The 4 elements of company culture your firm needs to focus on

9 min read

Here in the UK, smaller tier accounting and bookkeeping firms share a lot in common with tech startups. Their scale and recency to the market affords them the ability to move fast, make rapid (and often significant) changes, and leverage the most that technology has to offer them and their clients. But while these are the core ‘hard’ elements of their tech startup-like nature, there’s one very important ‘soft’ element that seems to be on every firm founder / MD’s mind - company culture.

It’s no surprise. Like all great business leaders, smaller tier firm founders and MDs here in the UK consider hiring and retaining great staff among their highest priorities. For without a great team, a great vision can’t be made into a great reality. But when it comes to assessing a company’s culture and the impact it has, and especially when it comes to improving that culture, many find themselves in a head-scratching position.

Here at Chaser, we have a company culture we're really proud of. We took a moment to reflect and examine why we felt that way, so we could share with firms in the industry what are hopefully helpful insights and guidance, as well as provoke some thought (and clarity) around company culture and its importance today.

What makes up a company culture?

The tricky thing about talking company culture is that, by its very nature, it is unspoken, unmeasurable, and unspecific. Ask a dozen people what company culture is, and you could quite possibly get a dozen different answers. In fact, when I Googled ‘company culture’ to see what others were saying on the topic, that’s exactly what happened. But if we want to anchor this discussion in some kind of foundation, let’s start simply and literally:

culture /ˈkʌltʃə/ noun
The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

By definition, it is a collection of things. To us, in a modern workplace context, these things are:

  1. The people
  2. The environment
  3. The rules
  4. The interactions

In building a great company culture, it’s important not just to have positives in each of these areas, but to root out the negatives too. In some cases, one bad apple can spoil the bunch (given enough time).

Why is company culture so important?

If firm founders and MDs truly want to attract and retain great staff, good company culture is imperative. The single best sign of a good company culture is the satisfaction / happiness / mood (whichever term you prefer) of the people who comprise it. When the people are happy, they do great work. Great work makes for satisfied customers. And let’s face it, it might sound simple but when you’ve got happy staff and satisfied customers, you’ve got a recipe for success. You’ll have promoters both inside and outside the business. Think of your company culture as the soil in which your team, your business - your success - grows. Nurture it.

The most important elements of Chaser’s great culture

The people

Every member of the Chaser team brings with them an unbridled passion to do the best work they can. Working at Chaser isn’t “just another job” for them - everyone takes great pride in their work, holds themselves to high standards, and is committed to coming together to produce the greatest possible experience for our users. Emotions are contagious, and when you have a team full of people like this, you get a result that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

The environment

Here in our London HQ, we work in an open plan space. And it’s a pretty cool one. Without sounding too stereotypically startup-y, there is evidence to suggest working in an aesthetically pleasing environment helps improve cognitive performance and wellbeing. Plus, with having an open plan, we can physically facilitate a relatively flat hierarchy. Anyone in the company is empowered to speak with anyone else as and when they need - and for team members that are remote, a combination of Slack and appear.in help ensure this same interaction is only a few clicks away.

The rules

This comes in two parts. Those that have broad sweeping effects, and those that have small (sometimes even seemingly insignificant) effects. The biggest beacon of the former at Chaser is the empowerment given to the individual. Every single member of the Chaser team is empowered take their ideas and run with them. There’s no micromanagement or ‘too many cooks’ to spoil the proverbial broth. And this goes hand-in-hand with radical transparency - every member of the Chaser team is able to see exactly what’s happening in any area of the business. Together these instill a sense of trust and value in each member of the team, that helps motivate and inspire us to do our best work.

The latter part of ‘the rules’ - those small and sometimes seemingly insignificant effects - are also incredibly important contributors to Chaser’s culture. These include amongst them no formal dress code, flexible working hours, and the ability to work out of the office when needed. The focus at Chaser is only placed where it truly matters - on the work being done, and done well - not on enforcing traditional workplace “rules” that do nothing to empower the team.

The interactions

How members of the team interact with each other is a hugely important element of a company’s culture. Doubly so for us, as we have a partially remote team. For us, it’s these little things that go a long way in fostering a great culture:

  • Daily standup - More than just a way of keeping everyone informed of other areas of the business, this 5 minute morning video call helps us have some face time with the team before we start the day. It’s done wonders to help foster those interpersonal relationships between team members whose work doesn’t typically overlap.
  • Weekly standdown - Similar to standup, this is an end-of-day Friday video call involving every member of the Chaser team. However, unlike standup, we don’t share our goals for the day but rather reflect back on the week gone by, together. It’s a great mechanism for having everyone brought in on what’s happening across the business.
  • Team lunch - Although this can sound a little cheesily like “organised fun”, it’s certainly enjoyed by the team. One lunch per week, we mix and match groups of London-based team members and remote team members to share a lunch hour over a video call. It’s these lunches, perhaps more than anything else, that have helped us form amazing relationships with members of the team beyond just who immediately sits next to us.
  • 1-on-1’s - Every two weeks, every member of the Chaser team will have a one-to-one meeting with their manager. These enable higher-level discussion about what we’re working on, why we’re working on it, and how we’re working on it. Plus, they act as regular junctures for team members and their managers to provide feedback to each other, so that we’re always improving the way we’re working.
  • Team onsite - Alongside team lunch, team onsite is one of the events we have at Chaser that makes the biggest impact on helping us develop interpersonal relationships and work better as a team. Held periodically, team onsite assembles every member of the Chaser team in the same physical location, and is full of informative sessions and team bonding exercises.
  • Purposeful meetings - Here at Chaser, we have a particular appreciation for communication. We understand the benefit of being able to borrow someone’s time to discuss something. However, we’re also deeply respectful of it and don’t borrow it needlessly. A meeting is only ever called when action is warranted and it is beneficial or necessary for more than one person to be involved in the decision-making. Even then, all relevant information is shared in advance so every attendee can digest it and enter the meeting at their most effective. The result? It’s very rare for us to have meetings exceeding 30 minutes, and often the prep work is of such quality that a meeting can be replaced by a simple message.
  • Celebrating success / giving thanks - We move fast here at Chaser, and while that’s great for our product development and our users’ experience with it, it does mean that great work often goes unappreciated internally. Or it would if it weren’t for Chaser’s great culture around celebrating success and giving thanks. Between the opportunities on standup and standdown, as well as regular congratulatory messages on Slack, no one’s hard work goes unappreciated. And it does wonders to help facilitate a positive, productive working environment.

What should you do as a firm founder or MD?

Of course, there’s no single “best” company culture. In fact, what one firm considers to be a great company culture, another may feel entirely the opposite way. A classic example that illustrates there’s no objective good and bad, just difference, is the formality of a workplace. Some people love and thrive in formal professional environments, while others may crave a more casual atmosphere.

All I can share with you is what we do at Chaser, and why we love it. Replicating some of it might work really well for your firm, and other parts may not have much effect at all. But if hiring and retaining great staff is among your priorities, we’d recommend at least considering what we do:

  • Ensure everyone loves the role they’re in, even if that means tweaking it a little to their strengths and interests
  • Make the office aesthetically pleasing - tidying up and getting some plants is enough to make an impact
  • Ditch the ‘stuffy’ hierarchy - empower every member of the firm to be able to reach out to any member of the firm
  • Empower every member of the firm to generate ideas and execute on them - excellence comes from iteration, people are always more driven when undertaking work they feel is their own versus following someone else’s orders, and even if it goes wrong it’ll make for a valuable learning experience
  • Be transparent about the business - every member of the firm will feel more ‘bought it’ and valued, and if there are any ugly truths, hiding them only for them to come out later could harm trust and motivation
  • Relax the dress code - with the ever-increasing casualisation of the modern workplace, your clients’ expectations of suited and booted accountants and bookkeepers are dwindling anyway
  • Offer some flexibility from the 9-to-5 - everyone’s productivity fluctuates throughout the day, and not at a universal norm, so by allowing early-start-early-finish, for example, you can doubly benefit from both more productive and happier staff
  • Offer some remote work flexibility - with the proliferation of cloud accounting, firms are more empowered than ever to work with clients that are remote, so why not extend that freedom to your staff as well?

Another chief priority of firm founders and MDs in 2019 is...

... how to keep up with the app market. We rounded up advice from key progressive players in the industry from Anderson Anderson Brown, Receipt Bank, Foxability, Hubdoc, and BlueHub. Together we’ve built the definitive 5 step guide to keep on top of Xero’s app marketplace - check it out here.


Header image modified from photo courtesy of Brooke Cagle via Unsplash.


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