Get a Grip on Culture

Walk into a building full of zip lines, a rock-climbing wall, two kegs of beer and a tree house, and people might think they had just entered either a college fraternity house or an amusement park. But when the employees at event production company Red Frog Events walk into such a building, they call it work.

Red Frog’s office isn’t your grandfather’s office. In fact, it’s probably not even your daughter’s. The idea, according to Greg Bostrom, the company’s chief innovation officer, is to create a corporate culture and environment where employees want to be at work.

Aside from the unique 17,000-square-foot office in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, Red Frog employees enjoy unlimited vacation days, a 401(k) matching program and a month-long sabbatical in a foreign country for employees who have been with the company for five years or longer. Employees also come up with their own titles if they choose. But does too much fun ever become detrimental to productivity?

Talent Management spoke with Bostrom, who also goes by the Red Frog title “regent of raucous,” on how the company’s unique culture plays into its value proposition as a successful recruitment tool — Red Frog is routinely flooded with resumes.

How would you describe the culture at Red Frog?
Red Frog’s culture was built around creating a place that felt like home with people that felt like family. So everything we’ve done in creating the culture drives back home to that point. It starts with creating a place that employees want to come to work, so a lot of our workplace is based on the notion of having fun at work. We have zip lines in the office, we have a rock climbing wall, we have tree houses, we have two kegs always on tap, and what we’ve done here is create a place that’s fun, and you actually enjoy coming to work.

In addition to that, a lot of our benefits packages support the idea of treating each other like family. We have a 10 percent match on 401(k), we have unlimited vacation days, we have a sabbatical every five years where the company will pay for you to take off for a month and go visit a foreign country. It’s really based around the idea of treating each other like family.

What role does culture play in recruitment?
Well, I think increasingly culture is something that young, creative and intelligent minds look for in a workplace. People want to enjoy their days, and they want to have work-life balance. Red Frog has done a good job creating an environment where we can recruit these creative minds and they see it as, OK, this isn’t somewhere I’m going to go and suffer 40 hours of every week; it’s going to be an integrated part of my life, and I can really contribute my time, my creativity to that sort of environment.

Does it take a certain kind of person to want to work in a culture like that?
It definitely takes a certain kind of person. It takes a team player to the core; you have to be more concerned with the team’s advancement than your own. That’s a trait of every single person that comes in the door here and succeeds — they have to be just as excited for everyone else’s success as [their] own. And that gets back to the same idea of the family culture and treating everyone as family.

What can more traditional organizations learn from Red Frog’s culture?
Well, I think the biggest thing is also one of the simplest, and that’s putting people first. When you create an environment that values the employees, you see results like ours, where we get 2,000 resumes every month from people trying to get in the door here. With that size application pool almost by default you have your pick of talented employees. And when you have that sort of pool you can do things like recruit for culture and make sure to maintain culture as you bring in new talent.

Can too much fun or work-life integration interfere with productivity?
I think one drawback you can look at is when you’re focusing so much on culture you’re going to have to make the decision that culture is more important than talent in some cases. There’s going to be some people that are extremely talented and can do great work, but [they] negatively affect the company culture, and you have to put the company culture first.

Are there any ways to identify if culture is hurting or helping a talent strategy? What are some of the signs?
I think anytime you start to see someone abusing company culture. For example, we have unlimited vacation days here, and if someone starts taking off half of the year then that’s an obvious red flag. And I think the way you can mitigate those sorts of situations is focusing on culture in the recruiting process, in the acquisition process, and sort of never letting your guard down, never letting someone in who isn’t a great cultural fit.

What are common values in today’s Gen Y job seekers? What do they look for in work?
I think this generation is looking for significance. They’re looking for jobs where they feel they’re doing important work. They’re looking for employers that they feel respect them and want them to succeed in all walks of life and not only in the workplace. And I think they’re looking for a challenge. I think they’re looking for complex work that will let them continue to grow and develop as not only business professionals but also as individuals.