Tünde Szirák

@tundeszirak

The Power of the Kitchen Table — Finding the right company culture for you

October 14th 2017

In the era of blooming startups you can hear all the magic words during your interview process when it comes to company culture: deskbeers, table tennis, bean bags etc. It sounds young, cool, hipster and anti-corporate. But is it really? How can you tell before you start working there?

What are the things you can learn from a conversation with the hiring manager or some future colleagues? What are the questions you should ask to get a better idea? First of all, you need to decide what you like, what you want to avoid, and what kind of environment you find the best to work in.

At the interview they might say they have monthly social events, they have a fridge full of beer, you may even see a ping pong table in the office. Is that really enough information? You might think “This is exactly what I’m looking for!” but then realise in your first week that it’s not quite how you imagined. 🤔

Does it matter if you have a ping pong table if no one ever plays? Does it matter if you have office outings once a month but there are no interactions during working hours? Does keeping beer in the fridge really count if you don’t have a tradition of drinking it?

It’s on people to make a good company culture.

If you are a person who — like myself — is very sociable and enjoys talking to people, making jokes, getting lunch together, then you need to ask the right questions at your interview.

There are a few I like asking about eating habits. It doesn’t reveal everything but can give you a very good basic idea about the culture of the company.

Questions like:

  • What do employees do at lunch?
  • Is there a culture of having lunch in groups or separately?
  • Do you have a communal space where employees can sit down and have their lunch together?
  • Do employees from different levels of the organisation eat lunch together?

The answers can help you understand if people tend to have a real break or eat at their monitors, if they have cliques or groups eating together, what’s the management’s relationship like with other employees and so on.

Why Eating Habits Are Important?

Eating together gives an opportunity for everyone to share, connect, and bond. There are studies showing the positive effects when families regularly eat together. Social lunches can give a strong family-feeling in your organisation, help form better relationships, and creates happier people in the office. If they are happier they are more productive, don’t mind finishing later and arrive with a more positive attitude in the morning. If they feel like a member of a family at work they become more responsible and loyal to the organisation.

When employers understand the importance of social interactions and good relationships they create space and opportunities for their employees to bond: e.g. making sure there is a communal space for socialising, treating employees with organised lunch to celebrate company successes, encouraging and getting involved in social activities etc.

Even the simplest things can make a huge difference in the company culture.

What to do when there is no culture of eating together at all but you like the company whatsoever? When I was interviewing for my current company the answer I got was: “We don’t do that but would be happy if someone started it.” That sounded challenging enough for me to try and make a change, so I accepted the job.

We had a small office back then without a communal space, just a big desk no one used in the middle of the office. The beginning was very tough, the only person who was willing to have lunch with me away from his computer was the guy who said he would be happy to change the situation. So the two of us, complete strangers started to have lunches together while everyone else was eating at their desks listening to everything we were talking about. Not awkward at all…

Fortunately after a while people started to join, sometimes only one, sometimes more, and with time it became a more natural thing to do. As new people started at the company, seeing that team lunch was a thing, they sat down with us as well. And when the desk became occupied by new employees and our lunch group was growing as well we started to use the meeting room or went to the park. When we finally had outgrown our small office we moved to a bigger one where our employer made sure there was a space for us: a long kitchen table. 🎉

Any More Useful Advice?

Unfortunately there is no 100% guarantee that you’ll get exactly what you’d like. No magic questions to get all the answers. And most of the time you will only really understand what the company culture is like once you’ve started working there. But you can be more prepared with questions that can give you more informative answers and be more conscious about the things they tell you.

Remember: there is a huge difference between saying “We have a fridge full of beer.” and “We usually stop working around 4pm on Fridays, and open a beer gathering in the communal area.”. With the right attitude there is a high chance to get a fairly good picture of what to expect at least.

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