Almost 20 years ago, I formed Kyan with my co-founders, Laurent Maguire and Gavin Shinfield. From day one, 29th October 2002, we had a cultural vision – a strong and determined idea of the kind of place that we wanted Kyan to be.
Fast-forward to present day, having moved offices a number of times, growing the team to fifty people, and traversing the many ups, downs, ins and outs of agency life, the ‘Kyan culture’ has remained at the heart of how we work and who we are.
I’ve been asked a few times how we keep our culture as strong and consistent as it is, so that’s what I want to talk about in this blog – the importance of agency culture, why we introduced values, and how we ultimately ‘codified’ them. And this wouldn’t be a blog in 2021 without a little bit about the pandemic and how that changed things for us too.
What is agency culture?
For me, it’s the intersection of our values and how we behave with each other and our customers. So it’s an active, living, changeable and mercurial thing – something that when expressed positively by the team, we actively and outwardly reward. For Kyan, it’s our secret sauce and it helps us to not only build a sense of togetherness, but to develop our internal habits.
From the start, we had the simple aim to build an organisation where we could be ourselves and have the opportunity to enjoy ourselves at work. This vision has developed over time, and we’ve always understood that a happy team is a productive team, and happiness is a balance of the following things:
Satisfying project work, internal and external
Meaningful workplace relationships
A supportive environment...
...where you can grow and develop
A social calendar of memorable moments
A playful place where the team feel comfortable
A culture in which people can express themselves
The ever-quotable Simon Sinek said, “The strength and endurance of a company does not come from its products and services, it comes from how well people pull together.” And our culture is shaped to support this, not least by our values.
The importance of company values
At first, I was quite sceptical about the need to define our values and what they mean. Perhaps this is a viewpoint shaped by the mega corporations (who’ll remain nameless) that would talk about their values of ‘integrity’ and ‘honesty’, and then go up in a puff of corporate fraud.
But like with many of these things, the more we explored them, the more we understood why, when done well, the companies who have values find themselves with something truly remarkable. We’ve done a lot of work around this over the last few years and we are at a good, authentic place. We have three core values:
This is about ‘knowing your stuff’. We have always been technology-led and for us, being a geek is a badge of pride. It means being curious, wanting to learn, pulling up the bonnet and having a poke about to see what’s what.
It’s not just about software engineering either – it could be design geekery, obsessing about the kerning of some type, creating and tweaking new agile delivery methodologies and workshops, and of course being playful about it all.
In the classic 1980s slacker sci-fi comedy ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, their core philosophy was ‘to be excellent to each other', and generosity is our take on this – to look after one another, be supportive, and to be kind and be inclusive. This is about leaving somewhere better than when you found it and sharing your knowledge along the way. It’s also about allowing yourself to have fun whilst you do your role and recognise that sometimes you need to take a break from the coalface.
This one is simple and straightforward. We are very much an agency and want to achieve things for ourselves and our clients, so it’s important that we push ourselves to get shit done.
We’ve been through a few iterations of our values, and at one point we had six of them, then five, and now three. We feel happy that they express our point of view well, and we are able to embody them, as well as use them to support our growth strategy.
Work and play
The notion of playfulness is often underplayed and is a very important part of the lubrication that helps us to bring these values together. The values are the pillars that sit in the collective consciousness of the agency and the playfulness is how we move amongst these pillars.
Playfulness allows us to escape the constraints of daily life and tradition, and be more creative and innovative. It’s a mindset that fosters a nimble, agile approach to problem solving and leaves us with smiles on our faces.
Codifying a culture
As a co-founder, and having been at the heart of the business for 19 years, it can be hard to look inwards. So the other founders and I engaged consultants to help us do this. Through a number of workshops we began to refine the list of what makes us tick. We also interviewed our key clients and built an understanding of what it was they liked and maybe even disliked about us.
We looked at our employees too, and broke down what it was that made them special and what has made them successful at Kyan, plus any commonalities between them.
We recorded and reviewed video interviews with the team to understand how they perceived Kyan and the Kyan culture. We also ran culture mapping exercises to help us understand how we look to improve our team experience.
All these activities have helped to build an understanding. It took longer than we expected, but it really was worth it, and I encourage you to embark on a similar journey of internal soul-searching.
And you never know, you may pick up some recognition during the process. We were humbled to be awarded first place in Campaign’s Best Places to Work, as well as three shiny trophies from Best Companies, including Marketing & Media’s #1 Company to Work For, and the UK’s #2 Best Small Company to Work For.
Culture challenges in the time of COVID
Like everyone else, we’ve been through some dramatic changes over the last 17 months and we have had to adapt quickly, discovering how we can operate better as a business, and learning what a more ‘hybrid’ version of Kyan needs to look like.
We’re very fond of our new way of working, and if you missed my previous blog on the subject, have a read and see the changes we made early on helped us get to where we are today: 'The new Kyan era: Thinking fast and putting our people first'
As part of our push for 2021, we announced some additional changes to our way of working, which is about allowing the team even greater flexibility. Irrespective of a global pandemic, coming into a place to work everyday is no longer required. Since the start of the year, office attendance has been optional. We also recognised that the team have been working exceptionally hard and to redress the balance here we increased everyone's holiday to an absolute minimum of 30 days + bank holidays.
This isn’t about perks for the sake of perks, it’s about allowing and trusting the team to have more freedom and flexibility around how, where and when they want to work. There will be times when we need to come together in real-time, and this asynchronous work pattern requires a bit more discipline around process and documentation, but the payback is significant.
Unsurprisingly, communication became more important than ever. We’ve all experienced some of the duff comms coming out from the government and they have provided a great example of how not to do it. At Kyan, we’ve increased the frequency of our internal comms and have booked in weekly roundups, monthly meets, quarterly catch-ups across the entire year. Whilst our staff may be further apart geographically, we feel closer than ever as a business because we are the most transparent and engaged we’ve ever been.
Away from the more formalised meets, we have a vibrant monthly calendar of team days where we bring our people together for social events. Some of these are remote and some in-person, and either way, this gives the team an opportunity to reconnect and have something to look forward to. The most recent example being a wet and wonderful Surf Weekend in beautiful Wales.
Paradoxically, we are working harder at having fun
This is a big change for us and we are mindful about the risks to our collaborative working approach, our team spirit, and being able to onboard new starters with the same enthusiasm that we could pre-pandemic. But equally, this is a huge opportunity for the culture at Kyan, and one where we can take the learnings of the last year, grab them, and make huge leaps around our sustainability, inclusivity and life balance.
We are Kyan, a technology agency powered by people.
We are hiring.