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Lessons from the classroom on company culture

Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. January’s topic is company culture.

About the author: Michal Eynon-Lynch is the co-founder of ActiveGrade.

ActiveGrade co-founders (from left) Michal Eynon-Lynch, Riley Eynon-Lynch and Dan Sweeney.

Creating a positive company culture is much like creating a positive classroom culture. As former teachers and camp counselors, this is something we enjoy actively considering. When intentionally attempting to improve company culture, I recommend following these three tips:

  1. Laissez-faire it up
  2. Hire well
  3. Make it enjoyable

Laissez-faire it up

In the classroom, I can easily make a lot of really firm rules and structures. I can make my students do worksheets every night and give them points for completing their homework on time. I can penalize them for being a minute late to class and over time I can add that up and use those demerits as a reason to give them a bad grade or even a failing grade. I can do all that, but it’s not likely to be that helpful to my daily teaching experience or their learning experience. It’s not even that likely to generate compliance. Students who struggle with time management will still probably be a little late and those who don’t see the point in my nightly worksheets will probably still fail to do them at times (not to mention decide that school is stupid). But being late and neglecting busy work aren’t necessarily indicative of a failure to learn.

The same is true at work. We can make a bunch of hard and fast rules about vacation days and sick days; we could have a time clock and mark down every time one of us leaves a bit early to pick up a sick kid or run an errand. But all we would cultivate is ill will and a slow creeping desire to cheat the system.

Instead, we let it be. If you need a day, take a day. If you have an appointment this morning, go. By trusting each other to make healthy decisions about our personal lives, we create an atmosphere where people feel compelled to get their work done and be responsible. On the other hand, if we were counting each minute, we would create an atmosphere where each of us tried to eek out every possible second of vacation and sick leave possible.

That brings us to…

Hire well

We are a small company, so we can get away with the lack of oversight more easily than others. At the same time, we have made that possible by making sure to work with people we trust. When hiring an additional programmer, we knew we would likely have to hire someone who didn’t live in Iowa City. If this person was going to work remotely, we definitely needed to trust him. We ended up hiring a programmer in Australia, practically the furthest point we could have possibly chosen. It certainly isn’t convenient in terms of finding times we can collaborate and discuss a new feature. However, aside from the fact that he is extremely talented, he quickly proved himself capable of setting his own hours and delivering.

This does not mean that everything he delivers is perfect or that he is always accurate in his estimates of how long something will take, but it does mean that every morning when we get up, there is evidence of the code he has written over night.

Since he came on board, he has taken days off for his daughter’s first birthday, for a vacation with his family, and to care for his daughter when sick. I have no idea how many days he’s taken or how many total hours he’s worked. What I do know is that he is happy working with us and he has increased the quality of our program. I also know that he will work odd hours to get his work done after taking random time off elsewhere; we have never asked this of him, he just wants to do right by us as we do by him.

Make it enjoyable

When creating a positive classroom environment, it was always important to think about what would be engaging to the students. This does not mean that I had to be entertaining to the students, or have gimmicky technology and activities. It did mean I had to create explanations and projects that were meaningful or interesting to them.

I always found Drama to be one of my most important and successful classes in part because I didn’t have to tell students why they should try hard. They were about to put themselves up on stage in front of the whole school and they didn’t want to look stupid. There is inherent motivation there to work hard and believe in what you are doing. In so many of the classes students take, they can’t see the personal relevance; what does it matter if they work hard?

Before I get too far into my teaching philosophies, let’s shift gears and apply this to the workplace. People won’t do good work when they don’t feel personally connected to what they are doing. If employees don’t feel respected, are given busy work, or don’t have any influence over their daily work environment, I can guarantee they aren’t being great employees. Every time I’ve had an easy job, I’ve been a bad employee; every time I’ve been challenged or given autonomy and responsibility, I’ve been a great employee.

In keeping with this philosophy, we hold regular check-ins. “How was this week?” “What was fun about it?” “What sucked about it?” “How can we make more of the fun moments and fewer of the sucky ones?” Over time, we tweak our work environment to make it more enjoyable. For a while that meant focusing energy on our physical office space to make sure we all had comfortable desks, enough light, and a space away from home. Sometimes it means making sure we are taking the time to collaborate on new ideas and work together. Other times it means taking an afternoon off or going out to lunch together (right). Keeping our workflow fun and satisfying is an ongoing endeavor, changing with the weather, our home lives, and our finicky dispositions; it should never be a task we consider complete.

In creating a positive company culture, we want everyone to feel like they have autonomy, agency, and influence over their daily experience. We do this by hiring people we trust to be self-motivated, having flexibility and self-responsibility around work hours, and constantly adapting the work environment to be more enjoyable. People who feel fulfilled and valued in their work will offer dedication in return.


Credits: Big Omaha photo by Malone & Co. Other photos courtesy of Michal Eynon-Lynch.

About the Author: Michal Eynon-Lynch has a degree in Chinese language and a masters in contemplative education. Before ActiveGrade, she taught high school history, language arts, and drama at Scattergood Friends School, a unique, rural boarding school in Iowa. There she learned how to create communities where both teachers and students could learn and live collaboratively.

Find Eynon-Lynch on Twitter, @agmichal.



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