What is company culture?

It's more than some free snacks and an away day, but exactly how much more?

Well, digital-first organisations and startups are often defined by a transparency that's lacking from more conservative public and private owned companies.

Here's a roundup of five companies that champion transparency.

Medium

Medium, the blog platform and publishing network, publishes 'internal memos and musings' to its own 'Inside Medium' account.

The company runs an internal, private version of its own platform called Hatch, and it was publishing here that led Ev Williams, CEO, to question whether, in fact, some of these internal company postings should be made public.

Ev explains in a post on Inside Medium.

what if a lot of our hatch posts were public?
I’ve said this before, and now I’m saying it again: I think a lot of the posts we write to each other could be made public, with little modification, and it might be good. The reason it might be good is hard to argue. I’m not picturing polishing them up and turning them into public-worthy posts. I just mean publishing them, as is. I find the idea of a company being transparent to the outside like this intriguing.

He continues, candidly, to give another incontrovertible reason for the experiment.

..shit, we’re writing this stuff anyway.

Take a look at Inside Medium and you'll find discussion of everything from new features and product development, to culture and working practices, to pseudo diary entries. Anybody can respond to the posts, which gives a great platform for further conversation or feedback.

inside medium

Airbnb

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote a post on Medium titled 'Don't fuck up the culture'. Another rather blue assertion of the obvious (and a direct quote from an investor), but one principle Airbnb certainly abides by.

Chesky frames the importance of culture as follows.

The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial.

Now, I must confess that as a reserved Englishman, I find the Airbnb Careers page a little sickly ('we give the best high fives in town'), but that's me being grumpy, the commitment to culture is clear.

Where transparency comes in is within the engineering teams at Airbnb. There's a microsite (with the wonderful URL http://nerds.airbnb.com/) dedicated to all things code, open source, tech and data. The company hosts an annual tech conference, OpenAir, and seems to delight in sharing amongst engineers.

A post by VP Engineering, Mike Curtis, on the nerds' site details this engineering culture. There's a revealing paragraph about transparency.

engineers have transparent access to information. We default to information sharing. The more information engineers have, the more autonomously they can work. Everything is shared unless there’s an explicit reason not to (which is rare). That includes access to the analytics data warehouse, weekly project updates, CEO staff meeting notes, and a lot more.

I enourage you to read the post, there's plenty more on collaboration and team structure. The result of this culture is that on Glassdoor, where employees can review companies, Airbnb is rated 4.6 out of 5, with a 98% CEO approval rating.

airbnb engineering culture

GDS

Government Digital Service is well known for publishing its design principles at GOV.UK.

But further than that, GDS publishes a collection of brilliantly insightful blogs on its own blogging microsite.

The topics covered here are very diverse, but each is fascinating for the sheer commitment to transparency, even going as far as discussing culture change in government.

The blogs represent a fascinating archive of digital transformation on an enormous scale.

gds blogs

Google

Perhaps a well known example of progressive company culture, Google employees have long talked about the philosophy of 'default to open'. Though some may think Google an ironic inclusion here, what with the NSA scandal, Google deserves a place for its commitment to purpose and culture.

Arguably, it's more important than ever for Google to be transparent. The European Commission's antitrust division this year accused Google of failing to be impartial when promoting its own products in search.

Whatever you think about Google's dominance, the company provides countless examples of transparency, from its transparency reports on data requests, to employee objectives and key results (OKRs, which are all available to all staff internally).

Transparency only goes so far though, and Google did get some bad press in June 2015 after a story broke about an employee being reprimanded for creating an internal spreadsheet to encourage salary transparency.

google transparency report

Buffer

I've included Buffer here as it is indeed one company that is happy to publish salaries and show how they are calculated.

Furthermore, the company's 'default to transparency' culture includes the publication of all emails sent internally within the company.

Every internal email sent between any 2 people on the team has a certain list cc’ed that is accessible for everyone: For example, if 2 engineers email with each other, they cc the engineers list, if it’s people on our customer support team they have a support email list cc’ed.

There's a fantastic post on the Buffer blog explaining the advantages of a transparent email policy (which was inspired by its implementation at another company, Stripe), including a paper-trail should any member of staff become unavailable, and the ability to work 'surprise-free'.

Here is the Buffer philosophy on transparency.

Default to transparency

  • You take pride in opportunities to share our beliefs, failures, strengths and decisions.
  • You use transparency as a tool to help others.
  • You always state your thoughts immediately and with honesty.
  • You share early in the decision process, to avoid 'big revelations'.

buffer logo

Ben Davis

Published 29 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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