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How to create and maintain a great workplace culture

When your staff have created their own Dungeons and Dragons or Oztag teams or are going to the movies together without you, you know you’ve developed a great workplace culture, according to several e-commerce entrepreneurs at Shopify’s Commerce+ event in Sydney yesterday.

While you may do the hiring and firing and even introduce Casual Fridays or free lunches into the office, culture is a moving beast and it’s something that needs to evolve, pointed out Flora & Fauna CEO, Julie Mathers.

“It makes me warm and fuzzy, and it’s awesome because [it means] they’re generating culture themselves and they’re doing team nights themselves. I even get some FOMO (fear of missing out)  and I think, ‘Why am I not invited?’” she said.

However, Mathers emphasised the importance of hiring new staff based on their values, rather than focusing too heavily on their skills. A solid workplace culture is also developed from the top down, so business leaders need to openly share with staff the organisation’s purposes and values on a regular basis.

“We’re a really culture-led business in terms of being focused on our values, so we recruit everyone for values first. We look at whether they will be a good fit for us as a business, then we look at skills,” Mathers explained. “We need people to get on board with what we’re doing and where we’re going. It’s easier if you get people in the business if they’re a great fit because it’s easier to teach skills. That’s how we’ve developed our culture.”

Hire slow, fire fast

For start-up businesses, it can be tough to develop a culture and maintain it as the business scales up, pointed out Beginning Boutique founder Sarah Timmerman.

“Culture is just something you’re expected to have and with extreme growth, you’re expected to hire because you can’t keep up with growth and you can’t always hire perfectly unfortunately,” she said.

“I wish I was 100 per cent successful but I’m not, so you will accidentally hire the wrong people and that will impact culture. It’s important to stay open and real with your people because you will make mistakes and so will they.”

The panel all agreed that it’s important to put potential candidates through a multi-phase interviewing process. Read the candidate’s cover letter and resume, check the references, do a phone interview before bringing them into the office, suggested Timmerman.

According to Koala co-founder Dany Miham, candidates are also required to complete a form around values asking in-depth questions such as ‘What do you have around the house?’, ‘What’s your favourite movie’ and even ‘What was your past relationship?’ Meanwhile, candidates for more senior roles need to do psychological tests.

At Flora & Fauna, new employees are expected to work a month in the warehouse, regardless of the role that they’ve been hired for.

“You need to work in the warehouse for a month when you start, because that’s the heart of our business, which is why we’re working around and supporting it. So if you’re not prepared to do that, you’re not the right fit for us,” explained Mathers.

“We brought someone on once and we didn’t do it because we were desperate for warm bodies. Big mistake. We asked them, ‘Can you work in the warehouse?’ They said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ So we said, ‘Go away and have a long think about whether this is the right business for you.’ We caught that on day two and we parted fine.”

According Milham, new business owners will always struggle with hiring at the start.

“We’ve gone through 160 people and at the start, we didn’t embrace the hire slow fire fast mentality. We had too much of a family culture which is common in early-stage startups,” he said.

“The average life expectancy for people in our business is 18 months. 18 months is a good stint at a startup…Your business is moving 10 times faster than an employee – you can’t train them fast enough. You also want that constant change and succession. So you should always have the mentality that you always want to replace people in the business.”

Keep it nimble

Milham prefers to keep his teams small and give them enough autonomy to make decisions on their own so the business can keep quickly moving along.

“We’ve got 90 staff and we try to keep teams small, because I don’t want to one day wake up and see on TV that we’ve become one of the companies we set out to disrupt. I don’t want to be the incumbent of a big slow process. Process slows everything down so we try to keep teams small.”

“As soon as you have multiple layers to decisions, the business financially will slow down and you want to try to stop that,” he said.

In a fast growing business, staff need to learn how to embrace change and adapt quickly as goals continually shift and new projects come up.

“We’re getting [our staff] into the mindset that change will come. I try to tell everyone change is the only consistent thing in the building,” Milham said. “[You need to] get in the mindset that your world and team will change, but it’s for the better and it will continue to keep improving.”

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