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Most leaders would say company culture is one of the most important attributes of a thriving business. 

Those leaders might have a hard time defining exactly what it is, both in a broad sense and specifically for themselves. But they’ll all tell you it contributes massively to the success of their company and strength of their brand.

  • What makes one company’s culture different from another’s? 
  • Is it something you can cultivate, or does it just appear as part of a company’s lifecycle? 
  • Is ‘company culture’ just another corporate buzzword?

The best way to find answers to these questions is to look at those who’ve already done a great job. One such company is behavior analytics company Hotjar, who proudly demonstrate 

their cultural credentials internally and to the outside world. 

So to begin, we’ll answer a few key questions about company culture - including definitions and examples. Then, we’ll dive into Hotjar’s lessons in the art of cultivating a defined, positive culture. 

Table of contents

First: what is company culture?

Company culture is the personality and character of an organization, from a startup to a multinational. It defines the unique values, ethics, expectations and goals that the company lives by every day.

The culture of a company dictates how employees, customers, clients and service providers are regarded and treated. It’s a social and psychological attitude ingrained in how a business operates at every level.

The importance of company culture just can’t be overstated. It affects the way employees interact with each other and the outside world. It drives company strategy and defines the types of people that end up working there. Culture begins internally and spreads outwards, to the point where it becomes a part of their publicly visible brand. 

What defines a company culture?

Let’s get a little more specific and define the things that make up company culture.

Company culture involves the sum of the following attributes:  

  • Company values and the decisions they contribute to 
  • Unspoken expectations around working hours
  • Standards for everyday communication and maintaining civility
  • How people resolve conflicts
  • How engaged employees are with their work
  • Public perception of how a company operates internally

It’s a fairly broad concept, so there are certainly more ways to interpret it - but those are the basics. 

Companies might explicitly define their cultures - this could be done through a culture deck, which is essentially a presentation outlining cultural norms and expectations. It could be written about on their website, their hiring material, or their induction documents for new hires. 

Talking about culture openly is a fairly modern phenomenon, though, and you’ll most likely find it exists without being named. It lies in behaviors you can observe within the company, and it reveals itself when you ask an employee: 

“What’s it like to work at Company X?”

What are some examples of company culture?

In a more practical sense, you’ll see cultural norms play out in a number of scenarios: 

  • Company A has an intense, performance-based culture, which manifests as late nights, long hours and competition to hit targets. 
  • Company B has a culture of honesty, which means managers and team members aren’t afraid of speaking the truth, whether that involves performance feedback or whistleblowing when issues arise. 
  • Company C has a culture of wellbeing, which means employees are supported in matters of mental and physical health, which has a positive effect on their productivity. 

There’s a common idea shared by some progressive companies that ‘company culture is more than just ping pong tables and beer fridges’. 

While these office toys can be used as signifiers of a certain culture - i.e. you’ll probably find a more laid-back vibe with these in the workplace - they don’t actually contribute to the culture much. 

Sure, a nicely-designed office can improve the likelihood of employee wellbeing and opportunity for collaboration, but these are more surface-level aesthetic choices. 

If its leadership isn’t supporting and nurturing staff to be healthy and collaborate, then material items won’t be able to do it alone.

What is a good company culture?

There is no one-size-fits-all company culture - it depends entirely on the goals of its owners, management and employees.

Would you say the three company examples above are all good? Company A, with its high-performance environment, certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. And while it might work for a sales-based insurance company, it probably wouldn’t do well if you tried to integrate it into a small family-run cafe.

There are some attributes that you’d think contribute to a positive culture in most companies: integrity, collaboration, and honesty, for example. 

But even those can have negative sides from certain viewpoints. Honesty, for example, might upset the social order in a hierarchical organization, which are fairly common in certain industries and geographies. So there’s not really a universally ‘good’ company culture, but there are plenty of examples of effective and strongly-defined ones. 

What are the 4 types of corporate culture?

Despite the varied definitions we’ve covered above, there is one framework worth being aware of. Popularized by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan, the four types of organizational culture are a useful way of categorizing the ways in which organizations are arranged.

Here’s a brief overview of the types, as demonstrated in their Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument:

1 ) Clan culture 

This describes a friendly, collaborative environment which feels like a family. Tradition plays a big part of its methods of operation, and managers can feel like mentors or father/mother figures. Success in this case means everyone is cared for: employees, management, customers and clients. This is common in companies in the healthcare, nonprofit and education sectors. 

2 ) Adhocracy culture 

This type of company culture rewards creativity and risk-taking. It’s all about innovation and breaking new ground, and participants are expected to be comfortable with change, often at a rapid pace. Failures are expected and even celebrated, and entrepreneurial thought is encouraged. This type is commonly seen in startups and the technology sector. 

3 ) Hierarchy culture

Hierarchical cultures thrive on formalized structures, rules and procedures. Stability, reliability and continuity of business are the main goals, and breaking rank with extreme creativity isn’t really rewarded. These companies might have a lot of bureaucracy and administration work, but their long-term vision tends towards gradual success, which can be a great fit for certain personality types. This organizational type is common in government, legacy finance institutions, energy, commodities, and other physical-based industries. 

4 ) Market culture

Market culture is a more competitive type of company culture. These organizations will focus on hitting targets and performing to the best of one’s capabilities. They can be seen as a little ‘cut-throat’, and low performers might be ostracized or unwelcome. But for those comfortable in a fast-paced, competitive environment, it can be a great place to thrive and achieve some big wins. You’ll find this culture in sales-based companies like finance, services, consultancies, and direct-to-consumer brands. 

Company culture is changing rapidly for everyone

The world of business is busy changing much more rapidly than anyone could’ve predicted before 2020. Many companies are going to have to undergo a radical transformation to be relevant and successful after the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those changes is that the number of companies hiring remote workers will increase dramatically. Things won’t work as they did previously. 

  • Hiring and onboarding will be the starting point of change. 
  • Existing employees who start working remotely and onsite employees will have to go through each step of change similar to onboarding. 
  • Team dynamics will change and have to be addressed.

Your company culture will become the differentiator between success and failure. 

Many business leaders are going to have to re-think and re-evaluate their company culture to bring about the necessary changes that have to be made to remain competitive.

Next up, let's dive into everything we learned about company culture from Hotjar.

Core values hold the key to company culture

It should come as no surprise that core values are the key to building an authentic company culture. If that’s the case, how does your organization view the role of its core values?

Behavior analytics company, Hotjar, has been blazing a trail of success since its founding in 2014, which is excellent, of course! But most businesses are founded with intentions of success. So what sets Hotjar apart?

Here’s the kicker: Hotjar was deliberately started as a remote employer. The company is headquartered in Malta, but there’s no office with employees clocking in and out every day. That was always the intention. Currently there are over 100 employees located across the globe. So how do they do it right and what about company culture?

It seems it’s because their company culture is built on the foundation of their core values.

In the words of Hotjar’s VP of Operations, Ken Weary:

Hotjar takes its five core values very, very seriously and strongly. These are not just words that we put on the wall or are written somewhere deep and never reflected upon. We have five core values, and we discuss them weekly in different formats. They’re ingrained in a number of different things. They’re built into how we construct our quarterly and annual goals.

What’s the difference between Hotjar’s approach to company culture and that of countless other businesses?

Many companies write “nice” and even extravagant core values, display them on their website and all marketing material, but seldom consider their meaning. Without significance, something has no value. Big corporations often outsource the writing of core values to PR professionals and smaller businesses copy market leaders. But when these values don’t come from the heart, they don’t honestly define the company culture.

Building a good company culture starts with the hiring process

I had the pleasure of chatting to Ken to get the backstory on how Hotjar successfully continues to develop their company culture as the business expands. I was keen to know how to align a remote and diverse workforce separated by time and space, with the leadership’s vision and goals.

Ever the HR recruiter, I wanted to know how you identify talent who’ll fit into such a unique remote working environment. Having the right skills set and experience is one thing, but not everyone can be accountable and responsible if left to their own devices.

Hotjar’s hiring process is well planned, structured and bi-laterally informative. The idea is to learn as much as possible about the candidates upfront. Likewise, candidates must get as much insight into the company culture before any hiring decisions are made. Management is well aware that becoming a successful Hotjarian isn’t for everyone. Candidates can, at any stage in the hiring process, say the position isn’t for them.

So, how do you achieve that level of mutual understanding and honesty?

Ken explained that Hotjar has a 5-step hiring process that starts with applicants responding to vacancies on their careers site. On application, candidates know how the recruitment process works. Every step is described on the careers site in line with Hotjar’s policy of transparency.

This is how hiring works:

  1. Applications are received and reviewed.
  2. Successful candidates get contacted for a video screening chat.
  3. Shortlisted candidates get invited for a formal video interview.
  4. Finalists are given a paid multi-day task for review.
  5. The best candidate gets an offer.

In a bit more detail, the first two steps are straightforward in any hiring process. The early stages are little more than a meet and greet. Step 3 is more focused with targeted interview questions based on the role and the candidate’s skills and experience. Step 4 is about both the candidate and Hotjar getting to know much more about one another.

Candidates are assigned a project relevant to the job and their skills. It usually amounts to about two full days of work, and they get paid for their time. The project should be completed in about two weeks (considering candidates probably have another job). During that time, candidates have Slack access to all Hotjar employees relevant to the project. The projects are designed so that communication with internal teams is essential. That way, candidates get a feel of precisely what it’s like to work for Hotjar. This step is an opportunity for mutual evaluation by both parties.

Step 5 is a job offer to the best candidate (who’s equally as keen to join the team, having had first-hand experience of the company culture). Ken agrees that it’s a long process, and he admits that they probably do lose out on talent because some people are put off by the length of time it takes.

The positive, though, with following this process is that people don’t accept an offer first, then experience the company culture and decide it’s not for them. It also mitigates the risk of a toxic hire.

The next step for developing company culture: onboarding of new hires

It’s not difficult to see how someone could start feeling disconnected after the excitement of a remote job offer wears off if there’s no proper onboarding process. Working on your own, away from your team and colleagues can lead to disengagement. Some people can start feeling overwhelmed.

But Hotjar’s onboarding process is just as sharp as their hiring process. The leaders themselves are working remotely, after all, so they know and understand the challenges. Over time they’ve refined the onboarding process to ensure that every new hire feels like part of the team from day one.

Operational onboarding is a 3-stage process:

  1. Offer negotiation, acceptance and signed contract.
  2. Day one – first-day things
  3. Day one onwards

In between each stage are vital steps that align new hires with the processes, systems and the company culture.

The first step, after the job is accepted and the contract signed, is to ensure that the new hire has all the necessary remote equipment to succeed. Hotjar gets all of this across before the starting date so that the new team member can hit the ground running. They get a laptop, a Bluetooth headset, a Kindle and a welcome pack with reading material.

The welcome pack includes two books that relate specifically to the company’s core values and working mindset, namely, Radical Candor and The Pomodoro Technique. This exposes new hires to the importance of Hotjar’s core values and how they’re lived out in the company culture every day.

Step two pre the start date is to ensure that the new team member gets technically connected, so email setup and invites to all shared tools get sorted. That way there’s no delay in logging in on the morning of their first day, and all necessary invites are ready and waiting in their inbox.

About a week before the start date, all new team members receive an email explaining how their first day will go down, so they’re prepared and know the expectations; they’re not left wondering.

And then it’s day-one!

New Hotjarians can expect:

  • To be welcomed with messages from peers and their team lead.
  • An early morning call helps guide them through the day and the week ahead.
  • They’re also introduced to the rest of the company on Slack, so everyone knows about them, and their role; greetings and team intros are encouraged.
  • Hotjar’s People Ops Specialist also makes a welcome call around day-two to answer questions and address any concerns.
  • There’s also a #new-hotjarians channel in Slack, where new team members can ask questions of the Operations team at any time.
“We view everybody who works in the company as an additive to those core values, not as adhering to them.”

Keeping remote employees engaged and motivated

After such a great onboarding, I wanted to know from Ken how management ensures that employees stay engaged, motivated and productive.

It turns out that evaluations circle back to core values. Ken continues “Every six months every team member goes through a performance review. They’re asked in self-evaluations, peer evaluations and through their lead in what areas of our core values they’re strongest and in what areas they need to grow.”

Again it’s clear how the company culture gets reinforced through working in alignment with core values every day.

“We’re constantly guiding back to our core values - who we are, what we do, how we work. Our core values are built into our performance management process. We view everybody who works in the company as an additive to those core values, not as adhering to them.”

Personal accountability

Promoting personal accountability is critical. People must develop their own productivity rituals and routines. Priorities need to be set in a way that best suits them: what must get done today, this week, sometime soon, WIP, etc. 

Each employee has their own way of ensuring they meet their deadlines and responsibilities. People have the freedom to choose processes. Some prefer to-do-lists, jotting down notes as they arise, detailed lists, whiteboards, electronic/manual journals, etc. Collaboratively Hotjar uses Trello for planning and working tasks.

A fluid feedback system

Hotjar is big on asking for and giving feedback while working on tasks and projects. Employees run ideas and work by someone else for input and make adaptations before deadlines so workflow isn’t affected. Outlines, flowcharts, design prototypes, etc. are regularly shared from the defining and planning stages onwards.

Prioritizing self development

Clearly working at Hotjar requires constant development and improvement, and the company champions that in a big way. Employees get a €1,000 annual Personal Development Budget that allows them to buy books and sign up for courses that will help them grow.

“We see conflict as a means to resolve differences. It offers a diversity of information which is healthy. If we all think the same, we’re headed for a train wreck!”

The attitude and motivations of business leaders set the pace

I was keen to know more about the leadership mindset from Ken. They do, after all, not only select people with the right motivation and attitudes for remote work but keep successfully growing the company?

What unique attributes does this management team have that sets them apart from the rest? It turns out that Ken doesn’t think they’re really that different from other business leaders.

One thing they do regularly is to reflect on Hotjar’s core values and collectively consider if they, as leaders, are following their core values. Under pressure, it can be easy to deviate, but not for this team! They believe that if they’re not following the core values, their team will quickly follow suit. If that happens, their values will become meaningless, and so will their company culture.

So how does a team like this handle conflict and differences in opinion and approach?

“We see conflict as a means to resolve differences. It offers a diversity of information which is healthy. If we all think the same, we’re headed for a train wreck!”

Among themselves, Hotjar’s senior executives value new ideas and visionary inspiration. Obviously not every new idea is a great or viable one, but they’re potentially a seed for something better. Positive conflict is an opportunity to flush out ideas, disagree, reason, motivate, agree and commit and support the right thing.

So what’s Ken’s definition of Hotjar’s senior executive team?

“We’re a re-inventive team! Pragmatic and challenging of each other to come up with what we believe to be the best results.”

And this is the attitude that they carry over to their employees. They’re always encouraging innovation, transparency, honest communication and 100% commitment to the best outcomes. Hotjar’s senior executive team believes in leading by example first and foremost.

Continually evolving, re-inventing, admitting and fixing mistakes while remaining transparent and committed to excellence is what keeps Hotjar at the cutting edge of their industry. That’s what also makes them an employer of choice attracting top remote talent.

By the way, what exactly are Hotjar’s five core values?

These are their current core values, but Ken assures that they regularly evolve to improve.

  1. Obsess over our users
  2. Be bold and move fast
  3. Work with respect
  4. Build trust with transparency
  5. Learn by doing

Short and potent, as you can see. That’s another belief of the leadership. Keep your core values brief and easy to digest. Especially if that’s what defines your company culture. You can’t expect employees to read, remember and live by values that fill pages and pages.

What can we take away from this?

As a remote workforce becomes more of a global reality by the day, business leaders can take a leaf from Hotjar’s book and learn from their tried and tested experience.

Not all industries are the same, and neither are approaches in leadership or customer and client bases. Expectations and processes can differ vastly, so types of company culture will vary.

Regardless of how you define your company’s core values, global market changes and altered employee expectations will mean that your business is probably overdue for a cultural transformation.

One thing that’s not negotiable is that business leaders must take the time to examine their core values, expectations and intentions very carefully and honestly. Once agreed on, they should be distributed and implemented in every aspect of the business. Not only as words, but as actions!

A company’s culture is based on its core values just as personal ethics and values dictate how we treat each other and the world around us.

In the end, it’s the actions of business leaders that dictate a company’s culture!

Although remote work will continue to play a major role in future business environments, not everyone is naturally suited to working remotely, and many team members will need support to adapt. 

F4S can help you measure the attitudes and motivations that can help with remote work, and help you to coach and develop any blind spots in your team members. 

Our people analytics platform isn’t a once-off assessment either. The app identifies strengths and blind spots, followed up with real time coaching to help you reach your goals. You can also use our culture map tool, benchmarking reports and team comparisons to improve existing and build new teams.

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