We’ve all been in companies where core values, missions and visions are plastered all over walls and employee badges, but the culture we experience is, well, different than what is described. In January, our thought topic of the month was on corporate culture, with pre-reading from Uncontainable, a book about The Container Store’s culture (I’d highly recommend the book if you are interested in this topic). As a company, we had a discussion about whether or not cultures should even be written down. While we’ve seen a few exceptions, we’ve seen many failed attempts that cause more harm than good.

I’ve had that book and our company conversation about it in mind the last couple of months. During that time, Christy and I have started to work on the next evolution of our onboarding materials. The first section we are writing is: “Managing Your Time”. I quickly realized that what we are writing down is much more important than it seemed at first glance. We have our core values, but what we write down in the onboarding materials may be just as important.

I first got stuck when I started trying to describe our vacation policy, or lack thereof. I wanted to say something like: “Take vacation. Disconnect. It is good for you. Tell the people who need to know.” In the absence of a vacation policy, we’ve had a couple of unexpected cultural norms pop-up. One is this concept of “half vacations” where people are hanging out somewhere fun, but working part time. That’s fine, but how do we know how much to interrupt them? A second norm is that when people plan vacations, they send a calendar invite to everyone, or most everyone, in the company. While this has improved visibility, I think we can all agree that it isn’t particularly scalable and there are already issues with how it affects free/busy time on other people’s calendars. The good news is that we’ve created a culture that trusts people to take vacation when they want to take vacation, but it is time to write something down about some of the intricacies of how to do it.

When I got stuck on the vacation policy, I went to write about how we track our hours. Another can of worms. We very rarely bill a client based on actual hours worked because most of our work is project-based (i.e. “fixed fee”). However, we still track actual hours worked because it helps with visibility to where we are burning hot and allows us to estimate better in the future. Ultimately, it is a key driver of profitability. So, we ask everyone to email in client related hours at the end of the month. Some of our employees have elaborate Excel spreadsheets with graphs to track their time, others just put a thumb in the air at the end of the month based on what they see on their calendar. Either’s fine. What’s not fine is that most employees who come from other consulting firms assume they should be working 40 hours a week on a client and may be driven to find 40 hours of work a week to do at that client whether or not those hours are the highest and best use of their time at the moment. We also all use different definitions of what counts as a “client hour”, so the data isn’t awesome. We think of this completely differently than any other consulting firm where I’ve worked, so we are eventually going to have to write something down in order to help guide people.

Those are just two examples. What I’m realizing now is that there will come a point in a company’s growth where elements of culture will be written down, especially, like in Thought Ensemble’s case, when you are building something really unique. While there may not be a PowerPoint presentation titled “Our Company Culture”, expected behaviors will be evident by reading job descriptions, expense policies, emails describing internal processes and everything else that is written down. If you don’t write it proactively, someone else will. So, write it down… but, very carefully.