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Shopify's Culture team empowers employees to give their best to the company

By Sarah B. Hood


Since it was conceived in 2006 with five employees working out of a coffee shop, Shopify has become one of Canada’s most successful tech companies.

Starting as a platform for small-to-medium online merchants, the Ottawa-based company has definitively emerged as a leading commerce player. Its software currently powers some 600,000 active stores, enabling about $63 billion in sales.

A pioneer in the new marketplace, it’s not surprising that Shopify is also an innovator in the human resources realm. Today, Shopify manages more than 3,000 employees; some work in offices in Canada, the U.S., Germany and Lithuania, while about 1,400 “Shopifolk” work remotely from locations around the world. The company consistently ranks high in surveys like Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work in Canada (which named it Number One in 2017). How do they do it? Apparently, it’s a question of culture.

Just as Shopify was quick to anticipate changes in the 21st-century marketplace, it has also stayed one step ahead of changes in the workplace. “I think the biggest thing is creating more of that personalized experience, trying to target the different experiences of employees,” said Lisa Madokoro, Shopify’s employee experience research lead.

Shopify has signalled the critical importance of its workplace culture by building it right into the structure and language of the company. Shopify’s internal Culture Team is broken out into three sub-teams: Employee Experience, Culture Design and Internal Communications. It is, Madokoro said, “focused specifically on attracting talent and keeping people here. All together, we really have a pulse on the employee experience. We’re really the owners of our company values. Company values are so key; we make sure our values reflect the reality of Shopify.”

The Culture Team has been in existence since the company’s beginnings, she said: “often companies will add that role after sizable growth. This role came from the early days of the company. Tobi [Tobias Lütke], our CEO, says the quality of our product is the quality of our business, which is the quality of our people.”

As the Culture Team’s design lead, Mandira Midha leads a team that works to create and deepen the connections between the company and its people. “We focus on designing amazing employee experience events, office space and internal branding. The intention is recognizing and building an environment that allows them to thrive,” Midha said, pointing out that “more and more companies are trying to steer away from corporate culture that constrains people [to one that] gives them autonomy and allows them to contribute. It doesn’t have to be at a high level; everybody’s opinion is valued.”

As is only to be expected of such a forward-looking company, Shopify stays abreast of current human resources trends. “One thing that is really important is creating the space for people to learn and grow; that personal development, compared with professional development, is key to Shopify and that is one thing we are very passionate about,” said Madokoro.

In order to address this facet of workplace culture, Shopify has created an employee perk called Own Your Own Development, which provides a budget for employees to pursue whatever type of learning is most important to them, from upgrading their tech skills to taking theatrical improv classes.

“I think it is unique to Shopify. We want to give people their own space to figure out how they want to learn and grow,” Madokoro said. “We have an amazing talent development team internally. From day one, all of our employees are part of our Start Up program, so they all have the same foundation. Boost is another talent-development program; it focuses on levelling up talents and behaviours that are important to all at Shopify, and Lead Level Up is a training program for new people leads.”

“Our culture has been intentional and has been built in from the beginning,” Midha said. However, “it’s pretty interesting how much the team has grown over the past few years,” she said.

“One of the key things about our culture is developing our people. If we continue to build amazing people, we’ll continue to build amazing products. Being a constant learner is one of our values,” she said. To this end, “one of my personal favourite initiatives is our Coach’s Corner: a coaching team that focuses on a few key competencies, like self-awareness, getting shit done, fostering relationships, building for the long term.”

The program touches not only upon work life, but home life as well. “Everybody talks about work-life balance, but we truly believe personal and professional development go hand-in-hand. When you’re showing up with your personal life better, it makes you better in your work life as well,” said Midha.

The emphasis on corporate culture does not reside only in special programs; it inhabits every aspect of the daily routine, from communications to the physical layout of working spaces.

“One of the bigger things would be inclusivity, giving people back flexibility [as to] where they can work, allowing people to work from home and having spaces that are conducive to that,” said Midha.

This approach is evidenced both in the large proportion of employees who work remotely and in the conception of workspaces like the company’s office building in Waterloo, Ont. Located in a converted 19th-century distillery building, it combines the elegant original industrial design features with brilliantly contemporary amenities.

“We create spaces that cater to different personality types. I’ve seen the impact that that has. We have a variety of different spaces within our office: open-concept pods, private phone booths that people can go into for quiet time alone or to take a phone call, pair programming rooms with two desks set up side-by-side for people pairing to learn, to teach a skill or to solve a problem,” she said.

“Even with our meeting rooms, we’ve got a variety of dissimilar styles: boardroom style, ones that look like a comfy-cozy living room, mini auditoriums equipped with videoconferencing. Our offices have private rooms for breastfeeding, meditation or prayer. That really does show how we care about our people and empowering people to do their best work.”

For several years, Shopify has been using Slack as “probably our biggest tool for communication,” Midha said. The popular tool – whose name stands for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge” – is a cloud-based platform that’s rapidly gaining traction in the business world. It provides searchable messaging and team collaboration tools, as well as integration with services like Google Drive, Trello and Dropbox.

“You can have private chat channels or public channels where everyone can chime in or contribute. This is key for context sharing; it has kind of replaced email for us when we’re communicating internally,” she says.

Ibrahim Hasan is Shopify’s internal communications strategist. “A key evolution of workplace culture is that we’ve grown more global; we’ve become more dispersed: more time zones, more locations, more offices,” he said. “We’re very fortunate here that we have an executive team that has believed in culture from the very beginning.”

Hasan describes a company tenet of staying “highly aligned, loosely coupled.” Using the analogy of a sports team, he says “highly aligned” means that everyone agrees on overall principles and objectives, while “loosely coupled” refers to encouraging a high degree of individual autonomy. “Imagine if each member of the team had to ask permission before being allowed to score a goal!” he said. In practice, this means utilizing rituals like the annual Shopify Summit, which brings together employees at all levels to align on priorities for the coming year.

In this age of instant communication, some companies fear the potential consequences of giving employees too much freedom to access and share information, but Shopify’s internal culture thrives on transparency.

“We have an ethos internally of ‘defaulting to open;’ we’ve had that since our early days,” said Hasan. “It’s a phrase from the open-source community. Rather than starting from a point where you choose what to share, you start with what not to share. We want information to flow freely at all levels of the company. We think that holding onto information will not help us build the best product and will not help keep our employees feeling engaged.”

Shopify employees have access to a wide variety of communications tools, like an internal wiki, which Hasan refers to as “our Context Engine. There are no permissions settings; any employee can go in and add information to it.”

An extension of the internal wiki is the Project Board, which employees can use to inform their colleagues about whatever they’re working on. “Not only does it reduce a lot of redundancies, but it lets people in the company know what projects are being built on,” he said.

“We really want to share context across the organization to empower people to do their best work,” said Madokoro. “The core to getting great office culture is creating a great mission and strong company values that people can see themselves in. Those things require no money, just the willpower to get it done.”




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