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When was the happiest period in your life? Was it your early childhood? Your puberty? The honeymoon phase of your marriage? For me, my college years are high on the list. As a teenager I was never completely comfortable in my own skin. In my early twenties, I was more confident and bonded better with my peers, with whom I shared many common interests, goals, and life circumstances. Fast forward to my post-graduation days, when I entered the workforce, and that satisfaction — born of a combination of exploration and joy — is fading fast. Why?
Related: Why Your Culture Should Be Like College Life—No Matter The Age Of Your Employees
College = community + culture
My early career experiences lacked a sense of community. The openness to different life paths that had connected me with my fellow students gave way to a 9-to-5 work rhythm and a separation between my professional and private life. When office hours were over, my colleagues and I went home to our respective families and friends. Occasionally we would go for a drink before saying goodbye, but this was the exception – not the rule, like in college.
Am I the only one experiencing this erosion of kinship between the people I spent most of my time with? I doubt it. Facts has shown that overall life satisfaction peaks twice in one’s early twenties and again at age 69. My dissatisfaction with the work culture during my early career has fueled my entrepreneurship and I have never looked back.
Instead, I’ve looked ahead by forging cultures within my companies that recreate and reinvigorate the community spirit of the university. Not only does this make for a happier work environment, but it also increases employee loyalty and retention. Here are some key ways you can build a more robust corporate culture where people learn, grow and stay together.
1. Model your recruitment process based on university admission
The good news: you can create a school environment in your workplace and it has all the positive results I mentioned. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most powerful and important is your hiring and recruiting process. When you went to college, do you remember the application process? Once you get into the group of applicants, the school starts to get more and more attractive. Why? To fully understand it, you would have to look at the psychology of in-groups, but suffice it to say that college admissions departments are well trained to make you feel like you have a chance to be a part of something special.
Your staffing team doesn’t have to use sinister branding tactics to borrow from college admissions departments. They just need to remind applicants that your business is about much more than the product or service it delivers. Like getting into Harvard University, getting a job at your company should be associated with meaningful outcomes — paving the way for future success, for example — but it’s also about the experience and the connections formed along the way.
Related: Benefits of a Positive Work Environment
2. Aboard a college culture
Next, you need to adjust your onboarding to feel more collegial. You want to evoke the glory of the college experience. A hint for this is to study how campus orientation programs work. Have you ever noticed how campus orientation passes new admissions from one advisor to another, each of whom is an expert in a specific aspect of college life?
Do the same with your new employees. I achieve this at my company by stretching the onboarding process over three months. That is longer than many new employees have been working at some companies! It works because it provides dozens of touchpoints for new hires to get used to their role and develop a deep sense of belonging. And during this journey, they can become “friends” with various team members and leaders.
By month 4 they are part of the onboarding of the next new hire, but now they are the expert of the company. Everyone needs to feel they are essential to the culture we create, and this approach to onboarding makes that possible.
3. Treat your office like a campus
Here you can really make your mark on your company culture by making it an environment where people can grow and develop. One of the reasons why our college days are formative experiences for many of us is that we are already adults when we participate, but we are still developing and growing with our peers.
To instill this self-discovery into your organizational culture, you need to think holistically. If you have a physical office, ask: Is it designed so that people can be at work without working? We all know that our most profound ideas and insights come during times of relaxation, and your physical office, if there is one, should facilitate such moments.
I encourage everyone on my team not to use the office just for work. I want them there to do everything they would do in any environment where they feel comfortable. Employees also need areas not only where they can collaborate, but also where they can retreat and have downtime. What else? They should eat, play, learn, make art or music, or pursue some other non-work creative activity. The more opportunities you can provide in your company to do all these things, the longer your employees will stay on board and the more satisfied they will be when they are with you.
In addition, it is important to remember that there is no “one” authentic college experience. Paths vary depending on the person, purpose, and field of study. Create a work environment that allows for a diversity of approaches and experiences, and you will not only have a more exciting workplace, but also lay the foundation for innovation.
Can remote-only or remote-first companies also create campus-like work cultures? Naturally. It takes imagination, but tools and techniques abound, and they can also be used to… enhance the office experience in a hybrid environment.
Related: How to Create a Healthy Startup Atmosphere
Closing: from collegiate to collegiate
In summary, can leaders learn and borrow from college culture to create more engaging, innovative corporate cultures? Absolute. And if you want to build an organization that can thrive in our turbulent times, it would be hard to find a more robust model than universities.