This is not your family: Building a healthy company culture from the start
Your colleagues are not your family — your family is your family. From two employees to 200 (or more!), here's how to model healthy behaviors and stay inclusive and intentional as you scale.
“We’re fast-paced. We offer unlimited paid time off. And we’re like a family.”
These phrases have infiltrated the vernacular of small and large companies alike. But even if they’re well-intentioned, they can bring about a toxic workplace culture.
In particular, positioning a company as “like a family” not only disadvantages companies as it makes the natural coming and going of employees more difficult, but it also negatively impacts workers. It can limit their growth potential and result in an overworked, overburdened workforce.
While it may seem that establishing an inclusive, sustainable, and scalable company culture is more sensible after hiring more employees or attaining a certain milestone, like Series A funding, recalibrating mid-way is significantly harder with an entrenched “family” ethos.
Instead, you can build a stronger culture right away — one that prioritizes healthy boundaries for both employer and employee and encourages folks to spend time in more meaningful ways at home and at work.
Ultimately, a humane work environment that’s fortified by purposeful policies is more impactful than a culture that’s solely defined by catchy (read: disingenuous) language.
Treat employees like teammates — not like family members
For those in scrappy startup mode, calling a small team a “family” may have initially felt like the most accurate descriptor. Enterprises with sizable employee rosters, meanwhile, may have characterized themselves as a family to show applicants they wouldn’t be joining a mammoth workforce where nobody cares about each other.
Both rationales make sense on the surface. But while it is, of course, beneficial for bonds and friendships to naturally blossom in the workplace, forcing a family-like feel from the top down is detrimental.
Patty McCord, Netflix’s former Chief Talent Officer, is an outspoken advocate for keeping company culture professional rather than familial. In her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, McCord said that Netflix “decided to use the metaphor that the company was like a sports team, not a family. Just as great sports teams are constantly scouting for new players and culling others from their lineups, our team leaders would need to continually look for talent and reconfigure team makeup.”
Sticking to the team metaphor isn’t just worthwhile for larger companies. By doing similarly, SMBs — whose growth is dependent on a successful workplace culture — can steer clear of the dysfunction and disarray that family-like culture promotes. In particular:
It overcomplicates company exits.
When a team member is viewed as an integral part of the family, parting ways with them becomes difficult, to the point where keeping them as to not upset the status quo of the family is simpler.
It violates boundaries.
Coworkers who commit immoral, unethical, and perhaps unlawful acts are much less likely to be reported due to the complex emotions instigated by family culture.
It suppresses human needs.
Employees can remain quiet when it comes to asking for vacation time, a promotion, or a raise — doing so could feel like putting their own needs ahead of the company’s.
It’s fundamentally not true.
Regardless of how much joy or how many personal connections a job brings, the relationship between company and employee is, at its core, transactional — you’re exchanging labor for pay.
After realizing that family culture isn’t healthy or sustainable in the long term, many companies are forgoing it in favor of more genuine alternatives. With the coming of the brave new post-pandemic world, companies still touting a family-like culture will need to find more genuine ways to put employees first.
Workers have started favoring purpose, passion, and play over the white-collar trajectories of the past. Spurred on by a career market that’s become candidate-led, the days of toiling without prioritizing basic needs and without real work-life balance could soon be over for good.
To stay afloat, companies will need to pivot to a culture that offers flexibility, respect, and codified policies that truly benefit their people.
Fostering a healthy company culture: 4 actionable tips
No matter if you’re a newly-founded, 10-person startup or a multinational company with 10 office locations, the onus is on founders and leaders to model healthy behaviors, use language, and enact policies that set the tone for a company’s overall culture.
To lay the foundations of a healthy, scalable company culture that has appropriate employer-employee boundaries, here are four tips all leaders can act on:
1. Prioritize the employee’s path to growth
A family culture hinders growth on many levels, especially the employee’s path to career growth. Think back to McCord’s sports team metaphor: Not firing a team member when appropriate or making it difficult for a team member to leave when they’d like to move on holds them back from reaching their full potential.
Instead, prioritize the employee’s professional and personal growth from the onboarding process to professional development opportunities, including offboarding them when it’s the natural, appropriate time to do so.
2. Set genuine paid time off policies
Whether it’s due to an overflowing to-do list or out of family loyalty, when unlimited paid time off is offered, it’s rarely taken. This is something Buffer — remote work trailblazers — discovered, declaring that their staff was “barely taking any time off.” Initially, Buffer offered $1,000 bonuses for employees to take vacations, but this was scrapped for a minimum time off policy, which was found to be more effective.
To ensure people use their vacation time, you can track time off, gently remind folks it’s there to be used, and empower managers to work with team members to adjust their workload before and after time off.
3. Encourage flexible and sustainable working arrangements
With flexible and remote working arrangements becoming preferred by the labor force, rigidity is no longer the norm in most workplaces. But it’s not enough to tell employees they can work from home, coffee shops, or wherever they please if they still feel pressured to go above and beyond for the family — an employee could run themselves into the ground harder and faster when out of sight.
Curb burnout and promote sustainable, improved work by advocating for sensible hours, and encourage managers to have open, intentional conversations about work arrangements with their teams.
4. Enable employees to meet their personal needs
Above all, encourage people to practice self-care — whether that’s a personal commitment, a therapy appointment, or just a simple walk outside for a screen break — through both language and policies that make employees more comfortable with taking the space and time they need to reset.
With clearer, healthier boundaries — everyone wins
Going forward, it’s best for everybody to understand that a company or a workplace isn’t a family. When we treat the workplace like the professional setting it is, good work gets done — and when we’re not working, we’re able to lead full and fulfilling lives.