First lesson for maintaining a healthy culture: Hands off

culture lisa

By Lisa Haugh, VP of People and General Counsel

This is my second year here at Udemy with us being nominated as a “best place to work” by the San Francisco Business Times. Since my job title is VP of People and I head up our Employee Success team, you’d think I’d be exchanging high-fives all around. Of course, my team is super-excited for this honor, but that’s because we get to be a part of an amazing company, not because we had all that much to do with it. And I believe that’s as it should be.

If you think creating a great company culture and getting employees engaged and excited about working here is the sole responsibility of the traditional HR department or senior management, you’re dead wrong. We might help grease the skids, but it’s the employees themselves who make this company what it is. The things that really make people happy about where they work and engaged in their jobs aren’t company mandates; they happen organically, without the heavy hand of management.

I’ve worked at other places where a “bottoms-up culture” would’ve referred to a tendency toward heavy drinking at happy hour. At Udemy however, it means that everyone has equal opportunity to shape our culture and introduce activities that bring more meaning and enjoyment to our work lives. When we hire, we look beyond experience and education to see if candidates align with our values and share this attitude of contributing to the collective good as well as being excited to be part of something bigger than just a job.

My mind goes back to biology class, when we learned about bacteria by growing cultures in petri dishes. As the experiments showed, bacteria will grow and thrive when placed in the right environment. Unlike houseplants, bacteria don’t need help from humans to provide water and sunlight for healthy growth. And bacteria are pretty darned successful, prolific microorganisms. At the risk of equating our people to bacteria, we’ve taken the same approach, creating an environment where Udemy employees’ grow their own culture without management interference — much better than treating them like delicate hothouse flowers with high-maintenance needs.

We love how the cool stuff that defines Udemy culture started outside the Employee Success team. Here are just a few of our secrets:

  • Culture Club: This team of Udemy employees meets regularly to generate ideas and plan activities to enrich the experience of working here. We’ve volunteered as concession sellers at AT&T Park to raise money for a youth development program, hosted hackathons, and tutored school kids. We’ve also had groups organize weekend trips to Lake Tahoe and Big Sur.
  • Living our values: As a learning company, we all feel strongly about having opportunities to develop ourselves personally and professionally. In addition to having unlimited access to Udemy courses, we hold “hashes” open to all on relevant topics like learning science, we take courses together during “study hall,” and individual teams schedule time to DEAL — “drop everything and learn.”
  • Mission-driven: We can truly say we have a world-changing vision at Udemy. When your mission is to help people around the world build the lives they imagine through access to quality learning resources, it definitely lends weight to the daily routine. We know from employee surveys that people are attracted to Udemy because they believe in what we’re doing and want to contribute. They also appreciate our social innovation program, which extends grants and discounts to nonprofits and NGOs.

Speaking of surveys, we just did an engagement survey, and the numbers tell the story, with 96% of employees saying they’d recommend Udemy as a great place to work. And it’s the employees who’ve made this happen.

It all goes to show that the best cultures don’t come from what a company does for its employees but what employees have the freedom to create for themselves.