Employer Branding

5 Tips to Help You Build an Empowered & Open Office Culture from Scratch

This article is sponsored by Dropbox, see their open positions here.

It’s been just over a year since I was handed the keys to Dropbox’s brand new UK Office in central London.

I walked into our then tiny, empty space with the two main components of my mission at the front of my mind:

  1. Build a team (from scratch) capable of developing and scaling Dropbox Business in the UK
  2. Build an office culture representative of the inclusive values which the company lives by.

It’s been an eventful, challenging, and (thankfully!) enjoyable 18 months. Today, I’m proud to be able to walk through our new-and-improved London office and see a full Enterprise sales division, a Marketing team, Corporate Communications, Human Resources, Channel/Partnerships, Professional Services (and more besides). This headcount growth is great, but I’m even more proud of the solid cultural foundations we have built and continued to develop.

I’d love to share with you how we did it…

1. Understand and believe in your company values. I mean really understand and believe them!

Let’s be clear from the start: building an office culture from scratch is not easy.

It takes a lot of thought and an unwavering level of commitment from all involved. When being tasked with founding a new office for a company, you’re being trusted with the most valuable thing an organisation possesses: its core values. You are both ambassador and evangelist of these values and the buck stops with you and your initial team.

When considering taking on a ‘build from scratch’ project, you really must do your cultural due diligence. Getting to really understand a company’s values and deciding if you truly believe in them is paramount. As one of the first feet on the ground in a new region, you can’t fake it. In my case at Dropbox, the values of be humble and we, not I resonated straight away. I knew I could get behind these values and that I was genuinely excited about building a team that would bring them to life – and not just a group of capable ‘individuals’.

2. Pull together a strong landing team and empower them to prioritise hiring

The landing team (in other words, the first three or four people hired to set up the office with you) is vital to the success of the office’s cultural growth. Ideally, one or two members of this landing team will be transfers from HQ to your new office and will have a deep understanding of your company values. The bonds that you have with this initial team will be strong: you’ll spend a lot of time together in close-quarters, you’ll learn from them and they’ll learn from you. You’ll be experiencing a near-constant level of ambiguity throughout your first few months together, it’ll be challenging and exhilarating in equal measure.

You must ensure two main things when thinking about this landing team:

You all value working in an environment in which trust and transparency are non-negotiable.
As crazy as it might sound (especially when you have big targets to hit), you must empower your landing team not to focus solely on their core roles. The most important job a new landing team has, is to hire a great team and set the office up for long-term success. That’s your priority and it should be theirs too.

3. Understand that hires 5 through 10 in a new office are the most important you’ll ever make

Employees number 5 through 10 in a new office really do have the power to make or break a culture, so build the most calibrated and compromise-averse interview panel that you can. And don’t take your foot off the gas once you hire your landing team. Bring in the wrong “next five” members of your team and your office culture will change irreparably for the worse. The biggest nightmare for any Hiring Manager is to bring on board an initial team of Culture A-Players and then have this strong initial culture diluted with Culture B- or C-Players. After all, why would an A-Player want to stay in a team of Bs and Cs? When hiring: if in doubt, don’t do it.

How do you avoid making costly mis-hires? If you’ve empowered your landing team to spend time performing crucial recruiting tasks, then that’s a great start. Next, make sure you do the following:

  • Build an interview panel involving your landing team and cross-functional stakeholders from other parts of the business and other locations (video conference interviews are no longer the disasters they once were)
  • Hold a kick-off meeting with your recruiting team and the entire interview panel. Make sure every interviewer knows the ins-and-outs of the process and the exact requirements of the role for which you’re hiring. Each interviewer should have a specific task to complete in the interview process (perhaps they’ll be testing for hard role-related skills, or maybe they’ll be assessing how a candidate measures up against a specific company value). Having the whole team totally prepared and calibrated before the first candidates come in to meet you is essential – and saves a lot of time!

4. Focus on diversity in all its forms

A team that can only approach a challenge with the same pair of eyes will not get very far. To build an inclusive culture, it’s imperative to hire a team of people with a broad set of life and professional experiences under their belts. Prioritise gender diversity, too, and then work together as a team to foster a culture in which colleagues can rely on each other to provide diverse insights and support, when needed. Every company craves this, so why not strive to make it a reality?

5. Be humble. Build a team of people who are willing and excited to roll up their sleeves and do the less glamorous stuff

Regardless of the size or status of the company you’ve joined, if you’re part of a brand new office then life won’t be glamorous. You’re now part of a start-up within a larger company, so you’ll have to get used to living the start-up life. You and your initial team will be caretakers, receptionists, office managers, fridge-stockers, IT maintenance, flatpack-furniture-builders and everything in between. Building a team with a humble enough attitude to be willing and excited to roll up their sleeves and put the extra work is key. You and the team must leave your egos at the door: that’s non-negotiable.

Building a collaborative, happy, and inclusive office culture doesn’t happen overnight. There will never be a one-size-fits-all guide on how to achieve cultural harmony from scratch in a new office, but believing deeply in your own company values and following the above steps will hopefully be a good place to start.

Want to join Dropbox? Check out our open roles.

Mark van der Linden is Managing Director for Dropbox in the UK. He leads the London office’s day-to-day operations, overseeing sales, marketing, and partnerships. Image: Shutterstock.

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