When It Comes to the Workplace, I’ll Take Culture Over Cake

Jac Domney - 26/06/2018

It is becoming ever more popular in the tech industry to fight for recognition in regards to workplace culture.

Google have certainly set the gold standard by awarding employees free meals, massages and dry-cleaning, but a quick search on Instagram shows many other tech companies are vying to follow suit by presenting a similar ‘fun and exciting’ work environment.

These perks are great and I’m lucky to benefit from some myself, being too full sometimes for dinner after a long day of free food –but what actually are the keys to a successful workplace culture?

I’ve had a long hard think and landed on three main drivers – autonomy, mental health and teamwork.


Tech employees want to be acknowledged as professionals, with their technical expertise and dedication at the heart of what landed them where they are today. Letting us work autonomously is a way to acknowledge this expertise. 

Jack Welch, former CEO and chairman at General Electric, said his job was to “place the best people for the best opportunities and to properly distribute the monies to the right places. That’s all. Communicate your ideas, distribute the resources and get out of the way.”

What I take from this is, a company that acknowledges this sets a strategic direction, with aggressive yet achievable deadlines, and gives autonomy to their teams. By doing this, you allow teams to make the goals that have been set, their own, which naturally align with the company’s strategic direction.

Studies have shown that autonomy is a major factor when it comes to intrinsic motivation and mental health, employees are more energized, less stressed and eager to continue to learn. It is no surprise that Netflix, one of America’s most in-demand employers, embodies this notion with their culture manifesto outlining “freedom and responsibility” as one of their core values.

Mental Health

The physical health of employees is important, and often companies give stipends to their staff for expenses such as gym membership. But we are now seeing the industry evolve, and employers are embracing a more ‘whole person’ view to include mental health.

Employers are searching for ways in which they can help improve the mental health of their staff, and with good reason, the World Health Organisation estimated that 12 billion working days will be lost by 2030 without improved treatments for depression and other anxiety disorders. This highlights not only the need to address this issue and the problem with burnout, but also how much is lost by neglecting this aspect of employee health.

Last year Olark Live Chat received significant media attention when one of their web developers, Madalyn Parker, emailed the team saying “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”

Olark CoFounder and CEO, Ben Congleton, was praised for his response which was later posted to Twitter by Madalyn and retweeted over 7000 times and liked by almost 30,000 people. Ben’s response was:

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work.”

Leaders like Ben destigmatise the social taboo of taking mental health days, and it is responses like his that tell employees well-being is top priority.


University coursework often emphasises on the importance of teamwork – each member of the team focuses on particular areas that speak to their strengths, boosting efficiency and productivity.

What is not focused on in university is how vital the elements of team culture are to achieving a company's strategic goals. Sharing the workload between team members boosts morale, giving everyone a sense of appreciation and recognition that is not easily achievable when working alone.

Let me draw on one of my own examples. On a recent project we were asked to submit a survey after our daily “stand-up” or “scrum”. The survey simply asked to rate your mood on a scale of 1-5, there was a comment field and all submissions were anonymous.

This enabled us to take the temperature of the team each day. This was effective, as when times were stressful, we could acknowledge every member on the team were feeling the same pressures, which motivated us all to dig in our heels and rally. It also helped to affirm the decisions we were making together directly contributed to improving the teams overall mood, and better understand the positive impacts each individual made to the team as a whole.

Studies performed by Intelligence Group suggest that 88% of millennials preferred a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one, with millennials closing in on 50% of the global workforce it is going to be paramount companies to invest time in a collaborative culture to attract top-tier talent.

Free donuts are great, and reclining in a beanbag for sprint retrospectives can certainly be relaxing, but these perks are only icing on the cake when it comes to culture.

We are in an industry where innovative ideas come and go, that is constantly evolving where workplace culture is your only sustainable competitive advantage. As companies continue to improve these factors, and the percentage of millennials in the workforce increase, it will become ever more important for companies to spend time nurturing their culture to see it continue to thrive.

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