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Culture by Gensler: Authenticity Bridges the Startup to Scaleup

Being a part of a small company’s success story can be one of the most rewarding professional experiences in any career. Founder or not, there is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment when a company sheds the ‘startup’ label and accelerates into long-term viability. When considering that 95 per cent of all startups fail, it’s no wonder why everyone loves a success story and wants to know every detail about the accomplishment; the business model, the technology stack, the model of desks they use, and even the snacks in the kitchen.

What’s lost in those feel-good growth moments is the dedication required to ensure a new startup carries forward the most important cultural traits that allowed it to become a successful company. Be it a tech company, clothing store or coffee shop, it’s clear that roles and responsibilities can change dramatically between the startup, scaleup, and later phases.

The reality is that there is no magic formula to bridge those gaps. The closest thing might be someone like Kevin Katigbak, a senior workplace consultant with Gensler. He works with companies that are looking for a new space, whether that means moving into a larger office or redesigning an old one. Katigbak meets with executive teams through every part of the process, from pre-design and blueprints to smashing walls down and following up with occupancy reports.

Katigbak may work for a design firm, but his experience in finding new spaces for companies eager to grow and expand has made him an expert in all things scaling up. His job is to explain what a company’s current experience entails, and how to translate that experience to a new space with more square footage and more employees. Growing a company is not simply hiring more people and buying more desks. There is a nuanced approach to scale the culture required to achieve massive success.

“Ten years ago, strategy was not really something mentioned in an RFP,” Katigbak says. “When a client wanted a new space, workplace and architecture strategy did not show up in those requests. Only in the last 10 years did people realize it’s an integral component. As people start to understand that we’re all fighting for the same talent, strategy becomes a huge component. It’s less about gut feelings and more about showing the evidence.”

The “evidence” Katigbak is referring to comes from things like Gensler’s annual Workplace Study, a touchstone resource that turns qualitative measures like workplace effectiveness and belonging into quantifiable stats that founders and designers can lean on while building a new space for employees.

Scale-Up

Katigbak’s role is to carefully convert those gut feelings held by eager executives into real results. He is a scaleup champion, using his skills to familiarize himself with businesses and recognize not only what the strongest tenets of a company’s culture are, but how to scale them as they grow from 20 employees to 100 to 1,000.

“When working with scaleups, it’s a bit educational up front,” says Katigbak. “We want to make sure they keep an open mind. When you’re a three-person gig, that’s very different from a 10-person. And that is very different from 100-person.”

Katigbak is in the middle of scaling up an active client. As an example of this specific case study, the client is currently hovering around 100 employees and believe they will grow to over 700 within a few years. Right now, the company has a cafeteria in its one-floor office. As they scale, should they build seven floors with a cafeteria on each floor?

Amenities like communal spaces can be invaluable to fostering a culture of community–they provide a joint space for meals, social events, workshops, and classes. Unlike a desk, scaling the function of communal space isn’t as straightforward as adding more of them. Gensler approaches this problem by getting at the client’s original intention behind that amenity. In this case, it was because the client believed in the value community, so replicating the kitchen on each floor didn’t accomplish the value. For them, the answer was to build one large kitchen so that all employees would come together and the secondary effects are still present.

It’s no longer solely about getting your space ready to be productive,” says Katigbak. “That’s one of the first things we instill in clients, to make sure they understand that there is more than one objective for a space when you’re getting to a certain size.”

The first thing Katigbak tells clients during the scaleup process is that they need to think about space very differently. It will always have more of an effect than they think. This is where a point of realization usually sets in. They need to let the experts do their jobs, explains Katigbak, and that often means understanding that culture is not a static part of a company.

“When part of who you believe you are is being an agile company that can make anything work, the reality is, once you become large enough, there’s process and protocols that all scaling up comes with,” says Katigbak. “There will be things that are going to restrict that agility. It’s about reassessing what you will become and highlighting that culture.”

TextNow-KillerSpaces-Techvibes3

TextNow’s Waterloo office, a company in the middle of scaling up.

Friday afternoon drinks will look different for a company of 50 than one with 500 employees. It’s up to Katigbak to find different ways to engage a company and bring them together—”It’s talking about how your culture can be scaled in different ways,” he says.

“Just because you’re growing up in certain ways, doesn’t mean you need to change who you are.”

Scaling up is growing up. During that rapid growth, the culture a company built in the early stages will not, and cannot, be the same. That’s why the search for a new office offers a great chance to shift how people think, work, and behave. In the startup phase, employees will often wear many hats in order to grow a company. The culture at that point is usually an organic by-product created by the first few individuals on the team, and it might not be ideal. Katigbak claimes that as scaling happens, there is a fresh shot at defining company culture through the space that the company is in.

“The question is about change management,” says Katigbak. “If you think this change is huge, how are we going to address it? And how should we help you and your employees adapt to this new space and what it will be like?”

Culture, especially in early-phase tech startups, is often defined by long working hours and perks like parties and ping pong. These are indeed manifestations of a company’s culture and can be very helpful for a startup to engage young employees and meet important milestones. As they grow, however, the definition of culture needs to broaden: younger employees mature, families are starting, and the company needs to attract a broader range of individuals to accomplish the new goals.

Deriving a feeling of inclusivity can be a challenge. There is no magic formula, but Katigbak offers a magic word.

“It’s all about authenticity… and the ping pong table is just an example of what a social space could be. We have a lot of clients who say we’re not the ping pong table crowd, and that could be accurate—but what kind of crowd are you? I don’t think that a ping pong table needs to be everywhere, or really anywhere, but sometimes that is the most authentic example of the kind of culture you’re trying to demonstrate. The best example of that being the right choice is if people are using it. If no one is, you missed the mark.”

The definition of a scaling company’s culture has to be a bit more refined. Office amenities like a shared kitchen or ping pong tables are tools for engagement that can influence the culture, but not define it. Culture then becomes a confluence of shared values, each of which is characterized by the individual company. The success of that culture hinges on leadership’s ability to foster a collective commitment to those values through any possible means, be it the snacks in the kitchen, the types of desks they provide, or the layout of the office itself.

Techvibes is a Media Partner of Gensler.

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