The concept of corporate culture was first identified in the 1960s, and rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as organisations strove to identify the elusive qualities that would give them an edge over their competitors, inspire loyalty in their customers, and define their DNA. More recently, tech giants such as Google and Netflix have broken the mould, emphasising freedom, creativity, collective problem-solving and social responsibility over traditional values.
As millennials increasingly dominate the workforce, the importance of company culture is increasing, especially for growing businesses looking to attract and retain the best talent, believes Dr Maksim Belitski, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Henley Business School. “People look at a number of factors when they’re looking for employment,” he says. “In a start-up or a growing company, it’s important to attract and retain people who will contribute to the growth of the business.”
“When small businesses are hiring, they need to think about the kind of people they are looking to attract,” Belitski says. “And if those people are millennials, they’ll be attracted by the company culture and what the company is doing, rather than by money. They go into entrepreneurial companies because they believe they can make a difference. They look for organisations in which their philosophy, their ideas, their expectations are more likely to be heard and ultimately embedded into the company culture.”
So, in a sense, millennials bring their own culture with them when they join: seeking out companies that will allow them to have an influence and drive change. And their priorities are quite different from those of previous generations. Susanna Richardson is founder and CEO of Everything Organised, which arranges luxury weddings and parties for high-net-worth clients, many of them celebrities.
“Millennials view their lives and careers in quite a different way from my generation,” she says. “We were quite rigid: get a job, pay into a pension, buy a house, get promoted… They are much freer. They know what they want from life and they’ll do whatever work they need to get that, whether that’s a part-time job or three jobs.”
Eliminating fear of failure is fundamental to creating a culture that supports innovation, creativity and risk-taking, says Belitski. “People need to be confident enough to talk, to share ideas and knowledge. It’s important to create a culture in which ideas are welcome. People should feel that they have the potential to make an impact. In order to do that, you need to remove people’s fear that they will be punished for failure. Failure is just a form of feedback you get when you experiment.”
In 2009, Netflix published its culture deck, primarily in order to attract talent, and every candidate is required to read the document before applying. Trust and feedback are among its key messages. “We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues even if it is uncomfortable to do so,” the document reads. “Feedback is more easily exchanged if there is a strong underlying relationship and trust between people, which is part of why we invest time in developing those professional relationships.”
“Millennials are also looking to work in creative places, and this isn’t just about the company itself, but about where it is located,” Belitski says. “The entrepreneurial culture of a place is just as important as the company. Take Cambridge, for example: the entrepreneurial culture is everywhere. People meet other millennials like themselves in the pubs and clubs, they exchange ideas. If you work in a place with a high level of entrepreneurial culture, you will be more entrepreneurial at work.” Remote working, and the trust that involves from both sides, is also an increasingly important ingredient in an entrepreneurial culture.
For Richardson, using contractors based all over the world helps her to provide the always-on culture her clients expect. “The nature of the job means I have learned to fly by the seat of my pants a bit,” she says.
“And I try to encourage my staff and contractors to do the same: to do things on their own and find their own way of working. Our clients don’t work normal hours. Sometimes they’re only available to speak to us at 11 o’clock at night, so we have to work around that. A working day might be three hours or it might be 20 – I need to trust that people won’t leave until what needs to be done is done. Our clients hire us to be there. If someone’s having a meltdown over a dress at midnight, you’ve got to be available.”