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How to Build a Company Culture That Totally Rocks

An Interview with The Fun Dept’s Nick Gianoulis on How to Build a Company Culture

Building a company culture is equally important and tricky. So, how do you create a company culture that doesn't feel like a "check-the-box" activity or annual employee survey?

Don't get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to scrap the company-wide holiday party or even the annual golf tournament.

But! I am saying that building company culture is more than hosting an expensive, all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket annual event.

Stick with me because I’ve consulted an expert on how to build a company culture that totally rocks.

Nick Gianoulis from The Fun Dept. and I are diving into building a company culture that will not only help your business be more profitable, but also impact customer perception (hello 5-star reviews), ensure you can hire and retain top talent, and for goodness sake let's make sure you have happy and engaged employees.

So, let’s get after it shall we?

Nick Gianoulis Q&A: Building a Great Company Culture & Why Culture Is Important

Q: Ok, so where would I begin? Say, I’m at ground zero. How do I start to build a company culture?

A: One of the first questions we ask is “do you have a company culture AND do you have values that support your company culture?”

And oftentimes people will say they have a culture but it isn’t stated anywhere, they just know what it is. And while that may be true, it’s probably only in the mind of the leader.

I often describe culture as how your company behaves when the bosses aren’t around. It’s really the company’s personality and it’s usually driven by values.

If someone is starting from ground zero, I would say take the time out of your business and ask the employees what are the things that define our culture, our company?

Here’s an exercise you can use to get the conversation going about creating a company culture:

Ask each team member, “if you had to pick an animal, what would that animal be that defines our culture?” Or if not an animal, try picking an automobile. If the group collectively arrives at a 1962 Volkswagen - it’s going to be slow, economical. Nothing state of the art.

Then ask the follow-up question, “what would you want the type of car to be”?

These types of exercises will uncover and define a lot about your culture.

If you have existing values or a company culture - let’s start building activities and exercises that support your values. This way it isn’t just words on a wall or preaching to employees. Let’s build some things that are fun and illustrate what those values things are.

Q: If a business owner is looking to start building or creating a great culture at work, what are the first three action steps someone should take to achieve this?


1. Building culture in the workplace starts with a very flat and transparent organizational chart.

I’m a big believer in a flat and transparent organizational chart. The days of building layers (especially in a small company), well, there’s no place for it. A flat organization also makes communication accessible to everyone which is key to building a strong company culture.

2. In addition, creating company culture requires leadership with an open mind.

Leaders can and should give good direction, but you really have to have an open mind and lead by example.

At the fun dept. for instance, we won’t even engage with a company if the leader’s attitude is to hire us to entertain their minions - that’s a bad sign. Leaders are so important - they really can’t lead from an ivy tower. They need to be involved with and accessible to their employees. This leads to my last point...

3. Finally, building a company culture is rooted in listening to your employees.

Listen to what your employees are saying. They have great ideas! Get them involved in creating the company culture and if that already exists, do activities together (on company time) that helps everyone bring the culture to life.

Besides that, I’ve had a lot of success focusing on the 80-90% of what your employee enjoys doing or is good at and forgiving the 10% of what they’re not good at. If someone doesn’t have good attention to detail - then get them away from detail. You need someone else in that position. If you know an employee is good at something and you give them the ball to run with it, amazing things will happen. But in order to do this, you need to start by listening to them.

Q: Now, on the flip side, given the importance of company culture, if a business set their values and built a company culture many moons ago, how do you recognize if it’s time for a refresh?

A: I think it usually presents itself in some area of the business that’s suffering.

For example, if a business is having trouble recruiting people or has a turnover problem. Other times your values are out of step with the employee population, or your values are outdated or perhaps not representative of the company at all.

Another instance when a refresh usually presents itself is if you know of a competitor that is doing a really good job with their culture. This can be a really good incentive to look at your culture. A company with a stronger culture will be more profitable, be able to hire the talent they will want to have - the competitor will run over you in the market.

It usually is a business problem that will encourage people to take a look at what has gone on with their culture.

Q: Nick, as the founder of The Fun Dept., you believe that having fun at work is an important part of a strong company culture. But I can see some business owners shying away from the “f word.” Can you make a case for the importance of having fun at work and how this will help small business owners build a strong company culture?

A: I think there’s a lot of misperception about what fun is in the workplace.

At one point, there wasn't a lot of research to validate that fun has an impact on the bottom line. But thankfully, today, there is. And it comes from all kinds of sources - Gallup, Forbes, among others. There’s tons of data now that tells us fun and happiness help drive business results. I really think it’s a question of education rather than proof of concept - the concept has been proven.

Now, I would say that the old model is outdated and not worth it. It used to be a holiday party and summer picnic. These events would usually take place on a weekend and they started to feel more obligatory, like forced family fun. And these types of one-off events are very expensive.

Doing things once a year is more of a dice roll. You spend a lot of  money and if it doesn’t work, you’ve missed the boat. And oftentimes it’s not reflective at all of what the employees want or care about.

We often say treat fun as a process not as an event. Fun at work should look more like other things you do at work - it happens on a regular basis, it’s planned, it’s consistent. From a pure economic standpoint, we suggest low-production, fun and quick activities that happen during working hours to help drive engagement and happiness at work.

Q: Can you give me an example? If I wanted to run an activity with my team that was low-budget and fun, that reinforced company culture. What would you suggest we do?

A: Absolutely! There’s one we call “Company vibe PLAYlist” and we challenge every employee to pick a song that represents the company values. And we ask everyone to submit that in the form of a video - you can lip sync it and spend 10 seconds explaining why that song represents company values. And we get the most creative responses! But what comes at the end is a playlist that the company has that represents their values and who they are...and it’s really profound and powerful.

We did it  for our own company. We had a lot of fun doing it. And it’s always enlightening to me. It's a great exercise!

Recognizing the Importance of Company Culture

Building a company culture goes way beyond the holiday staff party or company picnic.

Whether you’re new to business and looking to build a company culture, or perhaps you’ve been in business a while and feel it’s time for a refresh - taking the time and investing in your company culture will pay off, huge. Happy employees make for happy customers and that will absolutely impact your bottom line. Start with your core values and find ways to help your employees embody those values on a regular basis.

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