millennials playing ping pong

Company Culture: It’s More Than Free Snacks and Ping-Pong

The right culture doesn’t just happen organically. It’s something leaders say companies must work at every day.

As manufacturing companies grapple with how to attract the next generation workforce, there’s a lot of focus on culture these days.

Culture is important because when a company gets it right, it exudes something positive that people take notice of. When a company has the right culture, people like where they work and what they do. They report being more satisfied. And potential candidates think, “That’s a company I’d like to work for.”

Given the importance of the right culture, I wondered how a company goes about achieving and maintaining that state. I suspected it’s something more than free snacks and ping-pong tables in the common areas.

So, I asked Vicki Holt, CEO of Proto Labs, a company that gets high marks for being a great place to work.

She was quick to point out that because the company embraced Manufacturing 4.0 from the start, it had a kind of built-in advantage, at least compared to many legacy manufacturers.

As Proto Labs has always been viewed as “high tech,” there wasn’t the need to change away from a traditional manufacturing orientation.

“When employees describe the company, they use words like adaptable, humble, agile, innovative and empowering,” says Holt. “I’m very proud of that because those are the words that you often hear used to describe high-tech companies.”

The significance, of course, is that’s exactly the kind of environment millennials aspire to work in today. And quite possibly that’s the way it’s always been.

I think back to my first job in a manufacturing company back in the 1980s, whose offices resembled the interior of an early-50s gas station. Even back then, my college friends and I aspired to work in a modern workplace.

Notwithstanding Proto Lab’s head start, Holt is quick to point out that culture is something companies have to work at every day. And that while it starts at the top, everyone has to be involved.

“As a leadership team, we feel it is our responsibility to create this environment, but we cannot do that alone. The organization has to do it,” says Holt.

“We have this awareness of what our culture feels like—we get that through conversations we have with people. But we also have people that have self–formed at each one of our sites—and I know this sounds corny—but we call them ‘culture’ teams, because that is their focus.”

Many of the employees on the teams are volunteers who want to make sure that Proto Labs remains a great place to work, where people can thrive and make a difference in both their personal and professional lives. Holt says they take this responsibility very seriously, meeting regularly with the executive leadership team to provide feedback on things they are hearing and things they would like to see happen.

“We are always working on it; it’s a job that is never complete. And we think that is a differentiator,” explains Holt. “If we don’t continue to work on our culture, we are not going to be able to attract the talent that we need.”

And that work continues to pay off. Holt says one of her proudest moments was at a recent meeting with new employees. Over half of them said they came to work at Proto Labs because a friend told them it was a great place to work.

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