In a climate where the tech and digital skills gap means exceptional candidates are hard to come by, where there is increased demand for exciting company culture and a good work-life balance, employers must step up to the mark.

Luckily for people based in the South West, there is a multitude of dynamic tech and digital organisations to choose from – namely the 2021 nominees for The SPARKies Best Place to Work award.

To showcase these fantastic companies during Talent Month at TechSPARK, we teamed up with category sponsors Interaction, the strategic workplace design and build experts, to chat with the shortlisted about their take on nourishing a healthy company culture.

Today we are chatting with Tess Coughlan-Allen, Head of Growth at Atomic Smash. The Bristol-based WordPress and WooCommerce specialist work with businesses and organisations who require continuous design and development on their online platforms

How would you summarise your workplace culture?

Ultimately, we aren’t just focused on business growth, but also on the personal growth of our team. Work is such a big part of everyone’s lives and it’s our intention for our team to get value from their work beyond a paycheck.

In a world where you can leave a job on a Friday, get a laptop sent out over the weekend and start a new remote role on Monday doing roughly the same work, how important actually is culture?

Workplace culture is about so much more than an employer, job role or office space, it contributes to how your team members feel at work each day and impacts on wellbeing, retention and recruitment. It contributes to the character of your organisation and sets the tone and the direction for your business, showing the world what it stands for.

How do you know when you have a strong/good culture?

There are both subtle and not-so-subtle signs, we look at both! For instance, we ask for regular anonymous feedback through employee pulse surveys. These act as temperature checks so we can see if there’s room for improvement and recognise when we’re getting something right.  

Purpose, happiness at work, autonomy, personal growth, mastery and wellness are just a few of the areas we keep track of. We measure this using Officevibe’s anonymous weekly pulse surveys and, armed with this knowledge, we have been able to raise our work-life balance score up 35% over 6 months to 8.5 out of 10.

The less subtle cues of strong culture are usually evident from the way a team engages, but the changes presented by the pandemic inevitably make this trickier to monitor. I’d suggest that when your team is aligned and they care about the work they do, about their colleagues, and about the direction of the business, that’s a sign of a strong culture.

What’s the role of leadership in creating culture? To what extent is it their responsibility and to what extent does it belong to the people in the organisation?

Leadership plays a crucial role for enabling particular facets of workplace culture to thrive. For example, learning and development is high on our agenda, but L&D is only possible because our leadership team understands that time needs to be set aside for it to happen. 

We use show-n-tells to showcase and present new skills, projects and progress to the rest of the team. This gives us a chance to see what other people have been working on, helping us maintain skills-sharing, transparency and teamwork with hybrid home and office working, further contributing to our culture.

As well as showcasing the varied work we do at Atomic Smash, it also gives key team members the chance for recognition and an invaluable skills- swap for future projects. All of this is crucial for us to live our values and maintain the culture we all want. It could never happen if co-founders, Piers Tincknell and David Darke, weren’t willing to dedicate time in the working week to this.

Setting aside time for our team to cut their teeth on new tools or enhance their skills also helps avoid burnout. The development world can be incredibly fast-paced, with pressure in the industry to take on side projects outside of office hours to keep skills up-to-date and relevant. Dedicated learning and development time during the working week takes some of that pressure off, creating a better balance.

Our commitment to learning and development is not only a great perk for team members but also a pivotal mechanism for making sure we’re on top of our game collectively. L&D time encourages playful innovation and technical exploration within our workplace, and this is reflected in the way we’re perceived – last year we were named one of the region’s most entrepreneurial companies via EntreLeague.

As a result of the ‘new normal’ our working practices have changed. What do you see as the impacts of hybrid and flexible working being on company culture?

Hybrid and flexible working options help our team members work in the way that best suits them and that brings with it the highest quality of work and better team satisfaction. Coming together as a team in-person less often is the obvious drawback because time together is so valuable, but helping our team feel safe and trusted is important for company culture too.

One area that we didn’t want to slip was having a supportive team, which is one of our core values, so we introduced a thank you budget, an idea we picked up from one of our clients – they were already implementing this successfully and shared the great feedback with us. The thank you budget is a pot of money that our team can use to show appreciation and gratitude for one another, even while working apart.

We don’t have all the answers yet and it is more challenging to run team activities that help us feel connected right now, but we made swaps where we could, like introducing virtual games in place of in-person movie nights, and we have regular whole-team meetings and collaboration sessions.

How do you make your company values come alive, rather than just the names of your meeting rooms?

We’ve cultivated a culture around our company values, which keeps us aligned, connected and feeling on the same page. Our company values are:

Change is good: We embrace the new, never sitting still, always learning and improving, which comes to life through our dedicated learning and development time and budget. This enables the entire team to lean into curiosity and develop professionally during work hours so we can encourage the sharpest skill-sets and never shy away from doing something better.

Client first: We build client relationships that last, prioritise client satisfaction and deliver work we are proud of. A key strength of the Atomic Smash team is the nature of our collaborative working with clients. We involve clients at every step of a digital project, including meeting their entire team during onboarding and regular catch ups. We get deeply integrated into our clients’ worlds, enabling us to deliver exactly what they need.

Built on trust: We do right by our clients and our team. Honesty and integrity run through the heart of our business and we have regular project-based and monthly whole-team collaboration sessions. We encourage transparency and openness, utilising the expertise of the whole team while giving everyone ownership and an understanding of their part in the successful delivery of a project.

A supportive team: We are self-starters, strong communicators and provide a supportive environment in which we can all grow and thrive. One example of how we achieve this is through our thank you budget; a pot of money the team can use to show appreciation for one another. This might be as simple as a coffee and sweet treat from the local bakery or a specific gift we know a colleague would love.

What are the key considerations when trying to build a culture digitally?

First, don’t forget about kindness. At Atomic Smash, we are both caring and daring. One of our co-founders, David Darke, was recently highlighted for kindness in leadership by being listed as one of the Kindness & Leadership Leading Lights. It’s harder to be there for one another when physically apart, but extra effort goes a long way. 

Second, the people setting the agenda should look outwards and look inwards. Understand your team members’ wants, needs and goals, don’t be afraid to ask them if you haven’t already. Then think about what you’ve benefited from and what connects you to your business. For instance, we introduced life coaching for the whole team because our co-founders reflected on how much coaching had helped them.

What do companies (or what have you) got wrong about workplace culture?

The biggest mistake when thinking about workplace culture is thinking that it has to be set in stone. It took us a very long time to reach an understanding that leaning into change was the most valuable thing we could do. Nothing stays the same, it wouldn’t make sense if it did. Sure, traditions can still exist but for the most part, adaptation is key. 

Our journey to knowing that change is good involved an evolution of our brand, value proposition and company culture, as well as our internal processes. Everything changed and that was really what took us to the next level.

What’s the one thing you’d advise other organisations to think really hard about when considering their culture?

People are the most important part of any business. Create a culture where people can thrive.

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ADLIB is an employee-owned Recruitment Agency operating within the Technology, Data, Engineering, Science, Sustainability, eCommerce, Marketing and Design sectors. Proudly B Corp certified, their mission and impact go far beyond recruitment.