Corporate vs Startup Culture

There is a transformation going on in most of today's corporations. Shifts in workflow, culture and work environments happens all across the globe and you can see the same thing happening everywhere: new employees with a different mindset struggle to find their place in teams used to a wildly different, more traditional corporate culture.

Last year, I faced the same problem during our creation of new product teams in Berlin, Stuttgart and Hamburg which resulted in hiring dozens of engineers, all equiped with a startup mindset and motivation to shake things up. Recruiting and onboarding was a whole other challenge itself but what I want to focus on in this article is what happened after 3 to 5 engineers per month started to fill the office.

A corporate culture inside huge companies is rarely ready for these kind of employees. Management thinks in zero-error-strategies, employees work in traditional offices unfamiliar with the perks of modern startup environments and politics combined with slow processes can take down that new motivation quite rapidly.

On the other hand these new hires expect this culture to change - fast. Fail fast, fail often. Question all processes, optimize, automate. Put in a kicker table, fancy workstations, standing desks and food & drinks. Top it off with a sweet Fußball table and a Playstation and you got yourself two silos with too much resentment.

Silo 1
The existing employees, looking at all of this new things with a bit of jealousy. "Why wasn't I given a Macbook?", "Why don't I get fancy screens or fruits?", "My manager would never allow me to play Fußball during work time". Common phrases among those colleagues.

Silo 2
New hires getting frustrated very fast as their motivation runs against a wall of policies and hard-to-change processes. Their expectation of efficiency, freedom and ease is met by misunderstanding from colleagues that don't know this workstyle. "Why would you need Spotify on that machine? You're here to work!".

This can create tense atmospheres with two camps inside an office. I saw this happening multiple times already. It can be minimized or even avoided when you transparently share your plans with current colleagues, offer them some of the shiny new things you've planned for you engineers before you hire any of them. Start this change together instead of letting them stand by the sidelines to watch.

This is easier in retrospect. If these silos are created already, it is very hard to overcome them. To do this we started a series of events and platforms that bring these employees together. New hires would join other teams for a few days in their first 2 months to get to know them and their workstyle. Current employees can regularly join product teams to see how an agile workstyle might work and what a regular day in an engineers workday looks like. Engineers also started to build tools to automate parts of other teams processes. This showed them what these engineers and product folks could do while we made sure they don't feel themselves obsolete but rather free to focus on other, bigger topics now.

All of them should lift each other up, creating a new culture where they feel engaged and motivated to make things better, faster and leaner. Employees used to a traditional working mode need to be educated of new possibilities and mindsets while the new hires need to be understandable that some 20 year habbits are overthrown here. We now make sure that this is clearly communicated during the hiring phase already. Our goals, what we achieved, our problems and what to pay attention to.

Building a new team and culture is just as important as building fancy digital products. And everyone needs to help.


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