A few months ago, I visited the offices of a friend who is the CEO of a mid-sized software firm*. As he gave me a tour of his offices, we navigated to the employee breakroom where I saw a sight that stopped me in my tracks. The entire back wall of the breakroom was cereal. Literally. It was a work of art—Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Fruit Loops, even All Bran—all displayed in clear plastic built-in containers. There was even a specialized container for bowls and spoons. To the side, there were two kinds of milk (soy and 2%) on tap.
Obviously, my first question was whether I could have a bowl. (He said yes.) But my second question was equally important: Why did he spend what was clearly an exorbitant amount of money and time on cereal?
My friend sighed and walked me back to his office. He shut the door and he began to confess his cereal woes. Like most business leaders, he had seen a lot of hype about employee perks. One study reported that employees who got free snacks at work were 12% more likely to report contentment at work. Another went as far as to claim that offering employees free lunch was equivalent to offering them 3 weeks of vacation time. Perhaps most shocking, was a Glassdoor survey that showed 79% of employees would choose perks over a raise.
In response, my friend created the cereal wall.
His employees loved it. People started coming to work earlier to gather around the breakfast table. Lucky Charms flew out of those plastic bins as fast as he could refill them. People had cereal for lunch. People had cereal for dinner. It seemed like “Operation Fruit Loop” was a huge success.
But, as most business owners know, seeming success and actual success are very different things.
Six months into cereal divertissement, my friend decided to do a little ROI on his cereal wall. He asked his HR Director to pull a few numbers—had turnover rates changed since he had first introduced Rice Krispies into the breakroom? Did people stop asking for raises and start asking for Corn Flakes when it came time for performance reviews? Were new hires requesting lower salaries as soon as they spotted the Honey Nut Cheerios? Were people reporting overall higher job contentment as they filled their bowls of Chex?
Answer: No, no, no, and no.
This didn’t really surprise my friend, but simply confirmed to him what he and most other Founders and CEOs already intuitively knew: Employees don’t need cereal walls. They don’t need kegerators or Ping-Pong tables or flex time to do ropes courses with teammates.
They like these things. Heck, who doesn’t love a good bowl of Captain Crunch? But perks like free snacks, free drinks, free t-shirts, and free beer are just that… perks. And while perks are great and can really help you to create a fun, vibrant company culture, what employees really need is shared context.
They need to know what is going on in the company, where the company is going, and how the company is going to get there. They need to be part of something bigger than themselves and with that shared context, they become loyal, ambitious, and dedicated advocates for you.
Which, by the way, is way better than Shredded Wheat.
What Exactly Does Shared Context Mean?
One of my first jobs was working at a retail store at the mall. I hated it. I take that back. I didn’t hate the actual job. I hated the uniform.
The funny thing about this is that I wasn’t working at Hot Dog on a Stick. I didn’t have to wear a red-and-yellow striped polyester hat. I had to wear something worse: FUBU Carpenter Jeans. Google it. They are a thing. A horrible, awful thing.
You may be thinking that I was quite the diva complaining about jeans when my friends had to wear red polyester pants but you’re wrong. The pants were better. Why? Shared context.
Everyone who works at Hot Dog on a Stick knows they will be issued their own adorable polyester striped uniform. It’s just what hot dog makers do. They know that they will stand behind that stand making their hot dogs and fancy lemonade wearing an outfit that makes them stand out across the entire food court. And they will like it because they are part of a team with the shared mission of making delicious hot dogs while wearing striped polyester. They have solidarity in their polyester outfits.
I had no solidarity, no shared context, no anything in my FUBU jeans.
I quit that job as quickly as I could and moved on to Hot Dog on a Stick.
That’s not true, but wouldn’t that have made the story so much better?
I moved on to Chili’s, where I was a busser. My tenure at Chili’s was much, much longer. I moved from busser to host to waiter. I stuck around. I could say I stayed because those baby back ribs were delicious, but it was more than the ribs. From day one at Chili’s, I knew I was part of the team. My management told all of us what was going on in our restaurant, shared our successes, and helped us to learn from our failures. I was not only aware of our goals and our mission, but I was part of it. I felt like even as a lowly busser, I was part of something bigger than myself.
Early on at DigitalMarketer, I learned how important shared context is. There was a day when a group of employees became disgruntled after a meeting went a few minutes long. It seemed like such a non-issue that I was surprised it was a problem. Why did anyone care about ten minutes? A little digging revealed that it wasn’t really the time, but instead the culture.
Our employees didn’t know what was going on in our company. They didn’t understand our mission, our “why” and because of that, ten minutes felt like a huge ask.
They didn’t have shared context, and because of that, they hadn’t bought into our team.
We decided to make some changes. The first thing we did was require that all employees wear a polyester party suit to work. If it worked for the hot dog people, then it would work for us. (Don’t worry, we let them wear jeans on Friday. We’re not monsters.)
What we really did was far simpler. We launched an internal newsletter that served to inform our employees of the daily goings-on and to set a vision for where we wanted to go. Basically, we started to tell our employees what the heck was going on.
So How Exactly Do You Build Shared Context?
The first edition of our internal newsletter came from our CEO Ryan Deiss and it started with four words: I’m a crappy communicator.
Ryan went on to describe how, as our company had grown, meetings and announcements and planning sessions had splintered into smaller teams. While this had been a necessary adjustment for our growing company, it also led to some missed opportunities to communicate the big picture with the team.
Ryan admitted that he saw the team starting to feel disjointed and he explained that the newsletter was his first step in correcting the problem. He hoped that the newsletter would serve to show our employees our overall strategy and vision, while informing them of our shared goals. He called it his mini “State of the Company Address” and he promised that he would do his best to communicate honestly and openly.
In short, he promised to tell our employees what was going on. And in turn, he gave them something more important. He gave them Vision.
The feedback quickly started pouring in. (Turns out when you start communicating, people start communicating back.)
Our employees grew more focused on their goals. “Strategy has been heavy on my heart. I know we’ve been productive. I know we’ve accomplished a lot, but I can’t help but think that I have been ‘piddling.’ I’ve been unsure of how the goals I set for myself help accomplish company-wide goals. I really appreciate the candor because it makes me feel like I can be honest, too.”
They grew more team oriented and willing to cheer each other on. “I get bits and pieces of all these updates through various channels as I work on projects, but it’s really cool to see it all in one play and straight from the horse’s mouth.”
They liked the feeling of being part of something big. “I feel more informed and more in the loop than ever.”
No, we didn’t all ride off into Profitsville on a sparkling unicorn with every problem solved, but internal newsletters definitely changed things at our company. I would even go as far as to say that our focus on clear internal communication saved us. The shared context gave our employees the vision and inspiration they needed to jump-start progress on our goals.
One final update (read: somewhat shameless plug) to our internal communications mantra is that we made a tool for this. If you know anything about Scalable, you know that when we see a way to help other businesses—or a gap in the market—we will do what we need to do to fill it. We saw real, noticeable change when we began building shared context at our company. We also felt some real growing pains when it came time to actually distributing internal communications in a way that was simple and seamless. So instead of just plugging away with an untrustworthy combination of Gmail and hope, we had our team build an app. It’s called Recess. We invite you to try it and let us know what you think.
We have a feeling you’ll be emailing us in a few months with comments just like the ones we’ve heard. Comments that show how much employees appreciate having and knowing the shared mission and vision. Comments that show how strong teams are communicative teams. Comments that show that internal communication is more important than cereal
You may also lament the time and money you spent installing the Ping-Pong room in your back office. Or the craft beer on tap in your kitchen. Or the catered lunches that you bring in each week.
You know what we’ll say?
We’ll tell you that we also have a snack closet with healthy, organic snacks (and some Oreos) in our office kitchens. We’ll tell you about the catered team lunches we host and about the fancy Bevi Sparkling Water machine we have in our break room. We give our employees all of those perks because we believe in creating a culture where people feel appreciated and valued. We want them to love coming to work.
I’ll stand by the assertation that your employees don’t need a kegerator in the breakroom or Ping-Pong competitions at lunch. But I’ll also add that once they know what’s going on and have context for your mission and vision, those things certainly are a great way to show them how much you appreciate their work.
Just make sure the kegerator has local craft brew and not Bud Light Lime.
* name withheld to protect the cereal wall.