A strong and authentic culture is not just a nice company trait — it’s a key component to success. That’s why it was alarming to read a new study that found only 15 percent of executives believe their company culture is where it needs to be. It was especially concerning because that same research by Duke and Columbia professors concluded that culture plays a key role in business profits and how employees approach their work, which are important topics.
Most companies start out with a great culture, but few are able to maintain it. At Gusto, we tackled this challenge head-on during 2015, as we grew the team from 60 to 300 people. We also moved to a larger office in San Francisco, opened a second office in Denver, and changed our name from ZenPayroll to Gusto after launching benefits and compliance services to pair with our payroll service.
When we started the company, it was important to us to create a culture where employees could feel connected to those they work with and do the best work of their lives. We did this by spending time understanding what our values were early on and making them a core part of how we run the business. This year, we knew our culture would be tested as we grew rapidly — and it was. Here are some things we learned about how to keep your culture as you scale:
1. Maintain strong hiring standards.
When there’s pressure to grow quickly, it’s tempting to look for shortcuts. This might be helpful in the short term, but it will burn you in the long term. More people means more work being done — but not necessarily better work being done. It’s critical to maintain discipline in which roles are being opened so the organization doesn’t become bloated. Hiring mistakes can disrupt your culture and set your company back months. The hundredth person or thousandth person should go through the same rigorous hiring standard as the tenth person. Take the time to evaluate every candidate and also make sure that each role is filling a key need in the company.
I interviewed and made offers to the first 60 employees at Gusto, plus many of the first hires at our Denver office. It’s a balance, but there is a way to scale that process. While I’m not making every offer now, there is still accountability. For example, we now have a rotating committee (which I’m a part of) that meets every week to review offers going out and any new positions being opened.
The interview process will also evolve. Listen carefully to how candidates describe their experiences, major life decisions, and what they learned from each of them. Ask “why” repeatedly. Hiring is all about alignment around values, motivation, and skill sets. It’s not a company convincing a candidate to join, or a candidate convincing a company to hire him or her. It’s a search for alignment between both parties, where they both conclude they could do great work together.
2. Help new employees feel comfortable.
Once someone joins, there’s a lot to ramp up on in terms of knowledge and team. Our onboarding checklist has evolved dramatically as we’ve grown bigger. Early on, I would personally onboard each new hire and spend hours with him or her every day. That clearly isn’t scalable. Today, we have a team that facilitates a set of new-hire workshops, which are led by leaders from across the company. These workshops span the full gamut of topics, from company strategy to marketing tactics, engineering philosophy to company values. Each new hire is also assigned an onboarding buddy (OBB) from a different department, and we have some unique celebrations at our all-hands meetings to welcome new folks to the team.
The important thing is to make sure new employees know that they were hired because they aligned with our company’s mission, values, motivation, and purpose. As a result, they can just be themselves, be vulnerable, and know that everybody is here for the same reason — to serve our customers better and help Gusto achieve its full potential.
The six core values we had from day one at Gusto — ownership mentality, don’t optimize for the short term, we are all builders, go the extra mile, do what’s right, and be transparent — are instilled in everything we do. We dive deep into values during onboarding, but also as a part of every all-hands. Before making a decision in the company, we always strive to ask important culture questions, such as “Is this aligned with our values?”
3. Keep traditions, and start new ones.
During a time of rapid growth, it’s important to keep traditions going — particularly those that tie in to company culture. At the same time, it’s important to realize that traditions should feel natural and are unique to each company. They aren’t strategized or “planned.” The best traditions develop on their own and become a part of the company’s identity.
At Gusto, we have a number of traditions. Some include everyone taking their shoes off in the office (because the company was started in a home), as well as having friends and family dinners in the office.
When we were a smaller startup, we’d have one-week “workations” once or twice a year, when the whole company would spend time living together in a house. As we grew, we evolved this tradition to become “Gustaway,” a series of one-day offsites where 25 to 30 people from different teams in the company come together. We detach from the day-to-day and use the change of environment to reset how we’re spending our time. During the Gustaway, we rent a house near the ocean; cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each other; spend time at the beach; play games; and talk about life goals.
4. Create an environment people are proud of.
You want your teammates to look forward to spending time with each other in the office. That doesn’t mean you have to find a lavish space or the fanciest furnishings. Often, it’s the little details that make a major difference. Those details can vary depending on your culture, but the intentions behind them are universal.
For us, we chose an airy space near a park, decorated the office with plants, and created communal areas with comfortable couches, good lamps, and nice rugs. We also carpeted the office so employees can walk around in socks or slippers. In addition, we’ve created a dining environment that’s inspired by how we eat with family. It should feel comfortable and communal. The goal was to give the office a feeling of “home” and have folks be proud to bring their friends and family to visit.
5. Take time to reflect.
There are always a million things to do in a growth-stage business because that’s what it means to have a big opportunity. Meanwhile, maintaining focus becomes only more important as a company gets bigger. There’s a hustle and bustle to day-to-day work that can become all-consuming. Fast-growing businesses are intense places to work, and everyone is pushing himself or herself. This makes it even more important to set aside time on a regular basis and be introspective.
At Gusto, we try to create opportunities for introspection on a regular basis. It could be going on a walk to a nearby park, spending time in the “living room” portion of the office, or sharing one’s thoughts in the reflections we do on a regular basis.
We also give all our employees a round-trip flight anywhere in the world on their one-year anniversary, which they have to use before their second-year anniversary. It’s not just a perk. It’s a great way for them to have a change of environment, step away, and reflect. We’ve found that folks come back as healthier people, and thus as healthier teammates as well.
Gusto’s foundation has been built around our values and the idea that all companies are communities. The people of Gusto came together because of a shared passion for the problem we’re solving, and we know that we’ll never be done with our journey. We can always get better. We can always improve. This mindset has enabled us to grow quickly, in a way we’re proud of, without sacrificing culture.
Some might argue that culture doesn’t scale and “corporate” mindsets eventually take over as a company grows. I believe that as long as you hire with the mindset that each teammate is an owner in the business, and each person is empowered to lead by example, you don’t have to lose your culture. It can grow stronger as you get bigger.
This story was originally published in Inc. Magazine.