Build a Better Business by Defining a Company Culture

The term “Company Culture” is thrown around a lot these days. But what does it mean? The dot-com era gave us foosball machines, Aeron task chairs and catered lunch. The tech giants that survived have everything from yoga classes to dry cleaning. The millennials demand flexibility, clear rewards and open offices. The boomers don’t know where to put their bobble heads after getting kicked out of their cubicles.


Your company’s culture is ultimately defined by your people who, by the way, also define your brand. Your brand, in turn, defines what your company exhibits as an experience for all people involved: customer, staff, mascots, etc.


Basically, your culture is good if people want to be there and hold each other accountable for being their best.

The Culture at Astek

Astek takes great pride in its people, whose passions influence everything we do together. We are collaborative life-learners who love to share. We have flexibility for people who need to run to theater auditions or other pursuits. Our monthly Think-n-Drink events educate and inspire the community to understand how digital tools can help them. We cover three hours per week in gym time, have self-chosen work-from-home days (once per week), time for voting, have an above-average benefits package and a timber loft. These are rapidly becoming table stakes for corporate perks, but they aren’t really the full story of culture. We consider ourselves 20% startup, with special projects to keep things fresh and agile while developing real-world products.


One of the best ways to see behind the curtain of our culture is our team videos. In the past three years, we have created more than 56 staff meeting videos on YouTube after our staff meetings twice per month. Some are also on Vine. I’m including a few of my favorites in this post. In addition to being fun, they are a wonderful regular team exercise that promotes collaborative problem solving. We come up with the idea on the spot and shoot in one take. Everyone is involved from brainstorming to shooting.



Leadership and ingenuity are rewarded at every turn here. This means that I get honest feedback about what’s happening and what people think needs to change before it’s too late. It also means that everyone helps build the business in whatever way they can, starting by helping fellow team members.

Our clients value us not just for our knowledge, but for our partnered approach to helping them grow their businesses. We work with innovative people who are respectful and appreciative, making positive contributions to the world, and they are a big part of our culture. We give back to our community in numerous ways, the most prominent being our annual Astek Web Grant program, which gives underserved non-profits a boosted chance for success.



For every person, I track three things: strengths, ambitions and alignment with Astek’s needs. Over time this creates trajectories for growth, which sometimes means that people evolve from one position to another. This is one of the ways in which Astek supports everyone’s professional development. A shared value system leads to smart independent decision making and taking the right chances. You can teach any skills other than honesty and work ethic. Everyone here knows how essential they are to the business. But there’s something else that sets Astek’s people apart. We are all in deep pursuit of passions outside the office, whether it’s acting, dj’ing, volunteering, travel, playing music, family, geeky web projects or finding the best coffee or Scotch in town. These passions influence our work in many positive ways. Everyone here is working for something greater. We leap, grow, succeed and fail together. We call each other on our bullshit. People here are invested, motivated and appreciative, which is something I never take for granted.


Defining a Strong Company Culture

Before our last Think-n-Drink on Google+, one of our web developers washed all the coffee mugs by hand (yes, we have a dishwasher). Nobody asked him to do this, but it really helped make the place look nicer while the people assigned to the event were running around doing other things. You just can’t buy that kind of buy-in. And then there was that time we pulled together to turn the U.S. Government back on… 




This habit of “do what needs to be done” is required for us to deliver great products and services and make sure we’re having some fun along the way, too. It applies to our work, how we treat each other and how we take care of our space. It’s just a better way of living at work. We all spend so much time working that it’s best to have a sense of purpose and ownership in it. And a strong culture can empower people to make purposeful decisions all the time. That’s why I started Astek, and if we hadn’t been able to achieve this consciousness, there wouldn’t be much point in doing it. We strive to create mutually respectful relationships with mutual value exchanges.


I cannot and will not force my people to work with anyone against their strong opposing will. In fact, when someone on my team doesn’t want to do something, it’s a pretty good sign that we shouldn’t be doing it. They are not afraid of hard work or worthy challenges. But as a good rule of thumb, we don’t consort with assholes. It’s not always about having fun, but it is about meaningful rewarding work, like solving the obesity epidemic in America.


Work-life Balance Issues

Corporate life has seen a few iterations of work-life balance over the past two decades, largely guided (or misguided) by technology. At the turn of the millennium, Blackberries were prevalent and well on their way to owning the mobile office worker’s space (and life). This led to a 24/7 expectation of availability that was unsustainable. Real estate brokers, lawyers, doctors and IT people may need to be on-call, but most people choose careers that don’t require that kind of disruption.



Thankfully, corporate society has largely evolved from that into a work-life integration concept. This means that you may check your email in an evening or weekend when it’s appropriate and not distracting from important things like your family, but it’s not an expectation or requirement. In fact, you may prefer this since it meant that you got to sleep in on Wednesday or take your kid to the ballgame. This kind of flexible time displacement is often hailed as the number one benefit employees of all ages seek from their employer. It also requires that you don’t hate your job so much that it has the power to ruin your other affairs.


What’s A Large Company To Do?

Those at larger organizations may have more trouble instilling and sustaining a consistent and meaningful culture. That’s fair, since Astek is still a relatively small team with a family feel. So how does a large company establish and support its culture when it inevitably has more attrition and fewer natural intimate moments than a small office?


One word: flexibility.


Large companies are investing a lot of capital in space design, technology and furniture to modernize their working styles for their employees. Mobile workflows and work-from-home flexibility are paramount to this. It’s an adjustment, but when your people are happy, they do better work and create fewer obstacles for others. Let’s take a look at a recent high-profile cultural story. Last year, Yahoo!’s new CEO Marissa Mayer required most employees to start working on-site for more collaborative working, which was met with mixed reception. With her breakneck focus on acqusitions, a strong culture is imperative for keeping people aligned. Google, her former employer, has always operated in this way, which is interesting since they have more virtual workplace technology at their disposal than just about everyone. Public companies this large also have perks like stock options, which makes everyone happy when things are going well. Of course that bears the risk of things souring quickly when things go the other way.


Astek can relate to this ethos. When we moved to our new Chicago West Loop office a year ago, work-from-home was standardized and in some cases more limited. A few months later, an all-company retreat bonded us even more tightly. We are a creative agency, so being in the same room to collaborate is very important most of the time. There is magic that would be harder to achieve virtually. This translates to a better smarter product for our clients.


And a foosball table couldn’t hurt either.



So What’s the Benefit of a Strong Culture?

At its loftiest, every business has an opportunity to elevate the human condition and the quality of life for everyone involved in its little corner of the world. That’s what I strive to do with my team. Speaking more practically, it’s being proven that this kind of focus on people creates more efficiency, increased retention and recruiting opportunities, better quality work and – you guessed it – more profit. I don’t expect anybody here to care about Astek as much as I do, but I’m often surprised how close they get.


We’re going to explore this at our next Think-n-Drink on Corporate Culture in Chicago on Tuesday, April 1. Join us to get cultured. Don’t be a fool!

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