I remember applying to a designer role at Barrel almost nine years ago. Of course, I was excited about the work and what seemed like a tight-knit team, but the ping pong table, happy hours, exposed brick office walls, beer on tap, and dog-friendly vibe screamed "cool." If you asked me what culture meant back then, I would have mentioned those perks.
As my role has evolved over the years, Barrel has, too. We've created new positions and introduced services. We've sunsetted some of those same positions and services. When the ping pong table started collecting dust, we used the space for a content studio. We expanded our office, and under a year later, we started working from our beds and kitchen tables.
At this point, Barrel is a team distributed all over the world. Day in and day out, I work closely with co-workers who have no idea if I'm 6' 5" or 5' 6" (spoiler: I'm just under 5'8"). While I can't wait to get our team in one room, company culture is about more than perks and evening drinks.
An employee recently shared feedback that they see an opportunity to boost morale and strengthen connections with their co-workers. When I first heard this, my mind wandered to visions of Barrel circa 2013 - ping pong lunch breaks and karaoke happy hours, trying to brainstorm what else we can do beyond half-day Fridays, game nights, and team workshops. We'll likely have an off-site sometime this year, but will that really make this person feel better long-term?
The reality is that perks and events may create deeper connections, but what carries the most weight? The work. An agency's company culture centers around the work. That's why we're all together in the first place — to deliver work we're proud of that drives results for our clients. When we can't achieve this and do it with a smile, that's a sign that the "culture" might need a boost.
In my essay "Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey," I defined company culture as:
If I view our company culture through this lens, I couldn't agree more with the employee's feedback — there are clear opportunities to improve how we work. Right now, the blockers and communication gaps are making collaboration tough, and in the end, camaraderie suffers.
I'm not discounting the power of getting to know your co-workers through non-work activities. However, if we're feeling strained, uninspired, or unable to be effective at our jobs — happy hours, perks, and ping pong are not the solution.
I've enjoyed getting into the day-to-day projects over the last several months and am excited to continue working alongside the team to improve the way we collaborate. It's inspiring to see the team rallying around innovation and experimentation. In many ways, I think the challenges we're working through together now will make us that much stronger down the line.
With all of that said, I think it's important to remind the team that we're not performing heart surgery. Creating space to laugh together, take a deep breath, and sometimes, just hang out and talk can go a long way.
Speaking of my early days at Barrel, a developer who taught me a ton about development when I started is re-joined us today as Director of Technology. It's awesome to have Scott back at Barrel.
This post originally appeared in Edition No. 080 of my newsletter. Subscribe here.