3 Ways to Recreate a College Atmosphere In Your Workplace and Improve Employee Retention


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When was the happiest period in your life? Was it your early childhood? Your adolescence? The honeymoon phase of your marriage? For me, my university years rank high on the list. As a teenager, I was never entirely comfortable in my own skin. In my early 20s, I was more self-assured and better connected 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 fulfillment — stemming from a combination of exploration and joy — fades 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 bonded me with my fellow college students was replaced by a 9-to-5 work rhythm and a separation between my professional and private life. When office hours ended, my colleagues and I went home to our respective families and friends. Occasionally we went out for drinks before parting ways, but this was the exception — not the rule, as it had been in university.

Am I alone in experiencing this erosion of kinship among the people I spent most of my time with? I doubt it. Data has shown that overall life satisfaction peaks twice in life — first in one’s early 20s and again at age 69. My dissatisfaction with work culture during my early career helped propel my entrepreneurship, and I have never looked back.

Instead, I’ve looked ahead by forging cultures inside my companies that recreate and rekindle the community spirit of college. Not only does this create a happier working environment, but it also increases employee loyalty and retention. Here are some key ways you can build a more robust company culture in which people learn, grow and stay together.

1. Model your hiring process on college admissions

The good news: you can create a college environment in your workplace, and it has all the positive results I’ve mentioned. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most powerful and important is your hiring and recruiting process. If you went to college, do you remember the application process? Once you’ve entered the pool of applicants, the school starts to seem more and more desirable. Why? To understand fully, you’d 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 at being part of something special.

Your human resources team doesn’t need to employ sinister branding tactics to borrow from college admissions departments. They just need to remind applicants that your company is about much more than the product or service it provides. Like admission to Harvard University, getting a job with your company should be associated with meaningful results — e.g., pave the way for future success — but it’s also about the experience and the connections formed along the way.

Related: Benefits of a Positive Work Environment

2. Onboard into a college-like culture

Next up, you need to tailor your onboarding to feel more collegiate. You want to evoke the glory of the college experience. One 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 on a specific aspect of college life?

Do the same with your new hires. I accomplish this at my company by stretching the onboarding process over three months. That’s longer than many new hires last on the job at some companies! It works because it provides dozens of touch points for new employees to acclimate to their roles and ease into developing a deep sense of belonging. And throughout this journey, they get to “buddy up” with different team members and leaders.

By month 4, they’re part of the next new hire’s onboarding — except now, they’re the expert on the company. Everyone needs to feel like they’re vital to the culture we’re creating, and this approach to onboarding makes that happen.

3. Treat your office like a campus

This is where you can truly put your stamp on your company culture by making it an environment where people can grow and develop. One reason our college years are formative experiences for many of us is that we are already adults when we attend, yet are still developing and growing, together with our peers.

To instill this self-discovery in your organizational culture, you must think holistically. If you have a physical office, ask: is it designed in a way that enables people to 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 it exists, needs to facilitate such moments.

I encourage everyone on my team to use the office not just for work. I want them to do everything there that they would in any environment where they feel comfortable. Also, employees need areas not only where they can collaborate but where they can retreat and have downtime. What else? They need to eat, play, learn, make art or music, or pursue another non-work-related 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’ll be while they’re with you.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that there’s no “one” authentic college experience. Paths vary depending on the person, the goal and the course of study. Craft a work environment that enables a diversity of approaches and experiences, and you will not only have a more exciting workplace but also lay the groundwork for innovation.

Can remote-only or remote-first companies also create campus-like work cultures? Of course. It takes imagination, but tools and techniques abound, and they can also be used to augment in-office experiences in a hybrid environment.

Related: How to Create a Healthy Startup Atmosphere

Wrapping up: from collegiate to collegial

To sum up: can leaders learn and borrow from college culture to create more attractive, innovative company cultures? Absolutely. And if you want to build an organization that can flourish in our turbulent times, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more robust model than universities.



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