Improving Company Culture: Top-Priority for Product Development Firms

By SGW Team

Does your company culture need a reboot? Continue reading for part one of our Conversations on Culture Series, in which we explore the reasons why a product development firm’s culture is so important and why we decided it was time to make a change.

A thriving workplace environment is critical to morale (and the bottom line), but improving company culture requires more than holding Office Olympics (à la Dunder Mifflin) or designating Hawaiian shirt Fridays (nod to Office Space). These are fictional examples, but plenty of leaders attempt to improve company culture in similarly creative, yet ineffective, ways.  

Reasons for a Culture Change

Over the past year, we began honestly assessing our professional environment here at SGW Designworks — which led to a dedicated effort at improving company culture. There were several reasons for this shift, one of which was to continue to attract high-caliber talent and to retain quality employees.

Consider the following statistics:

70 percent of professionals in the United States wouldn’t work at a leading company if it meant they had to tolerate a bad workplace culture. Further, 65 percent would rather put up with lower pay and 26 percent would forego a fancy title rather than deal with a poor workplace environment.

Source: LinkedIn, 2018

77 percent of adults across four countries (the U.S., UK, France, Germany) would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there. 79 percent would consider a company’s mission and purpose before applying and 73 percent wouldn’t apply to a company unless its values aligned with their own.

Source: Glassdoor, 2019

We’ve found that when we improve company culture, our product development firm is able to hire talented team members and keep them around. Additionally, our company performs better, and individually, we are more efficient, innovative, and fulfilled by our work. Our clients benefit, too — and their projects are more successful.

Improving Company Culture: Make or Break for Product Development Firms

In the Harvard Business Review article 6 Signs Your Corporate Culture is a Liability, a national survey identified the top cultural risks within companies: inadequate investment in people; lack of accountability; lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion; poor behavior at the top; high-pressure environments; and unclear ethical standards. These risks pose dangers to any organization, but for companies like ours — one that designs and engineers products for our clients — they can be downright fatal. And here’s why. 

At a firm like SGW, improving company culture is required for collaborative innovation. The best design solutions come from teams of people working together — specifically, working through good and bad ideas together. That process is, at best, slow — and, at worst, impossible — without deep trust.

Without trust, people are protective and defensive of their ideas. And they are reluctant to challenge one another. So there must be a tremendous amount of mutual trust — between our designers and engineers, and also between our firm and the companies we work with — in order for us, our clients, and their products to be successful.

Considering a Product Development Firm? Observe Its Culture

The culture at a product development firm — whether healthy or toxic — can affect every stage of a project and its eventual outcome. When companies are considering hiring a firm or outsourcing product development, it’s wise to ask the following culture-related questions.

  1. Are the firm’s interactions — both internally and with their vendors, manufacturers, and clients — characterized by respect, integrity, and kindness? If you’re planning on outsourcing product development, observe how leaders interact with their employees, as well as how colleagues communicate with one another. When internal teams embody these values in both their words and actions, they naturally extend to other relationships, specifically, client relationships.
  2. Do your interactions feel transactional, systemized, or analytical — or is the team of product developers personable, helpful, and excited about your project? You should get the impression — from every member of your product development team — that they appreciate what you’re trying to achieve and want to support you.
  3. Does the product development firm take an open and transparent approach with you, or are they more concerned about protecting their interests? When hiring a firm or outsourcing product development, transparency helps build trust and helps to eliminate any suspicions or anxieties related to a project. Further, a firm should be willing to admit when they’ve made a mistake and take the necessary steps to resolve the issue.
  4. Do product developers seem energized by their work, or is this just a job to them? A product development firm should want its entire team to feel valued — and that their work has greater significance than simply cashing a paycheck. After all, our mission at SGW is to improve human existence. How can we do that if our work doesn’t excite us?
  5. How do employees react to the firm’s leadership? If product developers appear overworked, under-appreciated, or even resentful, there may be a problem that starts at the top. Conversely, when employees are supported and appreciated by the firm’s leadership, you as a client will also benefit.

Our Next Steps for Improving Company Culture

Last year, COVID-19 caused upheavals in nearly every industry — and demanded that most companies (and professionals) redefine, at least partially, where, how, and why we work.

After identifying several areas in which we could improve company culture, we began implementing changes to how we as a product development firm engage, both internally and with our clients. These adjustments haven’t been easy, and we’re still learning. But we’ve already seen a positive impact — within our company, on our product developers, and upon the companies with which we work.

And we can’t wait to share what we’ve learned.

Want to know more? Stay tuned for part two of our Conversations on Culture series, when we’ll talk in greater detail about the changes we’re making. We’ll also pay tribute to the leaders who have inspired us and discuss how we’re using their insights to improve company culture at SGW (no Hawaiian shirts necessary).

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