Team Building is Not an Extracurricular Activity: How to Make Company Culture a Priority from Day One

by / ⠀Startup Advice / March 21, 2013
company culture team building

Culture is a very real and meaningful part of a company that determines how team members feel about the business, the product, and one another. But building a strong company culture is also an opportunity to motivate the team by making everyone feel like they’re working toward a common goal.

At my company, culture has made all the difference in our product and our business — especially when we grew from 12 employees to 30 in just a matter of months. From the hiring practices to the onboarding process to daily interactions with seasoned employees, small changes to your company’s culture can make a huge difference in employees’ attitude and work.

Start from Day One

To make company culture a priority, the best place to start is with new hires. At BenchPrep, we make cultural fit a big part of the hiring process. We invite potential candidates to team lunches or happy hours so they can interact with the team in a social setting and assimilate to our company’s social climate. Culture fit is one of the most important factors to consider when hiring new employees because functional skills are teachable; personality is not.

It’s not easy to get someone to understand and embrace a company’s vision or product from the first day, so we ask our new hires to use our product so they understand our philosophy firsthand.  We give stock options to everyone who joins our team, even if they don’t understand what that means. The employees who joined in the very early stages already know how motivating it is to grow as the company grows. We communicate our goals and vision daily so it’s more than a mission statement — it’s something new employees live and work toward every day.

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Small Changes Make a Big Difference

We’ve found that it’s the little things that make all the difference when building a strong company culture. Every day, the entire team eats lunch together, and while we’re eating, we don’t talk about work. These lunches have been an excellent (and delicious) bonding experience for the team. They help everyone feel more comfortable, boost morale, and encourage a cohesive team atmosphere. Something as simple as a shared meal demonstrates that, regardless of seniority and job function, we’re all in this together.

Besides encouraging camaraderie, we also try to promote transparency in every aspect of our day-to-day operations. We hold bi-weekly meetings for our teams to sit down together and share what they’re working on. This helps everyone see how their personal progress fits into the company’s success. We’ve extended this philosophy to our office space. Our space is completely open, without walls or cubicles, so everyone can see everyone else from their desks. A more open, accessible office — physically and culturally — encourages communication, collaboration, and a shared vision.

5 Ways to Build a Positive Company Culture

Even when the focus is on promoting a shared vision and a high-energy work environment, no workplace is perfect. It’s important to recognize problems before they grow, and it’s vital to recognize individuals’ accomplishments when good things do happen. Here are a few ways to keep office energy constructive and optimistic:

1. Make it clear that these team activities matter. Team-building activities should never inhibit productivity or damage morale. They should be opportunities to share fun experiences and bond as a team, not a bureaucratic burden. As the leaves change and cooler weather sets in, embracing creative fall team building activities can inject renewed energy and cohesion into your team while celebrating the beauty of the season.

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2. Communicate. Then, communicate more and become a better listener. There is no substitute for meaningful interaction and conversation between two team members. Make room for it whenever (and however) you can.

3. Keep an eye out for conflict. If you sense something isn’t right, tackle the issue before it becomes something bigger. An undercurrent of conflict in the workplace is toxic to morale and productivity. If I have a conflict with a team member, I’ll have an open discussion with him or her to find the root cause, listen carefully to what my teammate has to say, and then look for a logical resolution we’re both happy with.

4. Welcome constructive criticism. My co-founder and I frequently have constructive (sometimes intense) debates, but they’re always geared toward improving the company. When employees notice this, they feel more comfortable challenging the status quo and coming up with new ways of doing things, too. Keep debates diplomatic, and don’t take criticism personally. At the end of the day, everyone is working toward the same goal.

5. Recognize the small achievements. As a leader, it’s important to balance the good and the bad. I’m the first one to speak up when things aren’t working, but I’m also always sure to acknowledge the good things, even if they’re small victories. People need recognition for their accomplishments, and when they feel appreciation and ownership for their victories, they will be more invested in the company’s success.

Company culture shouldn’t be an extracurricular activity, especially when it’s so crucial to the company’s success. A strong culture hasn’t just made life at the office better — it has helped us recruit smarter, more motivated people. It shows in our office. It shows in our product. And now, even our investors are noticing. Culture has transformed our company from the inside out, and it can do the same for yours.

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Ujjwal Gupta is the co-founder of BenchPrep, a cross-device learning platform that allows students to buy educational and test prep content from leading publishers and study across all devices. It allows students to take practice tests and get real-time scores. BenchPrep is backed by NEA, Revolution Ventures, and Lightbank, with more than 200,000 students using the platform. 

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About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.