How to Build a Great Company Culture, from Zoom’s Chief People Officer Lynne Oldham

Company culture is tricky to define and even harder to get right. WeWork Labs reached out to companies that are consistently rated and ranked as great places to work to find out how they think about culture, how they implement it, and what advice they’d give to startups in the beginning stages of building theirs. Here, Zoom’s Chief People Officer Lynne Oldham talks about company culture at Zoom, the culture challenges they’ve faced as the company has scaled, and more.

WeWork Labs: What does the term “company culture” mean to you?

Lynne Oldham: For me it's all about the way you work, how you interact together, how you collaborate. It's just the way of working.

WeWork Labs: It seems like culture matters more to both existing employees and potential hires more than it did say, 10 to 15 years ago. Why do you think that is and what does it mean for companies?

LO: I think that employees have evolved quite a bit. People know that they're going to work really hard and they're not willing to work in an environment where they don't feel excited and happy to get up and be at work everyday. They're pickier, if that's the right way to say it, and they should be. There are a lot of great employers out there, and then there are some not so good ones, so employees have to put in the effort to make sure the culture is a fit on both sides of the equation. We do it as the employer, and employees are doing that more and more as well.

WeWork Labs: Let’s talk about the culture at Zoom. How do you describe it?

LO: Happiness may sound kind of cliche, but that's what it is. When Eric [Yuan, Zoom founder and CEO] decided to start Zoom, he knew what he didn't want. He knew that when he was getting up and going to his former employer, that was drudgery for him. He didn't want the employees at Zoom to feel that way so he really focused in on that word, happiness, because he felt that what really drives customer happiness is employee happiness.

The key with culture is that after you hone in on what yours is, you have to be laser focused on who fits the culture and who doesn’t with every hire you make. Culture can go awry if you're not doing that laser-focused picking.

WeWork Labs: How do you cultivate happiness as a culture? Is it a human resources initiative?

LO: Interestingly enough it isn’t an HR program, and that’s what’s really cool about it. It’s a grassroots effort. The Happy Crew is run by about 100-plus Zoom volunteers, from California to Australia, who do everything from running events to ensuring that employees in need are supported. It’s amazing, actually. I’ve never worked anywhere that treats culture this way.

The Happy Crew just put up a recognition platform that’s a great way to give people a quick thank you for whatever—a work thing, a family thing, etc. And each quarter they have an executive sponsor. We ensure that one of us is attached to them for any given quarter, hearing their ideas, keeping them on budget. So those are measures and metrics that are in place but for the most part we try not to stifle them. That executive sponsorship is what ensures that they’re always lined up with Zoom ideals and values.

WeWork Labs: For early-stage startups that are just starting to figure out their company culture and make it part of their DNA, what are the foundational steps to take?

LO: Start on day one. Not day two, day three, day 42. On day one, you have to decide what you want to be—who you are and how you want to walk in the world. Then I think you’ve got to hire people who are like minded. And when I say like minded I don’t mean that look like you. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t. But they have to have the same value system that you do, otherwise it’s an uphill battle. Waiting too long to prioritize culture and not hiring in that image would be a death knell for whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

WeWork Labs: Let’s go back to the Zoom culture of happiness. How have you scaled that culture with the company?

LO: The hardest thing about scaling is that culture is one thing when you’re all in one place but when you have multiple offices or you start to go across oceans, it gets harder and harder. You have to think critically about how you’re going to fill leadership roles with people who ooze your culture. You hire people who believe in it, who can spread it, and you seed every office with the right people. It sounds simple but it’s not. You have to be deliberate about it, even if that means taking someone and seeding them in a new location to get it up and running. Then you hire your local leader who also oozes the culture, having them sit together for a while, then bringing the original person back.

WeWork Labs: Can you share some examples of company culture gone wrong that you’ve seen during your career in HR and people operations?

LO: I’ve worked at companies where leadership thought that business and strategy trumped culture. They pushed at all costs on the business and thought that everybody would follow them into the foxhole, but no one did because they’d completely disrupted the culture. The next thing you know, turn over rate is extremely high. At another company, I walked in and they had the ten company values written on the wall in the lobby. But when you walked past the lobby, no one knew all of the values. People weren’t living them. Sticking your values up on the wall isn’t good enough. You have to live and breathe them every day.

WeWork Labs: There’ve been some high profile examples in the past few years of startups that turned into big companies where culture went haywire. What advice do you have for startups on how to avoid that?

LO: It’s all about those founding members and those people having the wherewithal to have the right ideas around who they want to be. At some companies, it has been about winning at all costs. Winning can’t be first. It has to be culture. Culture is critical to your ultimate success. It’s got to the first thing you lead with and the last thing on your mind when you go to sleep. Because culture will make or break your company—full stop. If you’re acting outside of the culture at any point in your life cycle, you’re an imposter. You have to live and breathe it in every aspect of what you do. That’s the key to success. If you’ve got a great business idea, good. But it’s not going to see the light or day or last very long if you can’t wrap it with a culture that people want to get behind.

Good companies hold onto their culture and don't deviate from it. That's the most important thing. It is the one thing that Eric would tell you keeps him up at night, thinking about how not to break it.

WeWork Labs: If you could startups one piece of advice about creating their company culture, what would it be?

LO: Figure out what you stand for. Make sure it’s not a surface-level thing and that it really means something, and that it’s really and truly who you are and what you want the company that you’re creating to be. Then don’t wait even a minute to act on it. Right from the very beginning, live your culture when you’re looking at people you want to hire, when you’re looking at how you want to treat them. That’s critical, because today’s job seekers will sniff you out in a minute if your culture only exists on the surface.

Learn more about people operations as an early-stage startup.

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