Titus Sharpe from our Entrepreneurs Panel reveals how thinking about your business like a university, with work at the centre of a web of friendship-building social activities, can end up greater than the sum of its parts.
MVF, the company I co-founded, was named number one in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For in 2020 list.
I couldn’t be more proud – and I believe it’s partly down to the friendships strategy we have.
I’m not talking about friendships amongst the leadership, or with me as CEO, but throughout the business.
Success is down to culture
I’m certain friendships create unbelievable staff loyalty, so you should nurture an environment within your organisation where friendships can blossom. Not just team to team, but across all the different silos that exist.
Of course, great development opportunities, great salaries and great rewards are all really important. But when you build a friendship web, it won’t always come down to salary when a recruiter calls. It can be very hard emotionally for your most talented people to move on.
So how do you do it? Is it a minefield of budgets, approvals and distractions amongst a frenzied free-for-all? It has the potential to be, but in our experience, it’s very simple.
Here’s how MVF built a culture of fun and friendship to drive business value.
Think of the company like a university campus
One of the things we’ve done well at MVF is creating strong extra-curricular activities, stimulating the friendships that make people love working here.
It’s a bit like a university. Obviously, you have your classes, so I see that as the work you have to do. But then you have all these other elements that make up your social life and define your whole experience. You’ve got sports clubs, non-academic clubs, choirs, bands, debating society – all different types of non-core activities which exist as part of university campus life.
So I have really thought about how we build MVF as being like a university. What you learn and do day to day is all about your career, but we also create this array of other initiatives that people can really enjoy around work.
Manage it – by not managing it
It’s a ground-up strategy. You’re encouraging as much free-form activity as possible in your organisation to create meaningful bonds that aren’t just about work.
It’s about giving people the ability to pursue what they want – any activity, club or society they want to contribute that involves more than just them.
You might worry that something inappropriate will come up. But to assure you, I don’t think we’ve ever had to say no to anyone.
You do need to be prepared to give free reign. We allow people to do it over lunchtime, before work starts or when they finish. We’re flexible, as long as people work hard too. We support with time and budget, because it’s really important to us to maintain this amazing culture of friendships.
It’s cheaper than you think
When I say “fund them all”, you might be thinking, “how much is that going to cost?!” Well, Frisbee Club cost £20 for two frisbees and they play (when they can) in the local park. They’ve created a network of 10 people and they run it themselves on a Slack channel.
There have been some amazing societies set up at MVF that haven’t cost anything. Book clubs and film clubs don’t cost much. We’ve even had a rambling club. We’ve had staff who have been trained yoga teachers and have been willing to run yoga classes. We have two gymnasts who run a gymnastics class. It’s about finding people who are passionate about certain interests and can rally others around them. You’d be surprised at how many people in your business have serious interests they would love to channel into the workplace.
As for me, I’ve taken part in the occasional frisbee and yoga session. I stay away from gymnastics though!
The ROI of loyalty
Ok, so I’m sure there are activities that don’t deliver ROI per se. But the amount of stuff that does, is so valuable in the amount of people in our business that have become involved in something. And apart from asking for budget, the policing is so minimal. It’s a high value, low cost investment.
There are definitely examples where someone might not be the world’s top performer work-wise. But they are part of the social fabric, and that’s still important. The more that social fabric endures, the more the top performers are likely to stay.
Impact of a strong social fabric
When we won Sunday Times Best Company to Work For, staff wellbeing was one of the key elements. We’ve done well on that front in the lockdown situation. Many of our activities, like choir and yoga, have transitioned to Zoom, and have given people something to look forward to and connect over while working from home. During the lockdown, we created more virtual activities like pub quizzes, and set up mental health initiatives to support anyone who might be struggling.
Our approach has also empowered people from all kinds of communities to find solidarity in the workplace. We have networks such as LEAP (Leadership Empowerment Action Progression) and a LGBTQI+ network, showing how the environment we’ve created allows people to gather together around different identities and subjects.
The importance of culture in crisis
I’m convinced this culture of extra-curricular activity and friendship we have cultivated is one of our biggest strengths, and a key contributor to the high scores we receive when it comes to staff happiness.
In a situation when your whole company is working from home, it can be challenging to keep people connected, positive and motivated. But surrounded by a strong friendship network, your teams can thrive even in the most stressful of crises.
A workforce built on strong relationships, fostered through common interests, passions and pursuits, is one that can keep its culture alive – even through virtual channels.