Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Size does matter

A small start-up is fun. We know the people we work and we share the same jokes. Folks are passionately engaged in their work and there is freedom to create much of the work environment ourselves - what we wear, the music we listen to, when we come in, and what the office looks like.

At some point, the number of employees grow and functional areas become more segmented. Not only do the ways we interact, get information and achieve our goals change, but physical location and office cliques also have the potential to start shifting the corporate culture.

At what point are there too many employees in the office? When should we worry about the cultural tides turning and the start-up 'cool' factor beginning to recede? And can we do anything about it?

I'm sure the layout of the office and type of work you do matters a good deal, but if I was to guess, I'd figure this magic 'too many employees' number is right around 25. At this point, the days are long over that everyone can just pick up and go to the corner watering hole or play a game of Nerf darts in the office. The same jokes aren't shared by all and deciding on a type of food for the Holiday party that everyone likes is just about impossible. Small group and flexibility are lost past this number. The rules are different. In fact, the rules for start time, for working from home, for listening to music too loud all emerge as actual issues to address. Noooo.

I am NOT saying you can't be a kick ass culture in bigger companies, just that the unique start-up vibe you've grown fond of changes.

If we wanted to, is it possible to prevent this? One idea is to physically break up the team before getting to this number. Or rather, break up the team before losing the soul of the start-up. To proactively nurture the spirit and culture through change. Separating the team would be a great test of your understanding of the business (i.e. should we sit all engineers or project teams together?). 'Owning' a different space would force new ways of communicating, maybe foster friendly competition - it would allow different jokes, rules and office environs to evolve. Keep the culture.

I don't know..... I've just started thinking about this but find it interesting. What have you done?

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