Startups can be places of innovation and success—and overworked, stressed employees.
Startup culture has a dual-image in today’s work environment. On the one hand, they are fun, exciting, whimsical environments full of show-grabbing perks, trendy office designs, and innovative ideas. Many employees are attracted to startups because of their idealistic, can-do spirit, and the allure of rocketing success.
However, startups also have a negative side—one that’s been making the rounds ever frequently in the news cycle. Despite the promising appearance, many startups suffer from cultural dysfunction, sexism, and mismanagement. How can startups create the constructive culture they want without falling prey to the all-too-common downsides of startup culture?
First of all, it’s important to understand why so many startups seem to fall victim to the negative culture trap. While there are certainly negative social factors at play (there are relatively few startups founded by women and minorities), startups also tend to fall victim to their own wishful thinking. They’re often led by inexperienced entrepreneurs, and the ethos that helps many early startups succeed (putting in long, hard hours and making personal sacrifices to complete a project) often translates into an aggressive and alienating culture down the road.
Pushing hard and burning the candle at both ends may work in the beginning, with a small, committed team who all stand to benefit from the company’s success. But the larger a company grows, the more this culture leads to employee burnout. The early success of the startup falters as engagement plummets and employee turnover rate rises.
Clearly, creating a healthy startup culture is good for the long-term health of the organization. So, what can startups do to create a culture that will outlast the growing pains?
Communicate expectations about job requirements.
Startups often talk a big game—they’re used to doing so to gain funding. But when they do so in front of prospective hires, it can lead to new employees signing on to the company only to feel duped by the pressure. If you need to be able to contact employees outside business hours, make sure they know—and don’t abuse the privilege.
Be realistic about what you’re asking of your employees. The long hours that are the hallmark of early startup culture are not going to be sustainable long-term. If you expect “crunch periods” where employees will be expected to put in overtime, then plan to compensate employees in accrued time off or overtime pay.
Think beyond flashy perks and prioritize employee wellbeing.
Perks and benefits are not the same thing. Many startups have tried replacing traditional benefits with exciting office perks to save costs (it’s cheaper to fill a refrigerator with fun snack food than offer employee health care), but these perks lose their luster in the face of long hours. It’s all well and good to have a gym at your office, but if your employees are too stressed to use it, no one benefits.
Instead of faking a healthy startup culture by creating a game room that no one uses, focus on work policies that increase the quality of life for your employees. If you can’t afford some of the more traditional benefits, discuss with your employees the kind of office policies that might make up the difference, such as a remote work policy for part of the week. As your startup grows and more benefit options become available, talk it over with your team. Find out what benefits will attract and retain your top talent, and prioritize those.
Be ready to nurture talent—just like any other organization.
Employees who are with your organization from the beginning are more likely to have a stronger buy-in than those who come later. A good leader knows not to squander such excellent opportunities to foster a healthy culture. By treating your early hires right, you can start culture off on the right foot.
That said, don’t neglect to nurture talent in your later hires, either. This is especially important when hiring women and minorities, who often miss out on mentoring opportunities, leaving their talent un-tapped. Be conscientious in creating a culture where they are granted an equal seat at the table.
Look beyond your own aspirations and keep one foot in the real world.
Startup founders are at risk of falling victim to their own hubris. You may imagine your culture to be an exciting, innovative place, but that doesn’t make it a reality. Organizational culture grows and develops over time. And it doesn’t go away: you have a culture no matter what you do, the only question is whether it’s healthy or toxic.
Stay grounded by keeping open communication with your employees. Make sure they feel comfortable delivering honest feedback, and look for signs that your culture is letting your business down.
Plan for the future.
Startups begin small, and some become successful without growing their staff almost at all. Others balloon into enterprise companies seemingly overnight, and that kind of rapid expansion can lead to some growing pains. Remember that what worked for a small team of employees in year one won’t work for two hundred employees in year ten.
Your best strategy when planning for the future is to look first at vision, mission, and values. By aligning your hires around clearly-defined core tenants—and then living by them—you create a firm bedrock for future growth.