Startups are famous for flashy perks—from the simple, everyday benefits like ping pong tables and free snacks to the truly extravagant ones (think a paid vacation on your birthday at Thrillist, or the company month-long vacations at Expensify).
But perks for the sake of perks don’t build great culture.
I realised this after taking my Australia-based team on our first international strategy week to the island of Koh Samui, Thailand. As we were sipping Tom Yum cocktails and getting massages, I understood, ironically, that it isn’t the perks that make our business stronger.
It’s our investment in people.
Our team spends a lot of time together: Friday drinks, monthly lunches, daily coffees. But a week with seven of your work mates on a remote island— that’s in a whole new league. Admittedly, I was worried this could go sour: We were living in the same villa, with language barriers, differing levels of travel experience, food allergies, and upset stomachs. And did I mention staff could bring their partners?
But in reality, it couldn’t have been sweeter. I realised there’s only so much you can get to know someone over lunch or after work drinks. In Thailand, the “quantity time” meant we had more “quality time”. There were no clocks or emails distracting us, and the unfamiliar environment spurred intimacy. As the hours passed, I wasn’t worried about the time limit on our conversations, so discussions spanned hours and delved into deeper topics. On a 90-minute flight, I learned more about our designer Maria than I had the entire year prior.
Bringing partners was actually my favorite part. It meant I got to know the most important people in our team’s lives, and our partners got to understand the people we spend a ridiculous amount of time with. A win-win. Back in the office on Monday, it actually felt strange not to have our significant others around because they had become a part of us!
Ultimately, the investment in “quantity time” was an investment in our relationships. And with stronger relationships comes a higher performing team. You’re able to take on bigger challenges (yes we can climb this mountain!), you can have harder conversations (I’m scared about climbing that mountain), and you can count on people being more likely to stick around (leaving would mean more than not climbing the mountain, but leaving people I care about).
Before I started ntegrity, I did a myriad of corporate “trust exercises,” and they always made me sad. You were closer for one day—and then it was right back to politics as usual.
On our trip, we rode scooters to waterfalls, did Muay Thai classes with Thai boxers, swam across deep ocean water, snacked on insects, and cooked and ate Thai BBQ meat that had been sitting in 30+ degree heat for hours. In short, most of us were far, far outside of our comfort zones. Day after day, activity after activity, we had to trust each other—and we were much closer because of it.
An investment in trust is so important because my team, probably like yours, is tasked with solving complex, often overwhelming problems. Building trust in our team means it’s not just one person leading the charge and arming the worker-bees; everyone feels empowered to contribute great things. And not just great—we’re all aiming for exceptional, and that requires taking risks and feeling comfortable with the potential for failure. By creating opportunities to build trust among our employees, we’ve built a braver team that gets better outcomes for our clients, which in turn makes the business more successful.
Specifically, our company helps organisations build better workplaces, spurring internal change so companies are equipped for digital transformation. We push for transparency in leadership, empowering employees in decision making, encouraging experimentation, and ultimately, disrupting the organisational chart. And in order to do that, we need to be honest and upfront about what’s wrong. These conversations and changes are hard, and to make them impactful the relationships between colleagues need to be strong. Our team needs to trust each other to be bold, brave, and ultimately, effective.
We actually didn’t book this trip as a staff perk. Last July, as I was about to go on maternity leave, I told the team at our quarterly Strategy Day that if ntegrity grew by 100%, we’d have the next Strategy Day on an island.
Fast forward six months, and I was back from maternity leave early because we were growing so fast. But this wasn’t just because the team was anticipating a big reward. We were growing because they had clear goals to work toward and each person understood their role in achieving them.
What the trip did was allow us to clearly visualise what reaching the end goal would look like (i.e., celebrating by a pool in Thailand). Sometimes we needed that, especially when you’re at the end of a long week. And when we eventually got there, it was all the more sweet.
If we keep hitting our audacious goals, we will definitely keep doing these trips. Next year, we’ve been talking about South Africa, Vietnam, or outback Australia, and once the goal is in sight, I’ll co-design the reward with our team (on safari or visiting temples? Staying in an Airbnb or cabins?). Designing it together becomes fuel in achieving it.
In the end, though, the reward for reaching our big goal wasn’t simply a holiday to Thailand. Growing the business by 100% meant we were able to take on expert staff in new areas, launch new services, and become more sustainable. It also taught us that we can achieve huge and somewhat unbelievable goals.
Many companies invest their entire culture budget and time on parties, drinks, and ping pong tables. But perks for the sake of perks don’t build culture. The best investment in culture is one that builds trust, strengthens relationships, and rewards growth. And it’s an investment worth making, because ultimately an investment in culture is an investment in business growth.
Every business is different, and developing the right culture takes time and effort, but it builds deeper bonds and drives bigger growth than perks in isolation can.
This article was first published in The Muse. Find it here!
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