When you walk into Social Tables’ new office in Chinatown, you are greeted by a boombox blaring electronica, a fish tank full of jellyfish and a gold-painted wooden chair inexplicably hanging on the wall. Wearing jeans and perched in an open cubicle, chief executive and founder Dan Berger is indistinguishable from the other unshaven millennials who pace the hallways.
The company culture at Social Tables “bubbles from the bottom and is modeled from the top,” said Sam Cicotello, the company’s new vice president of people operations.
“If I feel like running around the office in a mascot costume I’m going to do that and everybody’s going to high-five me as I go,” Cicotello said. “And I don’t ever want to work in a place where that’s frowned upon.”
CEO Berger sends random e-mails reminding the staff to greet one another more often, and he recounts a company-wide staff meeting where he yelled at a group of people for leaving a new hire sitting by himself.
The company’s average employee is just 27 years old, but most have been out of college longer than the company has been around; Social Tables,which offers cloud-based software for event planning, was founded three years ago out of local start-up incubator 1776. In the last year, the company has more than doubled its employee base, a growth spurt that has made keeping the entrepreneurial spirit a challenge.
“There were points in the early stages of the company where I could say, ‘Everybody meet in the conference room in five minutes.’ I can’t do that anymore,” Berger said. “So the question is, ‘How do you avoid losing sight of who you are as a company, despite your growth?’ ”
While not all are as free-spirited as Social Tables, many of the smaller, newer companies among the region’s top workplaces embrace the Silicon Valley vibe and struggle to hang on to it as they get bigger. Each encounters a similar set of growing pains, and they all resist the idea that they’ll ever have to “go corporate.”
Chip Paucek, founder of 2U, a Landover-based education technology company that has grown from five employees to 900 in the last seven years, thinks he’s pulled it off.
“I don’t get up every day to look at our stock price,” Paucek said. “I get up to be part of a team that is changing the world. And we make sure every employee at every level fully believes that.”
As 2U’s ranks grew, process became a greater part of the formula. New layers of middle management introduced an element of hierarchy more commonly associated with corporate bureaucracy, and the company’s newfound size and dispersion meant it had to drop some of its more outrageous quirks.
“Of course things have changed as we’ve grown,” Paucek said. “Is it harder today to have people bring their dogs to work? Of course. Nine hundred people means 900 dogs.”
But Paucek says the company tries to hire the same sorts of people it had at the beginning, and there are still days when he orders spontaneous officewide dance parties.
Human resources experts say that codifying norms of operation becomes inevitable as a company grows, but formalizing doesn’t have to stifle office culture.
“These policies that get put in place are not there to corral people in. They’re there to help us be more mindful,” said Rose Stanley, a rewards expert at human resources consultancy World at Work. “They’re there to help culture still be as fluid as it was at the beginning, and to find ways to maintain that energy somehow.”
The trick is how rigid to make those rules.
“I have a no-policy policy. If you make something mandatory, you fail to make it compelling,” said Cicotello of Social Tables. “Every policy that was created in the history of the world was created for low performers. And what we’re trying to do is tap into the potential of our best people.”
Berger and Cicotello say the company runs on informal goals and objectives arrived at through discussion with the staff. In her first month on the job, Cicotello has set about making the company’s compensation strategy more formulaic, and has issued a new set of guidelines for the company’s sales staff.
Privia Health, an Arlington-based health company employing about 70 people, also prefers to stay lean.
“At a lot of bigger companies you have these people who just sit around and that’s their job description – to manage people. I hope we never have those people,” said Tara Goldenberg, the company’s vice president of talent management.
Instead, Privia has what it calls player-coaches, who have their own set of job duties but also coach other employees around the office in a semiformal capacity.
David Pijor, chief executive at First Virginia Community Bank, has always preferred old-school face-to-face interaction. But since the bank’s founding eight years ago, its employee base has grown from seven to 70, and keeping in touch with people gets harder and harder. Pijor still makes a point of taking each employee out to lunch at least once a year, but he isn’t sure how he will do it if his office grows beyond a few hundred.
Other companies can relate, and each finds its own set of solutions.
“When you’re under 50 employees it’s easy to pick up the phone and speak to everyone on a one-on-one basis. But as you get much larger than that, it’s really tougher to do,” said Tim Spadafore, managing principal of IBC, a business consultancy. “You have to be intentional about transparency and communication as you get bigger, because when you’re growing the momentum runs in the opposite direction.”
How do you bridge the gap? Technology helps.
A year ago, IBC started using Yammer, an in-office social media tool, to foster informal communication. Spadafore says it has taken more than a year to get people to use it, but the tool has since come to replace e-mail as the place for snap communications.
“Now when you get an e-mail you’re immediately on-guard because that’s seen as a more formal way of communicating,” Spadafore said of his company’s transition.
Employees at Trackmaven, a District-based digital marketing start-up, use Hipchat for spur-of-the-moment communications. Social Tables uses an app called TinyPulse to conduct an informal version of the large-scale surveying that happens at big corporations. The business is still small enough that management can take the workforce’s pulse every week without getting bogged down in analytics.
WeddingWire, an online marketplace for wedding planners and those getting married, uses an online app called Pingg to automatically deliver gift cards on an employee’s birthday, automating the personal interaction between employee and manager in the same way the company’s products try to automate the process of planning a wedding.
And work-life balance becomes an ever-more important consideration even among the youngest, most driven offices. At the same time that managers worry about absenteeism, they also worry about “presenteeism,” where employees show up to work in body but not in mind. When people work long hours, they sometimes lose sight of whatever drive brought them to the organization.
“We want our employees to have a wonderful life with family, community and church. I don’t want the bank to be in the top three of that list,” said Pijor of First Virginia Community Bank. “If those three things are fulfilled, then people will work harder while they’re here.”
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