The Portfolio and Project Leaders Forum (PPLF) recently asked me to speak at one of their quarterly meetings. Since members come from a wide spectrum of industries, including commercial, government, and non-profit, they were interested in Simplexity’s perspective as an organization where all our work is project-based. They wanted to hear what we have done to build a culture that enables project teams to work together effectively.
In order to understand our culture, it helps to have a feel for the type of company that we are, since that informs how we perform our work. We are a contract engineering design services company, and most of our clients are large technology leaders who hire us to perform product development work. Our areas of expertise include mechanical, electrical, firmware, software, and systems engineering, as well as project management, manufacturing engineering, quality engineering, new product introduction, and prototyping. Usually we are working with the client’s engineering team to develop new products. That means that communication, both internally between our teams and with the client, is paramount for project success.
Simplexity’s product development process includes both engineering of the product and often also helping with New Product Introduction (NPI) for those clients needing assistance with transferring a product to manufacturing. These processes are incredibly integrated within the culture of Simplexity, since our NPI leader is also a principal project manager in the company who understands both the engineering and the transfer to production side. This integrated culture is intentional since it helps drive an efficiency that would not be possible with two disparate teams.
I shared a word cloud of the most common descriptive words used to describe Simplexity’s culture by our employees from the 2020 Inc Best Places to Work survey. The larger and bolder the word, the more often it was used to describe our culture.
This was a very accurate representation of how I have heard our culture described, since employees want challenging and interesting work, but also highly value the flexible, respectful, friendly, and fun environment that we have. This culture allows employees to pursue and achieve excellent project results in an engineering organization like ours. I am a self-described culture evangelist. I am always looking at the decisions that we make as an organization through the lens of culture. I want to make sure we have an excellent culture, most importantly so we have engaged employees who truly love their work yet also because having a strong culture is integrated with better financial results for the company. As a small consulting company, all our engineers are customer-facing. This means that we must hire and retain engineers who have a high level of both technical talent and strong inter-personal skills. Thus, during the recruiting and hiring process, we screen not only for technical aptitude but assess the candidates for cultural fit and flexibility as well.
The 5 Steps of Building an Excellent Company Culture
How do we build an excellent company culture?
1: Start with trust. Trust is #1. If we don’t trust our employees to get their work done no matter where they are, then no further culture building steps will work. Trust has to be given before it is received. I recommended giving people the benefit of the doubt first and trusting them, rather than the notion that trust must be earned through actions and deeds first.
2: Once you have established trust on the team, then decide and write down your core values as an organization. With core values, less is more. Don’t be tempted to write down every good action that you want people to follow. It’s better to have a few core values that everyone remembers rather than ten values that often get forgotten. The values should also reflect what is most important as an organization. They are what allow employees to make decisions without checking in with you on each little item, since they guide the behavior that is encouraged by the organization.
Simplexity has four core values as shown below:
To hear more information about what these core values mean for Simplexity and guidance around setting core values for your organization, listen to the video clip below:
3: The third step in creating an excellent company culture is to encourage constant improvement (a Kaizen method). Most of the processes at Simplexity have been developed via a bottoms-up approach. This means that the employees who are closest to the work are the ones who define the processes. Anyone can speak up with suggestions to improve a process (although often that means they get tasked with helping to see that the ideas for improvement get buy-in from people most intimate with the process and then implemented company-wide). This constant improvement practice allows the culture to evolve as the organization grows, while still in the framework of maintaining the core values. How the work gets done may change, but why it gets done usually does not.
4: Transparency and communication are key for any healthy culture, no matter which core values you choose. This means letting your employees know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and having an open-door policy to answer questions. If you want teams to work together effectively, they not only need to understand what you are doing from a company standpoint, but what other teams are doing and be able to freely communicate with one another.
5: Once you’ve gone through the first four steps of building an excellent culture, then the last step, reinforcement, is key. You can’t just define your core values, stick them on a wall and never talk about them again. They must be integrated into the daily behavior of all employees. There are two sides to reinforcing culture:
At Simplexity, our Demonstrating our Values Program means that any employee can nominate any other employee for living out our values. These employees are then recognized at the monthly all-employee company meeting and receive a gift certificate for lunch. Even though we do not have Simplexity’s four core values posted on a wall, all employees know what they are. This is because every month people are reminded of them since they are hearing stories about how their co-workers live out the values.
Example of a Demonstrating our Values nomination
Equally important is the opposite side, not allowing behaviors that are counter to the core values to be accepted. As much as you want to celebrate the good behaviors, the rubber meets the road when you see or hear bad behaviors. Do you nip them in the bud? Or do you ignore them because they are not that serious and you don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation? The offense is usually just barely stepping over the line, for example cursing in the workplace. Minor cultural infractions are not typically done intentionally, but are simply a slip up. In the case of someone exclaiming with a swear word, I could just ignore it, but I choose to speak up and ask people to watch their language since it doesn’t make for a professional atmosphere (affecting the Employee Well-Being value for other employees around the person cursing). If employees see you ignoring even minor cultural infractions, then they make the conclusion that that value isn’t really all that important (hence by inaction, the negative behavior is condoned).
Adapting our Culture amid COVID-19
Since the middle of March 2020, all our employees have had to predominantly work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So how has this affected our culture?
While this has not been as difficult a transition for us as it has been for some companies (see my Top 5 Policies to Successfully Work from Home blog), it has meant that we put Step 3 of Constant Improvement and Step 4 of Transparency and Communication into high gear. We are no longer around one another where organic conversations can just happen. Communication has to be more intentional. The executive management team has been even more transparent with our communication around the health of the company and what we can do to maintain jobs and the financial success of the company. We have improved out IT systems, adapted our shipping and receiving processes to allow packages to be delivered to employees’ homes, and created a whole new set of processes around disinfection, wearing masks, and keeping employees safe once we were allowed back in the office.
Some additional adaptations that we have made include:
- Increased use of video conferencing. While we have been using video conference software for years, now we use it all the time for every meeting. The positive spin on the situation is that it matters a lot less as to which of the four Simplexity offices you work in. Any other employee is just a video call away.
- Switching from a culture of shared eating and celebrations to care packages of snacks (and masks). Our monthly company meetings had traditionally been over lunch, with most people attending in person in their respective offices and a Zoom conference call between the four offices linking us together. Now all employees are on the Zoom conference call independently. In order to keep at least a part of our eating culture, we’ve adapted from eating lunch together to sending either credits to purchase a snack (with various themes each month) or sending a care package of snacks to each employee. When we did send the care package, we also included Simplexity-branded masks and asked each employee to pick a virtual background of a “place they’d rather NOT be” while wearing their masks. Keeping some humor during this situation has helped maintain our sense of connectedness and Employee Well-Being.
Themed monthly company Zoom meetings
- Increased flexibility. While the word “flexible” was already our most mentioned descriptor in the Best Places to Work survey, we have been even more flexible. Employees with young children have been balancing parenting with work and home schooling (with daycares and schools closed). In addition to people working truly whenever is convenient for them, we have encouraged reduced work schedules and other adaptations to allow people to keep working and living their lives simultaneously.
- Finding ways to make a difference. Simplexity engineers want to make a difference in the world in addition to doing their jobs. Given our skill sets, we have done what we can to help the fight against COVID-19. This includes helping clients in the Molecular Diagnostics space who are developing the next generation of COVID-test equipment as well as volunteer and company-sponsored projects to design and build Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Some of these projects include building hospital intubation boxes for healthcare workers and face shields for first responders.
A strong culture is the glue that holds an organization together, even amid challenges like a pandemic. A culture that values employees allows them to work effectively, delivering excellent results to clients. No matter which core values or characteristics of a strong culture you choose to adopt, if you take care of your employees first, they will take care of your clients, who will in turn bring the company more business, allowing you to hire even more great employees. It is a virtuous circle that you can put into motion.