Five workmates dancing in celebration at the office. What sort of workplace culture are you creating?

What’s the vibe at your creative startup? A quick lesson on workplace culture

PICTURE: People bring everything to work, even if they don’t show it.

Someone I worked with once took their own life. A few weeks later, their father visited our office. In the hour or so we spent with him, our small team learned the importance of the workplace as a place of upliftment and healing, and were reminded that when people show up to work, they come not as numbers or job titles, but as whole beings; with fears and hopes and hearts. Here is the full story…

Henry (name changed to protect his identity) suddenly showed up at our offices in 2002 and somehow slipped into the cracks of our days to become a part of our lives.

I was about 24, running a web development company (Venekera Works) in Harare, Zimbabwe, with my friend Brian and a small team.

Henry had seen some of our work online and said he loved it and wanted to learn from us and hang out at our offices as he was getting into web development work and would be very happy if we gave him some tasks to do.

When you’re a start-up, short on hands, short on funds and someone walks in and offers you free labor, you take it. Well, I don’t know about you, but we did. We were a struggling startup and here he was, interested, able, and offering to work for free.

Henry aroused a deep curiosity in us. He was a quiet young man, maybe about 19 years old. He lived with his parents who were obviously well-to-do, as Henry had a kick-ass laptop and drove a car, both of which were things no one else at the office had (Those were the hey days of desktops. Laptops were absolute boss mode).

If we had any suspicions about his commitment, they were soon allayed. He turned up regularly and carried out the tasks he was given with eagerness. He’d spend a few hours at our offices and go and do his other work from home.

And just like that, he became part of our team.

We moved to new offices and when we had our office-warming party he was there. I can vividly remember him sitting in a corner, most of the evening, quietly chatting to one of our board members.

One morning, a few weeks after the party, he didn’t come into the office. He didn’t show up the next day either. Or the next. We couldn’t get him on his phone and, besides email, had no other way of getting in touch with him.

A week passed and still no Henry.

As suddenly as he had appeared in our lives, he was gone.

We regretted not having taken the time to get more contact information about him.

Then one day, one of our team members, was looking through the paper and saw a few notices in the obituary section where Henry’s surname came up in bold capitals, followed by his name, in sentence case and a heap of condolence messages. “That’s Henry’s name!” She said, “disbelief in her voice.

“What! Really!?”

“Is it the same person?” We wondered.

“No way. It couldn’t be!”

“Let’s try his number again!”

Everyone in our little office huddled around in the room, exchanging uneasy glances as she dialed Henry’s number. We heard it ring and sat up or stood up. Previously it had been unreachable. Each long beep at the other end of the line signalled hope.

Then his sister answered. 

Yes, that was him in the paper. 

Yes, he had died. 

There had been a little accident. 

She couldn’t say what. 

Only close members of the family were invited to the funeral.

A heavy veil of darkness fell over us.

“He was right here, in this chair the other day.”

“He was so young.”

“Can it be really true?”

“What happened?”

We could get no further answers. 

Henry was indeed gone and we were left with this strange feeling of having known someone but not really knowing them at all. Having been close enough to pore over HTML code with him, but not close enough to be at his funeral. Not close enough to know how he died — or how he lived, really.

Maybe a month passed and then one morning, a tall well, dressed man walked into our office. “Hi,” he said, “my name is Liam (not his real name). I am Henry’s dad.”

We were floored.

“Sorry to come unannounced, but I just had to meet you all and see your offices.”

“We’re sorry for your loss.”

“It’s really tragic what happened,” Liam said. 

He asked to see where Henry had worked and we showed him. There were long,  heavy silences.

When we finally all sat down, Liam answered the question we all had, before we even asked it. “Henry took his own life.”

You know that feeling when you really wanted to know something and then you find it out and wish you hadn’t found out.  Right there was that feeling.

“You see,” Liam continued, “Henry was clinically depressed and was on medication for it.”

We had never suspected this.

“But,” Liam went on, “a few months ago he told us he had started working with a group of other young techies. Something on the Internet. That was you guys. He was so excited about it and showed us some of his work. It made us all really happy because it was hard to get him excited about life in general.”

We glanced at each other as we took this in, the actual weight of Henry’s time with us sinking in.

“So I just wanted to come and say thank you to all of you for giving my son something to uplift him in the last months of his life.”

He left his business card and a new wave of grief in the office.

As the young CEO of a company, that hour or so we spent with Henry’s dad taught me everything I needed to know about the importance of workplace culture. 

Henry found happiness in our office. Belonging. For him, it was not a place to pass the time. For a lot of people, it isn’t. And even those who loathe going to work wish it were different. Most people want to love their place of work, or to work at a place they love.

As creatives going into business, it’s important to remember this. When we give people jobs, it goes beyond a paycheck. People want to contribute to something. They want their days to be meaningful. They want to form new relationships. They bring not just the skills we hire them for to their work. They bring everything, even the things they will never speak to you about.

Leadership expert, Simon Sinek, in talking about the deterioration of workplace culture over the last few decades points to the C-suite. He says once businesses decided that people could be treated like any other ‘asset,’ once mass layoffs became a way of balancing the books, once executive compensation skyrocketed while the lowest wages remained stagnant, people stopped caring that much for the companies they worked for. 

From real life experience, I have learned that when workplace culture is right, it can quite literally prolong life. And it positively affects the bottom line in the long run.

And it starts, and ends, with you, the person at the top.

Author

Fungai is a writer, web developer, and creative entrepreneur. He is the founder of Artist Dynamix and is passionate about helping creative entrepreneurs and small businesses use digital media to realize their full potential.

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Dexter
Dexter
4 months ago

Lovely Fungai, well articulated!

Emma K
Emma K
4 months ago

Thank you for sharing this article Fungai. It came at the right time. There are so many things wrong about how companies treat their workers today. It’s money money money all the time and it’s killing the companies. We see it now with the great resignation. Companies are responding by offering more money, but it’s more than money that will be needed in the end to save these companies. We need a total reeavuation of our business models and of how we treat people.