Wednesday, April 16, 2014 · 12:23 p.m.

Alternative business cultures emerge in Chattanooga

Pingpong tables, casual dress, flexible hours represent dedication to innovation, leaders said

Print
Chattanooga company Skuidify has an alternative work culture that is guided by its founding principles. Workspace is more open, and there's a pingpong table available to employees. (Photo: Contributed)

It's a new business world. 

In some Chattanooga offices, cubicles have been replaced with open floor plans or standing desks; pingpong tables have taken over traditional break rooms; some local business owners are embracing loud music, casual dress and flexible hours. 

Companies such as Delegator, Southtree and Skuidify are adopting alternative business cultures. But it isn't just about comfort or flexibility; these nontraditional amenities represent principles such as innovation and creativity. 

Ken McElrath, co-founder and president of Skuidify—a new company that developed a drag-and-drop interface toolkit for the Salesforce platform—said that many people look at his company's culture and see only the nontraditional "artifacts," such as the flexible work hours and open workspace. 

"But the artifacts are born from principles," he said via email. "Without a firm commitment to the principles, the artifacts would be inauthentic and nothing but a passing fad. The best companies start with the principles, which naturally produce appropriate artifacts, not the other way around."

At Delegator, employees have access to standing desks, which are thought to have health benefits. (Photo: Contributed)

One of the guiding principles at Skuidify, which has 12 employees, is innovation, McElrath said. 

Innovation disrupts the status quo and encourages employees to face the fear of change, he said. It means getting comfortable with questions, with being challenged. It means honesty and transparency. 

McElrath spent most of his time at more traditional companies whose leaders thought that command and control were the best ways to productivity, he said. 

"This produced cultural artifacts like time-boxed work hours, well-enforced decision hierarchies and rigid pay grades," he said.

But if he wanted a machine, he could buy one. McElrath said he wants his employees to be the people they are—the good and the bad. 

"We want our people to be able to behave like people, through all their ups and downs, which means we try to treat each other with dignity and respect and lots of grace," he said. 

At Delegator—a company founded by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs to help growing businesses focus on their core mission and produce results—the unique office culture is one of the things that draws and keeps employees, COO Andrew Scarbrough said. 

The business has modular desks, and some employees use standing desks. At morning meetings, employees get free drinks: juice in the mornings, energy drinks for developers and tea for graphic designers. 

"Delegator's office culture is anything but traditional," he said in a prepared statement. "From regular pingpong breaks to the rooftop lounge we're building on top of our Market Street headquarters, we aim to provide our team with various outlets to recharge their creative and data mojo."

At Southtree.com—a company that digitizes old videos and photos—there is no dress code and there's loud music, founder Nick Macco said via email. 
 

"We even have a company library and reward employees who read with Starbucks gift cards," he said. "It's common sense; if we like something—wearing flip-flops, a good chair or fresh coffee—it's likely our team will, also."

At Southtree, these sorts of nontraditional features go along with a culture of open communication. Leaders want feedback and suggestions for possible improvement, he said. 

They allow the company to stay agile and to constantly improve workflow as the company grows. All the features have helped the company attract "hardworking, intelligent, awesome people." And that's invaluable, Macco said. 

"It also means our team knows we value them and listen," he said. 

A nontraditional culture might be easier for a new company staffed by younger people to achieve, although McElrath said it's possible for older organizations to transform.

But leaders can't be afraid of change; they can't be attached to the "command and control mantra" and status quo, he said. 

"I do think it is possible for even older organizations to transform their culture, as long as they are willing to give up their existing immunity to change," he said. "I've seen it happen. To the degree that they are willing to face their greatest fears (most of which are mythological and even irrational), I think they will begin to look more like many of the younger startups around Chattanooga." 

Print
Reader's Recap
Daily news delivered directly to your inbox.   sign up
Press Esc to close