December 9, 2015

Building a Culture Where Your Employees Would Rather Be at Work Than on Vacation

BoatRyan Fitzgerald, cofounder of digital marketing firm Net Conversion, sees his company as a family.

“Everyone has each other’s backs and will pitch in and help when needed,” Fitzgerald says. “I make sure I know what’s happening in everyone’s lives – not just on a work basis, but on a personal basis. I make sure everything’s okay.”

But we’ve all heard that kind of thing before, haven’t we? There are probably even many among us (myself included) who have worked for bosses who liked to talk endlessly about how the staff was “a family” — even if their treatment of said staff suggested otherwise.

It would be easy, then, to dismiss Fitzgerald’s comments as more of the same – but you’d be wrong to do so. That’s because, at Net Conversion, maintaining a close-knit community of engaged employees is key to the business’s success.

“Our business is very dynamic. There is no manual for what we do,” Fitzgerald explains. “We have to figure it out as we go, so we need to give people the freedom to be creative and solve problems.”

That freedom is only productive if the employees are motivated to drive the business forward. In Net Conversion’s flat, anti-hierarchical structure, orders don’t come down from on high. Employees have to take the initiative to drive the business forward – otherwise, the whole company might come crashing down.

So, how successful has Net Conversion been at creating a family-style company culture? An anecdote should answer this question perfectly.

Fitzgerald tells the story of an employee who took her first vacation day one Friday. Three-day weekend? Sounds great, doesn’t it?

For this particular employer, the answer was “Not exactly.” See, when she returned to work on Monday, and Fitzgerald asked her how her day off was, she responded, “I felt like I was missing out. I probably would have rather been here!”

“That makes me feel good, because [it shows me] she really cares about this place,” Fitzgerald says. “People really want to be here. That’s what allows us to have really low turnover. You can have any job you want – especially with the digital skills our industry demands – so for us to be able to keep people here, it’s a big deal.”

Culture Snapshot: What It’s Like to Work at Net Conversion

Fitzgerald describes the structure of the organization as “pretty open.” The employees do have titles, but these titles are really for external purposes. Internally, the organization cultivates a very level playing field, on which “everyone is an equal contributor.”

FlatThis particular approach to organizational structure and culture came about in reaction to the “cog in the machine” feeling that Fitzgerald and his partner Frank Vertolli had when they used to work for major corporations.

“We felt like, whatever we were doing, we could never see the impact,” Fitzgerald says of his and Vertolli time in the corporate world.

Moreover, Fitzgerald and Vertolli didn’t like the fact that they always had to go through managers and higher ups to get anything done – and even then, there was no guarantee that anything would actually get done.

“Even if you knew the right thing to do for the business, that didn’t mean the business would go that way,” Fitzgerald says. “You never had ownership. You never felt like you were impacting the overall results.”

So, when Fitzgerald and Vertolli founded Net Conversion, they wanted their organization to take a different approach.

“We all have the same goal, and we want everyone to really feel like they are a part of what we’re doing here,” Fitzgerald explains. “Even the interns, they’re here doing things that make us better as a whole.”

Fitzgerald sums up the workplace philosophy at Net Conversion as such: “Everyone needs to be working together — or we’re screwed.”

‘My Team Is the Best Advocate for Our Business’

By giving employees such a high level of ownership over what they do at the company, Fitzgerald and Vertolli have created the kind of business that no one wants to leave.

“There are two types of people that work with us: people who started as interns and have now been here for three, four, five years, and people who used to be in corporate environments,” Fitzgerald says. “When they come to us [from the corporate world], people say, ‘This is great – I can never see myself working anywhere else.'”

Turnover is pretty low at Net Conversion, but that’s not just because everyone who joins the team wants to stay. Rather, it’s because Fitzgerald takes hiring for cultural fit very seriously.

“I can train; I can teach people to do what we do,” Fitzgerald says. “But I can’t teach fit; I can’t teach motivation. If I can find someone who will fit in with our quirky group, that is more important than having the person with the most experience.”

CafeFitzgerald says that, because he and Vertolli place such a heavy emphasis on cultural fit, hiring can often be “a challenge.” Still, Fitzgerald and Vertolli believe the challenge is absolutely worth it.

“The smartest, most talented people in the world won’t work well if they can’t work with your team or jive with the direction you want to go in,” Fitzgerald says.

So far, Net Conversion’s strict approach to hiring as worked out pretty well: There are the employees who would rather be at work than not, of course, and there’s also the fact that the company has only ever hired one intern that didn’t work out. The rest went on to become highly productive full-time employees.

And because Fitzgerald and Vertolli have put so much effort into building the right company culture, they’ve also given themselves a valuable recruiting tool, in the form of the culture itself.

“My current team is my best advocate for us,” Fitzgerald says. “We bring in people, and the employees talk about what this place really is.”

That decision to let the employees do the talking has paid off. Net Conversion has some very powerful talent on the payroll, all because the culture attracted them.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of