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Patrick Springer, Published December 12 2012

Making work more than a job

FARGO – Brent Teiken awoke from risky neurosurgery to correct a chronic problem with double vision with a new outlook on life and work.

He wanted his professional life to be fun and rewarding, and that idea would be the animating vision behind a company he co-founded called Sundog.

“Creative people can go anywhere,” the chief executive of the Fargo-based firm, which blends marketing and technology, told an audience Wednesday. “Why would they want to work for Sundog in Fargo?

“We have to have a competitive advantage,” Teiken added. “I feel that our culture is one of the greatest competitive advantages we have at Sundog.”

Today, Sundog has an average of 120 applicants for openings, with some positions attracting 200 or 250. It was named one of Advertising Age’s best places to work last year and this year.

Hallmarks of the firm’s informal work culture include voluntary “Funday Monday,” “Tech Talks” about new technologies, and monthly after-work parties, “Friday Four O’Clocks.”

Instilling a culture of camaraderie not only makes work more enjoyable, it’s also more productive and more profitable, Teiken came to learn.

For instance, a study has shown that the happiest employees spend more than twice the time on task than the least happy.

“It’s got to be more than just a job,” Teiken said, noting that employees want their work to make a difference and to contribute to something worthy.

Teiken’s talk, “Lessons Learned in Company Culture and Employee Happiness,” delivered pointers to members of The Chamber of Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo.

Sundog, whose offices occupy several floors of the Multiband Tower, strives to make the workplace feel like home, with a kitchen, fireplace and Starbucks coffee machine among the warm touches.

The essence of company culture, Teiken said, is “simply building people up.” All companies have a culture, positive or negative, accidental or intentional.

Although adults spend most of their waking hours at work, studies show people are least happy while working – a serious impediment to performance.

Some highlights for creating an inviting workplace culture:

• The commitment to fostering a creative culture must be driven by company leaders who demonstrate their dedication over time.

“Leaders have to want to inspire,” said Teiken, who said he devotes a third of his time to company culture, a third to clients and a third to operations.

• Sundog appoints a team of employees responsible for workplace culture, with members rotating on and off after a year or two. Separately, a group at the company works to cultivate women leaders.

• The company culture team has a budget equal to 5 percent of gross revenues. Culture is considered a fundamental budgeting item, similar to marketing or information technology.

• Appreciation and recognition are important, with gestures both large and small, from a simple thanks for a job well done to reward trips. Sundog has a traveling “Home plate” peer recognition trophy.

• Employees want to be members of a team. Employers should consider themselves caregivers who look out for their people. A close-knit office will feel like a family.

• Hiring employees who fit the company’s culture is very important; a cultural misfit is a costly mistake. Sundog’s first round of interviews for applicants focuses on cultural fit.

“There’s something that happens when you get that engagement and that trust,” Teiken said. “You have each other’s backs.”

Teiken offered simple advice for anyone confused about how to approach company culture: “Just start with the Golden Rule – treat others like you’d like to be treated.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522