10 of the coolest company culture hacks

Building an awesome company culture might seem as easy as inserting a bit of fun into the office, but it’s a bit more complex than a slippery-dip in the foyer and an office fridge stocked full of craft beers. Top companies like Zappos, Google and Pixar have given us the impression that awesome corporate culture is all about slick interiors and lunchtime foosball tournaments, but a closer look shows us a business’s culture runs much deeper than that.

Company culture is a combination of values and a common work ethic – it’s essentially your business’s personality – and a strong culture will seep into everything from the office floor plan through to the hiring policy. From the outside, a great workplace culture makes work look, well fun! On the inside, it actually helps a business to be profitable. A strong company culture will have top talent knocking down your door, happier employees working away and a strong base for sustainable growth.

So how do you achieve this feel-good, profit-turning culture we speak of? We look at 10 of the most enviable and coolest office culture hacks currently being employed.

1. Make time off mandatory, better yet make it unlimited!



It’s the HR policy that tells you, you have to take a holiday and (here’s the kicker) that you can take as much time off as you want! It might sound too good to be true, but many companies like Netflix, Hubspot and Moz have been championing this sky’s-the-limit vacation policy for some time now.

Netflix co-founder, Reed Hastings, told Bloomberg it’s all part of the company’s freedom and responsibility culture. ‘We want responsible people who are self-motivating and self-disciplined, and we reward them with freedom,’ says Hastings. ‘Prior to 2004 we had the standard vacation model, until we realised no one was tracking how many hours in a day they worked. Why were we tracking whether someone takes two weeks or four weeks of vacation?’

It’s worked so well for Netflix, Richard Branson recently rolled out the no-limits vacation policy for Virgin, while Evernote chief executive, Phil Libin, implemented it the very next day after hearing about the innovative policy.

But does it work? Surely people would abuse this.

According to HR experts, abusing such generous policies rarely happens. ‘There really isn’t a lot of abuse in these plans,’ Bruce Elliot, a senior executive at the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) told Business Insider‘They work really well in high-performance organisations.’

Instead, Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health, believes it’s a clever way of breaking down the culture of presenteeism in offices of today. ‘It shows a level of trust – that you value your employees and trust that they’ll work hard when they need to,’ he told Forbes.

But what about those office martyrs who just won’t take leave?

Force them to!

Media juggernaut, TED, have gone so far as to shut down their offices entirely for a two week break over summer as a means to enforce time out. ‘Most of us feel too guilty to take two weeks off,’ June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media, told Fast Company‘This creates an enforced rest period, which is important for both productivity and happiness. The impact on morale, productivity, and overall happiness is stunning.’

Companies like Airbnb and Moz on the other hand, make holidaying easier for staff by giving their employees a travel allowance to cover accommodation, transport and other travel stipends.  

2. Make learning that much easier



Culture-savvy businesses know that company growth often starts with employee growth. That’s why they’ve all taken professional development to new heights, making it as easy as possible for staff to learn and grow.

For instance, Hubspot allow employees to take someone out for a meal if they feel they have something to learn from this individual, all on the company’s dime of course. NextJump helps its employees hook up with dream mentors, SoundCloud offers workers free German classes, while London-based Softwire has a ‘morale-budget’ set aside for on-site lessons in sushi-making, singing or whatever it is that tickles their employees’ fancies.

It’s always nice when lessons line up with a company’s cultural vision, too. Content strategist agency, Contently, host monthly book club evenings, where team members are encouraged to pick books that challenge preconceptions and force new ways of thinking. The company pays for the books, and the team gets together to discuss and debate the book over dinner. As Contently put it: ‘learning together brings us together’.

3. Relocate your team somewhere insanely awesome, even if it’s only temporary



Who says you can’t work and play at the same time? Companies like Maptia and Fresh Tilled Soil certainly think you can.

Fresh Tilled Soil, who are a web design firm, have concocted the enviable ‘workation’ policy that involves sending staff to exotic destinations where they can effectively work during office hours and holiday after hours. CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, Richard Banfield, says they’ve sent employees everywhere from Costa Rica to the Dominican Republic.

‘We pay for their air ticket, accommodation and food – as well as surfing lessons or something that gets them out of their comfort zone. They work a full eight hours a day but also get time to surf, do yoga or whatever they want.’ And best of all, workations don’t eat into your holiday leave!

Similarly, New York based sustainability company, Holstee, ship their team off to Mexico for a month as a way to increase productivity and gain perspective.

‘I believe every company is in itself a whole universe,’ Hostlee founder Fabian Pfortmueller writes on the company blog. ‘Spending a month in a non-familiar environment [allows] me to see all our actions and ongoing behaviour with some healthy distance.’

Start-up Maptia on the other hand, took a more permanent approach when they decided to move their five-man team to a Moroccan surf town as a way to stretch their seed capital and build a relaxed corporate culture. Maptia cofounder Johnny Miller explains on Quora,‘our ultimate culture hack has been to blend Maptia’s start-up culture with our daily lives’. This involves daily surfing lessons, rooftop yoga classes together and sharing chores.

4. Pay homage to your company history 



It’s like acknowledging your ancestors or revisiting your childhood home, if you want employees to really get to know you and get a feel for your company culture, show them where you started out.

Airbnb does this to great effect, taking new hires to the original Airbnb apartment, where the co-founders originally came up with the business, and rented out three blow-up air mattresses as a way to make rent.

‘The founders gave me (and a group of others) a tour of the original Airbnb apartment where they came up with the idea,’ one employee told Inc. ‘Joe Gebbia in particular seemed really excited and impassioned while recounting the tale… I thought that was a really cool way to educate your people on the history of the company and also to connect with them personally and demonstrate the doggedness that I think is a large part of their origin story and culture.’

Pixar takes a different route, proudly displaying life-sized figurines and concept art from the films that have made the animation studio the powerhouse it is today. The prize for most historically steeped statute goes to the giant lamp that stands outside the office building. Known as Luxo Jr., the statue pays homage to Pixar’s first ever film, a two-minute short produced by John Lasseter himself.

5. Find interesting and organic ways to throw people together


Iceland Adventure 2014

Why team bonding ever involved those exceedingly awkward sessions of catching blind-folded team members you barely knew or building a raft out of bric-a-brac, we’ll never know. But thankfully, companies have realised team bonding needn’t be so forced or downright cringe-worthy.

The companies who have cultivated the best cultures tend to encourage employees to converge in more organic ways, like bumping into each other or gathering teams to eat, drink and play together. We’ve found some of our favourite below:

Gather to eat

  • Vacation tax: Quora staff who return bright-eyed and bushy-tailed from a holiday are forced to pay a ‘vacation tax’ in the form of an exotic meal or food for everyone in the office to share.
  • Bring mum (and her home cooking) into the office day: Iceland start-up OZ have a unique ‘family’ tradition where employees are encouraged to cook lunch at the office and bring in their mum or dad to help! OZ CEO, Gudjon Mar Gudjonsson, told Business Insider, it’s his favourite office culture hack because it ‘enhance[s] the company culture and even increase[s] the productivity of the team’.

Gather to play

  • Games room: Whether it’s foosball, ping-pong, a rock-climbing wall or Xbox, many companies are adopting games rooms, and for good reason too. Management experts believe games are a great way to boost employee productivity and foster innovation. Ross Smith, Director of Test for Microsoft and recipient of the Harvard Business Review/McKinsey M-Prize for Management Innovation, told The American Journal of Play‘Games and play in the workplace is a successful technique to building organisational trust and, by extension, create a culture of innovation.’Jay Graves of Double Encore, a mobile design and development agency, agrees. The CTO told Forbes, ‘I like these types of things because they bring people together who might not normally interact on a day-to-day basis. Spending time together, both while working and “off the clock”, are key to a company’s culture.’
  • Music room: Dropbox CEO and co-founder, Andrew Drew, is an avid musician. So when it came to designing Dropbox’s San Francisco HQ he was adamant there be a music room. Scientific studies have shown playing music together lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and releases oxytocin (a hormone that enhances feelings of trust and bonding) so it’s a smart culture hack. Best of all, even if you’re mediocre to awful, playing an instrument or singing is still wonderfully therapeutic for you!

Gather to drink

  • Tiki bar: When the UX team at YouTube received their cube-decorating allowance they decided to forego whacky desk decorations and instead pooled this money to purchase an ‘open source’ tiki bar. ‘So basically we bought the tiki, left it in the middle of the room and people just came and filled it with their booze,’ YouTube’s director of User Experience, Margaret Gould Stewart told TechCrunch. The office then kicked off a series of YouTiki evenings where each department took turns hosting the event and inventing cocktails.

Gather by ‘accident’

  • Big open office spaces: When Steve Jobs famously designed Pixar’s HQ he obsessed over the structure and layout of the office. Jobs wanted to create a space that encouraged ‘serendipitous personal encounters,’ as a way to foster collaboration and more open communication between the team. Jobs used the same philosophy to design the as-yet-unfinished Apple ‘Spaceship’ campus.
  • Musical desks: HubSpot impose a random desk reshuffle every quarter to get team members to sit (and bond) with people they might not otherwise have gotten to know. ‘That helps everyone feel more at home, whether you’ve been at HubSpot for a week or a year or more,’ writes former vice president for Platform Strategy, Yoav Shapira on the company blog.

6. Know what makes your employees tick



At the heart of every company’s culture is a tribe of employees with very different sets of values. So knowing what makes your employees tick, and building an office culture that responds to this is a great way to get ahead.

For adventure apparel label Patagonia this means letting their employees bask in the great outdoors on office time. True to Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s memoir titled, Let My People Go Surfing, the outdoor company does everything in its power to get their workers out amongst nature. From keeping a daily wave report on the office whiteboard, to weekly bike rides or ‘field trips’ to Idaho for fly-fishing lessons, the company’s outdoorsy culture has multiple benefits. Not only does it make workers happier and more productive, it also attracts other nature-loving folks through its office doors.

Of course if you’re a tech company and your employees prefer digital conquests rather than physical ones, you’ll want to take a different tack. One of our favourite examples has got to go tech firm Dyn, who updated their employee handbook to include an extra PTO (Paid Time Off) day for highly anticipated game releases like Portal 2.

7. Pay ’em to quit



If you want to hire staff that are dedicated to growing with your company and are a good ‘cultural fit’, online shoe retailer, Zappos, suggests paying them to quit. The Quit-Now bonus, internally known as ‘The Offer’, comes one week after new recruits start with the company, and gives workers a low-stress and non confrontational way to gracefully leave Zappos’ highly intense and energetic work culture.

Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, believes it’s money well spent and crucial to the company’s culture and branding. ‘We want to make sure that employees are here for more than a pay cheque,’ he writes on the Zappos blog. ‘We offer everyone $2000 to quit (in addition to paying them for the time they’ve already worked), and it’s a standing offer until the end of the fourth week of training. As it turns out, on average, less than one per cent of people end up taking the offer.’

It’s worked so well for Zappos, Amazon have recently adopted the Pay to Quit policy, and are willing to fork out up to $5,000 for staff members to leave. CEO Jeff Bezoz, sent a letter to shareholders to explain the move was a way to ‘encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.’

8. Promote passion projects 



According to Ross Smith, Director of Test for Microsoft, if you want your company to grow and continue to be innovative, it all comes down to trust and freedom.

Employees need ‘freedom to experiment…freedom to fail’ and opportunities to ‘suggest new ideas… and new and different ways of doing things.’

It’s the philosophy that underpins Google’s 20 per cent rule, which encourages employees to dedicate 20 per cent of their time to tinkering around and prototype their own side projects. Google recently axed the policy, but many agree that 20 per cent projects are a pillar of innovation, and for Google were the birthplace of features such as Gmail and Adsense.

Innovative companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and Apple also implement their own version of 20 per cent time. Facebook hold hackathons, and any projects that emerge from these events with potential go through a ‘prototype forum’ and become experimental products like Facebook’s free café Wi-Fi system, while LinkedIn have their own [in]cubator program that enables employees to experiment and develop ideas under the guidance of LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman.

Pixar champion a similar approach to side-projects through their short film program. All animators, but particularly up-and-coming directors are encouraged by John Lasseter to submit three unique stories set in three unique and never-before-seen worlds. Lasseter picks the story with the most potential and this gets developed into a short film. This gives animators a shot at sitting in the ‘director’s chair’, and works as a means to test-drive new software and animation techniques.

The basic premise to this culture hack is to give employees the freedom and time to play around with new ideas and goof off. This allows employees to feel a sense of ownership, and gives them the opportunity to expand their skillset. Best of all, you never know what crazy ideas will stick!

9. Bring Rover to work



A recent study has found that man’s best friend might also be a workplace’s best friend too.

Conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, the study reveals compelling data about how bringing little Fido or Buddy into the office does wonders for employee wellbeing, morale and productivity. Having dogs in the office helped to reduce stress levels throughout the day, encouraged employees to take more breaks, and even improved communication amongst staff.

Lead author of the study, Randolph Barker, said the research showed having dogs in the office was clearly a ‘low cost wellness benefit’.

And companies are taking note with businesses like Amazon, Google, Ben & Jerry’s and AutoDesk championing pooch-friendly office cultures. Amazon love their canine friends so much they stock doggy treats at the reception desk, while Google goes one step further and have a strict ‘no cats’ policy in their code of conduct.

10. Get the word out


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Lastly, don’t let all your hard work in cultivating a killer corporate culture go to waste. Once you’ve put in the hard yards, get the word out there! A stellar company culture is undeniably your best recruitment strategy. Websites like JobAdvisor and Good.Co let potential employees browse through company profiles, and also let you reach out to like-minded talent.

Want to learn more about company culture and how to treat your employees right? Browse through our range of HR courses today.