Building a culture not a cult – #WeAreTechNation

Orla Browne, February 18, 2019 5 min read

Working so closely with scaling tech companies, we hear an awful lot about the importance of company culture. By now, we’ve held scaling sessions on it for our growth programme cohorts, we’ve blogged about it, made online courses about it, and even published a book on it. Company culture is essential to attracting and retaining talent, and ensuring your staff do their best work, and make the best choices when the boss is not in the room.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect culture, as Neil Rimer, co-founder of Index Ventures said, “that’s known as a cult”. Every company is different and what works somewhere won’t work somewhere else, but at Tech Nation we think we’ve got some of the important stuff down.

The tea in team

This is about more than just a croissant and salted caramel profiteroles. Every other week we have either a team breakfast or afternoon tea laid on in the London and Manchester offices. Yes it means you get to save on breakfast that morning, and the leftover Day Old bread might even stretch to lunchtime, but it’s also a chance to take a much needed break from routine and catch up with those you don’t chat to every day. Bonding and innovation can’t be forced, but they can be facilitated, with cake. Some of the best ideas can come from the randomest of conversations when you take a step back from your day-to-day. I’m sure there’ll be something beautifully creative to come from the biweekly “cream or jam first” debate one of these days…

Close quarters

With colleagues all over the country, it’s important that we regularly get together to reassess where we’re at as a business, and get some valuable face time. Each quarter the whole organisation congregates for our company away days. These move around geographically, and vary between business strategy focus, and group activities such as volunteering. It’s also when we take time to celebrate the successes of the last three months, with staff awards, and team treats. Small prizes are awarded to those people voted by the team to have best lived the company values of Meaningful Collaboration, Originality and Real Impact since the last workshop. Evening team treats have included group cooking in London, painting in Manchester, a boat trip in Bristol and Escape Room in Leeds.

Culture Clubs

Outside of enforced fun, there’s plenty of optional socialising to be had too. Puzzle club in the North has had fine attendance. Now three months in, the board game club founded with an eclectic collection scavenged from some Aldgate charity shops, is going from strength to strength. The London and Manchester board game libraries are now also home to copies of Ghostel, the excellent Kickstarted board game developed by Gino, our Entrepreneur Engagement Manager based in Cardiff!

The roving Run Club has a fluid membership that do their thing at department and company away days, with admirable early starts.

Friday lunchtimes are for Lunch ‘n’ Learn, when team members share a lesson to anyone who’s interested. Without LnL we might never have known we had an amateur entomologist in our midst, or that we could be taught to code JavaScript in under an hour. 

And the budding Book Club is inclusive enough to welcome those who may not have yet read the book, but are happy to offer opinions and ask questions nevertheless.

Network effect

You might get free lunch elsewhere, but Tech Nation Detox is a real proprietary privilege. Each month someone super informed, inspiring and influential from the tech industry comes in to give us their insights, hot takes, and answer closed-room questions. The Detox roster would be the envy of any global conference, with recent visitors having included Benedict Evans, Eileen Burbidge, Rob Desborough, Sarah Wood, Trishna Saxena and Adam Hale.

#slackers

With people based in 10 cities (and counting), communication is clearly key for collaborating on projects, but it’s also a big part of our culture. Two people in the same office just a few metres from each other will still communicate on slack, and while that might sound anti-social, it’s quite the opposite. We work as well with one another no matter where we are, and as a result we’re all part of the same emoji-reacting team.

Slack is where those most important parts of any culture often occur – the organic miscellaneous habits and rituals that don’t require a calendar invite. At Tech Nation that includes #dogchat. A Slack channel for the mutual appreciation of lovely doggos; #dogchat is obviously vital to team morale. Of course there’s a #catchat too if that’s your bag, and yes you can be in both.

Doodle Fridays in the marketing team is a bunch of themed doodles of varying technical and narrative accomplishment, shared on Slack from approx 4pm on Fridays. That’s all, but it’s quite nice.

Other important seasonal and enduring channels have included #fantasy-football, #shred-heads, #royal-wedding, #worldcupchat, #loveisland and #jukebox.

Perhaps the clubs, channels and away days don’t exactly make up a culture, but they’re the symptoms of it – an open, supportive environment that offers autonomy and trust, and champions the values.

In any company, you can have all the structures and policies you like, but it’s people who make a culture. You can lead a team to Albert Schloss, but you can’t make it drink. They’ll do that for themselves if there’s good vibes and nice people. Equally you need to be open to a team creating the culture for you, and help them with what it is they want to do. Whether that’s through getting a new Disney Princess puzzle in Spinningfields, a few copies of High Rise, or just being secure and trusting enough that the team will do it right. Thankfully at Tech Nation, all of the above is true.

Company culture