‘Fitting out’ your company culture for the long haul

‘Fitting out’ your company culture for the long haul

After the year that was 2020, one thing stuck out to me time and time again – just how important it is to build a strong company culture.

It was our team that got us through a year with some serious ups and downs and I was so incredibly proud of the teamwork, dedication, and enthusiasm that they showed. 

But that didn’t happen by accident – we’ve been intentionally building a solid company culture over the last nine years. We’ve made heaps of mistakes, and I know there’s still plenty to learn. But given how tough (yet rewarding) we’ve found it, I thought it was worth sharing some of my biggest learnings in how you can ‘fit out’ an epic company culture.

Live and breathe your values

Our values are up on our walls in multiple places, sure. But just coming up with some values and shoving them up on your wall isn’t going to do a whole lot. Living and breathing them yourself though, sets things off right – after all, your culture is often a reflection of your key personnel. I learned early on just how important it is that I and my senior management team are walking the walk and reflecting those values personally. 

Even better is getting the rest of your team living and breathing them. Are you reminding everyone of the values constantly? Do you ask them to make decisions based on those values? Are you tracking their performance against those values?

Having strong values has helped us not only become a place where people want to work (as opposed to the beginning of our journey when we were having to hunt talent down!), but also attract fantastic clients. After all, our values (approachable, on time, quality, flexible, and following up) also happen to be the things that clients are looking for in a fit-out provider.

Never walk past mediocrity

A friend I met through The Icehouse Owner-Manager programme shared a quote from David Morrison that I love: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” If you want to build a high performing, quality-focused culture, you absolutely cannot walk past mediocrity. Sure, you might be busy. And sure, you might want to hit a deadline. But letting mediocrity slide once is a slippery slope to making your team think that’s okay every time. You can be friendly and caring – but as soon as you start accepting mediocrity, you’re in danger.

Invest early and get the pay-off later

Building a strong culture can definitely be costly to begin with (financially anyway), but in the long-term there’s a huge pay-off. Sure, you might need to spend on events so your team can get to know each other, and you’ll want to reward your team in one way or another for a job well done, but that investment can have a big impact. 

Our investment in culture have helped us retain staff, cut down on HR costs, and attracted more clients, especially in tight tendering situations where multiple companies are a similar cost. Our culture is often the deciding factor for clients.

Plus, because we’re always investing in our people, they’re always more willing to give back to the company. When the chips are down, and we’re on a tight deadline, I know our team will do whatever it takes to get the job done on time and to our high standards – even if it means working late or pitching in on a project they weren’t originally assigned to. 

It’s a fine, fine line

Between being a social team and creating a party culture – and believe me, I say that from experience! Our team likes to have a drink or two, and love hanging out with each other both in and out of work hours, but at one point we definitely tipped a little too far into a party-hard approach. As employers, we have a social responsibility to take care of our team – and that’s bloody hard to do when the culture encourages hard partying.

We had to pull it back from being in that state, and now think we’ve got a pretty good balance between working hard and still having fun socialising. But it would have been much easier if we’d never let it tip into partying hard in the first place!

Don’t let things fester

Over the years, I’ve discovered that the longer I hide from confrontation, the bigger an issue it becomes. Whatever challenge you’re facing with your team, approach it straight up and you’ll find the impact isn’t nearly as bad. I’m not someone who loves confrontation, so this was a huge learning for me – but I’m bloody glad I learned it now. 

Don’t be afraid to say goodbye

It can be incredibly hard to fire people here in NZ, which is why I always recommend hiring slowly and making sure there’s a culture fit. But if you do get stuck with someone who doesn’t meet the culture, don’t be afraid to move them on. We’ve gotten rid of a few people who were decent at their jobs, but just didn’t fit or weren’t committed to living our values. A couple were so far from our values that they ended up coming back at us through litigation – but in the end, I almost see that as money well spent. A bad apple can spoil the whole crop, and I don’t ever want to let a bad apple spoil an incredible culture. 

Stay on the pulse

The bigger we get as a business, and the further I get from the heartbeat of Datum, the more aware I am of how easy it would be for me to shut off from the rest of the team and just deal with senior management. But as I become less involved in the day-to-day of what we do, I’m seeing how much more important it is for me to get on-site and into the factory. Sure, part of that is to make sure everyone’s holding themselves to high standards (see the mediocrity point above!), but just as important is spreading the love – telling them they’re doing an awesome job and celebrating their wins. 

I love the fit-out industry, and many of the values that we have embedded in our own culture are things that I see being lived by many of the site guys from other companies. We live in a world of constant tight deadlines and onerous requirements, and I love seeing how site guys from different companies will always jump across and help each other out – there’s a real ‘backs to the wall’ culture across the industry. Unfortunately, we don’t always see that in the management levels of businesses. As leaders, it’s our job to lead the culture – and we can only do that if we stay connected to people at every level of the business, who are often doing an awesome job already.

I’m sure everyone’s experienced at least one workplace with a less-than-great culture –where blame is the name of the game, money-grabbing is the goal, and everyone will throw their teammates under the bus if they feel they have to. I’d love to see the fit-out industry as a whole stand up and build incredible cultures at all levels – helping New Zealand become known as world leaders in both fit-outs and company culture. 

So how are you ‘fitting out’ an intentionally great company culture? This is an ongoing journey for me and the Datum crew – so I’d love to know what you’ve done that’s had a big impact.