What do most employees want from a firm? A 'family feel', according to a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey. And companies are falling over themselves to proclaim how family-like they are. Asda proudly describes itself ‘part of the Wal-Mart family’. Estee Lauder is ‘a family company with family values… you are family from day one’.
We aren’t family
But not all firms feel that family is best. "We’re a team, not a family," explains Netflix’s company culture presentation - one of the most important documents to come out of Silicon Valley, according to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Being a family, it implies, might not be good for business. After all, how do you fire a 'family' member for underperforming?
"If an entrepreneur tries to run a business as a family unit, it can still become emotional, even when actual family members aren't involved," says business consultant Martin Vessey. "You want to be open, honest, and non-emotive but that can be difficult in a family-style situation. People think there is preferential treatment towards others, or they that they don't have career progression. If you want to get on in life and develop your careers, sometimes the family-style business is not always looking towards the individual and how they can improve."
And our concept of what 'family' actually means can be very different – a nightmare for one employee, a comfort and a haven for another.
It’s a hugely emotionally charged word. "I think it’s good to pick out the elements that you want to transfer from your understanding of family – trust, communication, respect – but actually, you don’t want your workplace to be the mirror of your family," says Nicki Cresswell, wellbeing co-ordinator for the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association.
"You often want more boundaries to be in place, and often there’s a concern that you’ll be taken outside your comfort zone and those boundaries will be moved. If an employer is trying to have an inclusive atmosphere, it could be very difficult for the employee to say yes to all those social initiatives if they’re nervous. Yet they don’t want to come across as negative or lacking engagement."
Beyond Christmas jumpers
Dani Saveker says that a clear definition of 'family' is essential. Now the founder and CEO of Families in Business, she took over family business Saveker in 2001, seeing it through redundancies, restructuring, recession and, eventually, administration.
"What people think of as 'family' is fictional," she points out. "It's a chocolate box picture. Because working with family is very rarely what people believe it to be. We think of family as warm and fuzzy and smiley and matching Christmas jumpers. And actually, what you can end up with is people who don't trust each other and don't communicate, or married couples that fall out as they have no breaks from business issues."
Dani says she prefers to think of 'groups' rather than families. "What people really want is trust and a sense of common purpose - the positive elements of a family. Calling these things 'groups' removes the need to call these things a team, a family, or a tribe. You don’t need the branding."
Real family values
So it’s not enough just to stick 'family' into a list of values and leave it at that. There’s a lot more effort and thought involved.
"You need to be really clear that people are different," says Nicki. "And it needs to be felt that the family elements are a genuine part of the culture of the organisation and it is lived and breathed from the top down, and embedded consistently, so 'family' just feels very natural, not like lip service. Have a really good knowledge of your workforce and your team, and know what you want to achieve with this culture of being a work family."
Dani agrees. "Don’t just make a sweeping statement like 'we’re going to operate as a family'. What do you actually mean? Do you mean flexible, empathetic, understanding? Map the qualities that you are looking for. Build them into your values and your culture. And when you talk about 'family' – well, think about sorting out your wedding seating plan. Do you want that kind of situation in your business? I certainly wouldn’t."