Is the rise of ‘startup culture’ influencing long-standing corporates?

By Graeme Cox

Clusterflunk stock photo.

It’s probably not news to many that there are more startups popping up in the UK now than there ever have been. In fact, think tank Centre for Entrepreneurs found that over 580,000 startups were registered with Companies House in 2014. The majority of these were unsurprisingly in London (184,671), but with nearly 15,000 between Leeds and Sheffield, and over 15,600 between Glasgow and Edinburgh, it’s great to see numbers thriving outwith the M25.

As recruiters, we work with a range of clients of all shapes and sizes. From the UK’s largest retail banks to some of Scotland’s newest SMEs, we get to see a lot of cool stuff happening in the business world, including many new processes and approaches around staffing, hiring and business practices.

For example, I recently had the privilege of receiving a full office and distribution centre tour from one of our key corporate clients. Getting a peek behind the curtain to see some of the innovative projects and bespoke solutions they are working on was really fascinating, but for me the thing that stuck with me after I left was getting to observe how their teams work together and what I can only describe as the buzz around the office.

Increasing startup numbers naturally contributes to increased competition for talent and resource. With such a huge demand for technology skills, to combat this competition more and more companies are directing their focus towards building great workplaces – after all, good companies retain good employees, which has an impact on the bottom line. We’re seeing a lot more behind-the-scenes action of some of the world’s largest companies – something that in days gone by was unheard of. It’s obvious that this is geared towards employer branding to attract staff, but it got me wondering how we got to where we are now.

While some larger corporate sensibilities may have influenced smaller business operations in various ways (think HR processes, structural hierarchies and so on), are we getting to a stage where ‘startup culture’ is influencing larger, more traditional long-standing organisations?

A few things to consider…

1. The adoption of agile methodologies

It’s something that’s been prevalent in the market for a number of years now, but only recently have we started to see things fully adopted, predominantly driven by digital development teams looking at new and innovative web and mobile solutions. Although not a brand new methodology,  in at least 1, if not 2 or 3 major clients, we’ve seen development/digital teams fully embrace Agile and change their way of working, now offering something a little more appealing to potential resource in the market.

2. A focus on office interior design

Breakout areas, bean-bag chairs, tablets in receptions and even slides between floors all seem to spring to mind when you think of up-and-coming tech companies. Okay, we’re not all on the same level as the likes of Facebook, Google or Innocent Smoothies (I remember watching a documentary about these guys a few years ago) but the focus on office aesthetics is definitely on the up. With well-documented skills shortages in the market, perks like well-stocked snack fridges, in-house bars, and comfortable, cool working environments are becoming key factors in clients’ candidate attraction strategies and securing that all important resource.

3. The new ‘business casual’ dress code

Jeans, chinos, t-shirts and blazers are definitely another popular trend around offices now. You’ll never beat a suit and tie in the professional sectors but it’s safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg has definitely overtaken Bill Gates as the stereotypical IT entrepreneur.

For all of the Dragon’s Den fans out there, you’ll know how annoyed Peter Jones used to get about those not wearing suits during pitches. Now, with Piers Linney sitting next to him in a pair of jeans and trainers, this complaint hasn’t seemed to come up much in the recent series! As above, with candidate attraction being a very competitive game, the smallest of changes can make the biggest of differences. Who enjoys wearing a tie these days anyway!?

Is it all style and no substance?

A company’s employer brand can’t be driven purely by marketing, as it should come from within the business. While swanky offices and a relaxed dress code are nice perks to have in a company, it’s important to remember that these can be surface-level elements of a company’s culture. The true culture is often set at senior levels and filters down throughout an entire organisation, spreading throughout the teams and divisions.

Regardless of what the SME/startup market does, however cool and quirky they are, larger organisations will still be driven by senior management and the values set, sometimes and often decades ago. That’s not to say that startups are ‘better’ at culture, or that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks, and what makes one workplace amazing could be awful if it was transposed to another organisation.

One thing’s for sure – it’s about a lot more than just free beer and ping pong.

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