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When It Comes to Creating a Great Company Culture, Think Back to ... College

The camaraderie, collaboration and contagious energy of a college campus are exactly what you should be copying at your company.
When It Comes to Creating a Great Company Culture, Think Back to ... College
Image credit: FatCamera | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Co-Founder and Executive Creative Director, Vault49
8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Being happy at work is a big deal. When people are happy, they’re more creative, less stressed, more productive and more fun to work with. And all that makes for more successful businesses. Numerous factors influence people’s happiness at work, but there’s one element connecting them all: company culture.

Related: 10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures

Look at the healthy restaurant chain Sweetgreen, which grew from a college friendship and proudly speaks of its collaborative informal culture built around six core values geared toward "doing what’s right" and making an impact that leaves people -- both within the company and externally -- "better than we found them." 

As a result,the chain is now well on its way to realizing its ambition to become the "Starbucks of salads." Start-ups should emulate Sweetgreen's model: Pre-launch, they should spend considerable time and effort figuring out how to build the right culture.

In doing so, what they might not realize is that they already have many of the insights they need to make their start-ups great places to work, thanks to their time at ... college.

School ties

When I was studying, I could work from anywhere -- home, a nearby park, a favorite coffee shop -- wherever I felt the most inspired. Yet time and again, I chose to work at on the campus itself, because of the uplifting nature of its space, and the spirit of collaboration it fostered rogether with a hands-on focus. To feel connected to my work, I wanted to be able to chew the fat with others (open to  chewing the fat). I wanted to be challenged on the opinions I voiced and above all learn from those around me.

So, perhaps it was no accident that it was when I was still studying -- during the first year I was purusing a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art -- that our business gained its initial momentum.

Here are a few of the "college"-based principles I experienced that I believe can help give any business a solid foundation and a company culture to be proud of:

Collaborative culture

When creating a company culture, celebrate the fact that the best ideas can come from anywhere. For voices to be heard, you need a space, or spaces, where teams can congregate. Some people never speak up in large groups, no matter how much confidence they have in their ideas.

So, consider mixing up the places where you have meetings. Try that park or cafe or your favorite bar. Create an environment focused on learning and experimentation, not ego and rules. At college, everyone is on the same path, with common objectives. That doesn’t stop students from wanting to be the best, but it benefits teach individual to learn and share.

Look at Trader Joe’s, a retailer with a strong culture of treating everyone equally and acknowledging the importance of its employees' ideas in becoming a better company.

Diversity

The best companies are those where people like coming to work, because they enjoy the company of their colleagues. This workplace chemistry is arguably even more important than hiring people with exactly the skills and experience you need. So, focus more on people’s passion and talent -- they can always be retrained.

Also, if you run the company, take responsibility for keeping this chemistry right; interview every job applicant yourself, looking out for positive thinkers and problem-solvers while embracing diversity in every form but rejecting egotists. Let those people go work somewhere else! It might get harder to sustain this chemistry as your company grows, but Johnson & Johnson’s first place perch on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list proves that scale is no barrier to embracing diversity.

Related: 3 Tips for Creating a Company Culture That Keeps Your Team (and Your Bottom Line) Happy

The philosophy that "everything is design"

Eventually, you'll get the opportunity to craft your own space and invest in your culture through your office's design. It’s important to ensure that there’s a space that can be dedicated (or re-arranged) for the whole team to come together. If some sections of the workplace seem isolated or introverted, deliberately locate them close to communal spaces such as the kitchen/dining area.

Different departments must have the chance to overlap. And multiple spaces for collaboration, some public and some semi-private, will pay you significant dividends. Shared collaboration spaces encourage creativity, cross-team cooperation and knowledge-sharing, and those things speed up decision-making.

A contagious energy

A lively collaborative environment makes workdays a joy for the most part but can be a real pain when you need to focus. Sociologist Mildred Parten first coined the phrase "parallel play" in the 1930s to describe the stage of childhood development when a child plays alone but also close to others, so those other kids can observe and possibly adapt their own activity.

Being surrounded by (adult) colleagues in a thriving, energetic environment helps all feel they’re driving toward the same destination at the same time that they have enough separation to focus on the task at  hand. In this sense no one does collaboration better than Google, with its focus on fun, employee happiness and technology-enabled teamwork. Those are among the reasons the search giant will probably stay on top of the "best places to work lists" for the foreseeable future.

Hands that are allowed to "get dirty"

Of course, a sexy hi-tech environment is attractive and digital output is essential to virtually every business, but a focus on craft, materials and a tactile environment is equally important.

Just because technology can solve a problem doesn’t mean it should be the default solution. At Vault49, we encourage team members to use our print-making department to see how their ideas look on paper -- to feel them physically, hold them and rip them up (if necessary) then put them back together again. Time and again, this activity provides unexpected breakthroughs and new ideas.

Employees allowed to get out of the office

Remember those days when you were a student conducting research in the library, watching movies for reference, wandering the streets for inspiration or just sitting on the sidewalk watching the world go by while musing on the kernel of a good idea?

Inspiration comes from unexpected places. When you’ve brought together a respectful and passionate team, you don’t need to watch over each person's shoulders. Instead, let them find their inspiration, break the monotony of the everyday and leave the office behind from time to time.

Employees allowed to let their hair down

Off-site company away-days, where the focus is on team-building and unwinding, are oh, so important. Don’t let work creep in the back door on those days, and be sure to let clients know that away-days are an important part of your culture and that you are closed for business when they happen.

Remember how extracurricular activities were a big part of how you and other students formed bonds at college? Bonds should be formed at work too. Aside from getting a good education, the secondary (sometimes primary!) reason many people go to college is to have a good time and form meaningful connections with people they may know for the rest of their lives. The workplace should be no different.

Of course, there are pranks, excessive stints of drinking and other elements of college life that should be left behind. And then there is the element of size: The bigger a business gets, the harder it becomes to get everything right, making the addition of an HR department increasingly crucial.

Related: 3 Tips for Creating a Company Culture That Keeps Your Team (and Your Bottom Line) Happy

But when that time comes, it will be important to set up your HR function in a way that ensures people are treated respectfully, while you nurture the playfulness and passion that is the heartbeat of any college campus -- or creative business.

So look after your culture the way you would a family member and make sure every decision is weighted for the impact it will have on your team, not just "the bottom line."

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