my friend. It was real genuine and it should be a basis for all compaines

  22. Mar 07 2014
    linda

    This makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Can I please work for you? Great article with really valid points. Thank you!

  23. Mar 22 2014
    James Ebeling

    This is a fantastic read, nicely put together Arnold. I especially like how you described how one reaches their highest potential through personal and company values. When both align, magical things can happen. Sounds like dt hit it on the nail. Highly highly (no typo) interested in your work environment, and hope to be pushing pixels and ideas for you soon. Cheers!