Read on to find out how to build a winning team culture. An engineering team with a strong culture is the backbone of any great tech company.
Engineers are the beating heart of every tech company, so creating a stimulating environment in which they can produce their best work should be a priority.
Spotify knows that. This music streaming giant has a working culture that’s often examined and emulated—and for good reason.
In this article, we’ll explore Spotify’s core values that can inspire you to create a great engineering culture.
Table of contents
Put effort into collaboration
One of Spotify’s core values is strong collaboration.
They know that working well together is vital for efficiency and productivity—and their distinct organizational structure makes it especially important.
Spotify doesn’t have a traditional company hierarchy with managers, assistant managers, senior and junior engineers, etc.
Instead, they have a model that allows a high level of autonomy. They structure employees into:
All of those units work independently with lots of freedom, but they’re not in their own bubbles; collaboration is necessary for good results.
That’s most evident in chapters.
As you can see in the image above, chapters connect autonomous squads. They consist of specialists with similar skills who work together on overcoming challenges.
However, the organizational structure isn’t the only thing that fosters collaboration at Spotify.
Their Social team within the HR team is also focused on bringing people together in different settings.
As Sally Whatley, their former Global Head of Px, explains, they aim to form a stronger sense of belonging to the team.
With that goal in mind, at Spotify, they often organize different events that help employees bond, resulting in stronger collaboration.
The company also shares those moments on social media under the #LifeAtSpotify tag to show how unique their work life is.
Although it might seem like having fun at work and connecting with other engineers doesn’t have much to do with the success of the projects that the employees work on, at Spotify, they disagree.
As they say, socializing in casual environments strengthens bonds between employees, so they’re more comfortable working together, too.
“Spotifiers form bonds with colleagues across the company and involve others in their work, creating opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, and more creative problem-solving.”
Putting some effort into collaboration can also be very beneficial for the engineering culture in your company.
You don’t have to organize elaborate events or copy Spotify’s organizational structure; encouraging solving problems together or occasional bonding experiences can go a long way in fostering collaboration among your engineers.
Always be honest with yourself and others
Honesty is the best policy—and a core value at Spotify, which helps them build a great engineering culture.
And it seems like they’re not wrong. According to a survey by Fierce, most employees consider honesty at the workplace very important, even for the results of the whole company.
At Spotify, they practice sincerity through open communication and valuing feedback.
As Johan Sellgren, their Global HR Business Partner, explains, they prefer coaching and feedback over measuring performance through project management tools.
Most of the feedback comes in 1-on-1 sessions, where their goal is to approach their employees with sincerity.
In addition to these meetings, they practice development talks.
According to Sellgren, these talks happen twice a year, and the goal is an honest and in-depth conversation about the developers’ ambitions for the future.
Johanna Bolin Tingvall, Global Head of GreenHouse at Spotify, details how the employees initiate the development talks in order to get feedback from their peers.
That shows that sincerity isn’t forced on Spotify’s employees by the upper management; employees actively seek it to improve.
Transparency at Spotify starts at the top. Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of the company, shares the news with all employees every three weeks at “town hall meetings”.
He informs the employees whether there is news about new features, their competitors, or anything else regarding the company.
Furthermore, they can openly voice their opinions in town hall meetings.
For example, that’s what happened in February when there was a particularly lively town hall meeting about Joe Rogan, Spotify’s controversial podcasting star.
Ek addressed some employees’ concerns and explained his view on the topic. The point is that he stuck to the core value of sincerity that Spotify promotes, which stands in their manifesto.
“We lead by transparency and engage with open minds. Creating something new requires trust, so candid feedback delivered with good intent is at the heart of everything we do.”
Practicing sincerity throughout the company can significantly impact your engineering culture; employees are happier, more productive, and motivated when they work in a transparent environment.
Help to build communities of interest
Strengthening relationships between its engineers helps Spotify build a great engineering culture; they do it in a few different ways.
As we mentioned earlier, Spotify doesn’t have a traditional organizational structure with its squads, tribes, chapters, and guilds.
One of these organizational units is focused on connecting employees with similar interests; in other words, on building communities of interest.
We’re talking about guilds, which group people across the organization regardless of the role or project they’re working on.
As you can see, guilds rise above the boundaries of other organizational units like squads or tribes, which are primarily built around a project or other work-related element.
Guilds can also be formed around the professional interests of engineers but also around non-work-related hobbies.
As Anders Ivarsson, Spotify’s former Engineering Lead, describes, a guild can be formed around Java or C++, but also around photography or brewing craft beer.
It’s an organic way to bring people together and form strong connections by emphasizing the interest they have in common.
For instance, below, you can see a “Web Guild Unconference”, an event that brought together all the members of a web developer guild at Spotify to discuss their interests and challenges in their field.
In addition to an organizational structure that encourages building communities of interest, Spotify nurtures a passion for what they’ve built their success on—music.
Music is played on speakers throughout the office, but employees can also actively indulge in their passion for music by jamming during their breaks; everything is already set up for them.
Hobbies other than music are also encouraged. As Sally Whatley describes, there’s space for arts and crafts, as well as for yoga or workouts.
Besides being good for the body and brain, at Spotify, they clearly know that encouraging communities around shared interests can inspire great workplace culture, including an engineering one.
Data supports those beliefs. According to a Wildgoose survey, forming friendships at work has many benefits. For example, 57% of participants claim that it makes work more enjoyable.
It’s good for the company, too—22% of participants believe friendships make them more productive, and 21% feel more creative.
That’s a clear indication that building communities of interest can inspire a great engineering culture in which employees will be happier, more productive, and more creative.
Practice listening, but also responding
One of Spotify’s values is providing its engineers with what they need to perform to the best of their abilities. For that, listening and responding to their needs is essential.
That starts as early as the recruitment process.
Sally Whatley explains how candidates usually have a clear idea of what values, benefits, and perks are important to them; the company’s job is to listen and provide them with it.
However, as she says, potential engineers often don’t prioritize having foosball tables or free snacks at the office.
They mostly want learning and development opportunities, a chance to have an impact, and a work environment that allows them to be themselves—and the company responds by providing all of that.
Perks are still here, but they’re aligned to the company culture. For example, music listening rooms perfectly correspond to the company culture.
The company also listens to the specific workplace needs of its engineers.
They provide them with a working environment suited to the nature of their work—grouping them in the same area to facilitate collaboration, providing them with enough space for meetings and plenty of whiteboards.
You can see their typical engineering office below.
Spotify also practiced listening and responding to their employees’ needs in recent times when they worked remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the company described, they surveyed employees to learn about their concerns, well-being, and the ways they can support them.
As a result of listening to employees’ needs, the company adopted a “work from anywhere” policy. Also, they gave them the first week of the month off to recharge from the stress.
Adam Winer, Spotify’s Head of Content Strategy, explained that they work extra hard on respect work/life balance.
“The last thing I want from everyone on my team is that they work so hard over these past six months that they quit and I don’t have them for the next six years.”
At Spotify, they’re aware that practicing listening and responding leads to a healthy workplace culture.
They emphasize that in their company manifesto.
Engineers can thrive in that sort of environment; the company pays attention to their needs and removes any obstacles that can get in the way of their work.
It sounds simple, but still, it’s vital for the engineering culture.
Feel free to be playful
A relaxed work atmosphere can be an important part of great engineering culture.
At Spotify, they know that playfulness sparks creativity and connections, so they provide ample opportunities for unwinding.
Playfulness is one of their core values which they point out in their Band Manifesto.
Of course, at Spotify, they don’t just permit their employees to be playful; they organize opportunities for them to practice that.
As Sally Whatley explains, that includes fun activities for employees and their families.
They believe that having fun with families strengthens loyalty to the company and a sense of belonging.
What also strengthens a sense of belonging is celebrating the company’s successes.
For example, in 2016, they celebrated the 10th anniversary of the company with a big party called Celebration X.
It was the biggest event of that sort in their history, and they made sure everyone had fun.
It was two days of fun for 2500 employees filled with music, concerts, dancing, partying—in short, celebrating.
They even organized Spotify’s Got Talent, a talent show where the employees could show off their skills in anything they wanted.
However, you don’t need huge events like that to encourage playfulness.
As we mentioned earlier, Spotify offers various perks and benefits to its employees.
Among them is a great gaming room —and what’s better for a playful environment than being able to play?
Constantly being on the grind with no room for relaxing isn’t a good indication of healthy workplace culture.
Engineers especially dislike work without opportunities to be creative and express themselves in their job.
It’s a highly creative field, and being able to unwind at the workplace can get those creative juices flowing.
As Asaf Weinberg puts it, there’s no engineering without creativity.
“Every time a developer writes code, he is taking a non-deterministic path towards an unknown solution. a unique solution that has never been created before.”
Therefore, playfulness is essential to inspire great engineering culture; they mastered that at Spotify, and there’s no reason not to walk in their shoes.
Spotify’s global success is a story that can be examined from many angles.
Of course, they have an industry-leading product and millions of users, and they also grow more each day.
However, would it be like that if they didn’t have a great engineering culture? That’s the real question.
A company’s core values should shape every level of it, from top to bottom. That’s the case at Spotify, and it allows its engineers to work in a culture that is shaped around them.
Taking inspiration from that can be a game-changer.