Successful startup cultures need ‘more than pool tables and beer fridges’

Michael Dean
 

“Most companies see that iterating on their product when creating it – certainly at an early stage – is critical. So why would you do anything differently when it comes to soliciting feedback from your employees?”, asks Aaron Neale, chief people officer at Improbable. “For us culture is more than pool tables and beer fridges, it’s about true employee engagement which means listening, iterating, improving.”

One of London’s hottest startups, Improbable is building a distributed operating system called SpatialOS. This enables governments, companies, and developers to build large-scale models of complex systems, such as entire ecologies, war zones, or fully detailed city infrastructure. It also makes new gaming experiences possible, allowing for ginormous virtual worlds with millions of characters. SpatialOS was recently used to simulate the backbone of the entire internet!

In constant competition for talent with the likes of Google and Facebook, the company has grown from its Cambridge University origins to employ more than 100 people in Farringdon. Gabriel Gambetta – a former Google engineer turned head of marketing at Improbable – outlined the company’s strategy for dealing with this rapid expansion: “There is a very explicit effort in making sure that the values we have don’t get lost as more people join, and it’s very important to get the data to be able to understand where to focus our efforts on a daily basis.”

Peakon helps us keep track of how people are integrating, it helps us understand how we can make small changes – even given our fast paced growth – that can actually make people feel more at home and help people be more productive within the business.

The source of this data is a continuous stream of structured feedback from Improbable employees. Each team member receives three Peakon questions every week regarding their experience at work. This feedback is analysed in real-time, with insights delivered to Improbable’s managers via Peakon’s interactive dashboards.

A clear example of this ‘listening, iterating, improving’ approach can be found in how Improbable meets the challenge of combining high levels of individual autonomy with the recognition of great work – two psychological factors with a strong correlation to employee engagement.

With employees free to solve problems and develop ideas on their own initiative – Peakon surfaced a concern that with such freedom, achievements could get missed by the wider company. In response, Friday evening Town Hall style meetings were organised to wrap up each work week. These now provide a platform for everyone in the company to call out exceptional achievements and deliver the praise they deserve. As a result, recognition scores in Peakon quickly rose, with employees welcoming this change with positive feedback.

An amazing 22 nationalities are represented on the Improbable team, bringing culture and ideas from around the world. “Many people are new to London, new to the company, new to the culture, Peakon helps us keep track of how people are integrating, it helps us understand how we can make small changes – even given our fast paced growth – that can actually make people feel more at home and help people be more productive within the business,” explained Improbable chief executive, Herman Narula.

Only three years after the company’s birth, Improbable’s consistent focus on employee experience means they’re not only creating some of the web’s most innovative tech – a feat that’s won the backing of lauded investment firm Andreessen Horowitz – they’re also developing as a greatly desired place to work, able to take the company to the next level.

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