As the founder and CEO of the growing startup Humatics, I’m focused on building company culture. This word, of course, is misused and overused, but everyone realizes it’s crucial. Among our team, we’ve debated it. Sometimes, especially for technical people, culture can be a catch all for “all that interpersonal stuff that I don’t understand.” One leader thought it meant “how people feel when they come to work,” which indeed is important, but misses the crucial dimension of performing at a high level and achieving our goals.
Culture does not mystify me, nor does it mystify generations of anthropologists, historians, and artists for whom culture is stock-in-trade. I spent twenty-five years studying and writing about engineering cultures — from the Bell Labs of the 1930s to the NASA of the 1960s and today's cultures of autonomy in robotics. This work led to a specific understanding of what works for engineers when they’re trying to innovate and build stuff: a set of common beliefs embodied in language, rituals, symbols, and problem solving practices.
But a company culture must include more than how engineers pose and solve problems . It has to characterize a whole company of people building and running a business. In fact, cultures are less built than grown. Think of the infinitive to culture, as you would microbes in a petri dish — create the environmental conditions and let it emerge.
So how does one create those conditions? One example has pleasantly surprised me — our Humatics Thank You Slack channel.
At Humatics we have regular all-hands meetings to present and discuss our results and strategy — part of a culture of transparency. A few months ago, in attempt to make these meetings more conversational and less focused on PowerPoint, I asked everyone in the room to start by publicly thanking a coworker. People responded beautifully, thanking their coworkers for many small favors and collaborations. These opening Thank Yous set a generous, grateful tone for the entire meeting that followed.
About that time, I was reading a wonderful book by my MIT Colleague Catherine Turco, called The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in an Age of Social Media. Turco studied a major Boston startup for how they use social media for internal communications. She found that new software tools enabled new forms of information sharing within the company, and new expectations on the part of employees about transparency. “Organizations,” she found, "can have far more open dialogue across the corporate hierarchy than we ever before thought possible,” especially across generations. She found that traditional decision making structures can coexist with novel distributed forms of communication.
Inspired by Turco’s ideas, I turned to the use of Slack at Humatics (for those not familiar, Slack, a recently IPO’d startup, provides a collection of specialized chat channels private to the company). From the beginning, our engineers used Slack to share data and coordinate projects. Humatics uses it for project reporting, supporting our field engineers, sharing news on competitors, posting relevant media and celebrating our peoples’ professional accomplishments and life events.
After reading Turco’s book I began to see Slack as integral to Humatics culture. I use it instead of email for CEO communications to the whole company. The team has made a hobby channel for astronomy, a random channel for pictures of cats, and a women’s channel for gender and leadership discussions. Humatics has offices in Boston and Huntsville, Alabama, so Slack plays a key role in tying Humatics together in our mobile, dispersed world.
So after the Thank Yous at the all-hands meeting, I set up a “Thank You” channel on Slack for members of the Humatics team to thank each other for helping, collaborating, or contributing. I created the channel and seeded it with one post thanking our People Operations team for organizing a recruiting event that morning. What happened next, and ever since, has been profound and exciting.
By the next day, there were a dozen posts on the channel. Then a dozen more. It’s continued at that pace for months. People thank each other for expedited software releases, for working long hours to ship out orders, for covering for each other during vacations. "Thanks for dinner", "thanks for getting me network access", "thanks for keeping our sense of humor even when things get tough", etc. Someone thanked a coworker, in all seriousness, for actually returning his tape measure after she borrowed it: "This may seem flippant, but I promise you - It's not. There's history re: the tape measure :)” Each Thank You collects numerous “likes” and emojis from the rest of the team. "I work remotely," one person said, "and the Thank You channel really gives me a view of what's going on in the office; it keeps me from feeling isolated."
Since we started the channel a few months ago we have had over 200 messages (averaging 3.5 per employee) and 1,165 reactions (averaging 20 per employee) in support of our Thank Yous.
These Thank You posts make visible to everyone in the company the thousands of daily generosities that make Humatics work. Of course, we recognize people’s accomplishments in company meetings, granting awards and offering promotions and raises. But inevitably, and almost by definition, this celebration has a top-down character — we recognize what’s important to the company, broadly speaking, to encourage people to think about their relationship to the whole.
But the “Thank You” channel operates at peer-to-peer layers. Making visible those connections are equally if not more important as an essential aspect of Humatics culture: helping people through their work days with a sense of collaboration and satisfaction.
Highlighting Thank Yous creates and confirms a culture of mutual gratitude. If I realize you are grateful for the work we did together last week, I’m more likely to extend myself with you this week. At Humatics, we’re all in this together.
One of the truths about culture is that it emerges in symbols, rituals, and language, but its strongest expression is practice — what people do every day and how they do it. At Humatics, daily practices of visible gratitude lay a foundation for collaboration and accomplishment.