Our top ten books on company culture

If your office bookshelves are looking a little bare, or you’re in the mood for gift-giving, now’s a great time to pick up some reading material.

It’s too easy to get your knowledge in bite-sized chunks these days, but there’s nothing like getting your teeth stuck into a good long read instead. The best ideas won’t make their way into the depths of your brain with a quick skim of an article or blog post (!) - you need time and space to explore them. Books are the way to go.  

The world of work is having a bit of an existential crisis these days, which makes for a great landscape of 'thought leadership’. Business leaders, academics and commentators all have lots to say about how we should be doing things at work.

So here are the best company culture books from the past year or two that’ll help you see things in a different light, and set a new course for your business.

(We’ve included some links for convenience - there’s no affiliation, we’re not making any money if you click, and you’re just as welcome to request them at your local library instead.)

Company culture books

1) It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work - Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

A distillation of wisdom from two sensible thinkers in the world of company culture - the authors of Rework and founders of Basecamp.

This book is about their new strategy for an ideal company culture - the ‘calm company’. No stress, anxiety, office politics, excessive workload or pointless meetings. Just a level-headed way of doing things based on what actually works.

They say it’s time to stop being proud of missing sleep or staying late at the office - we agree. They say unlimited holiday allowance does’t work, but people need to take more holidays - we agree. Definitely worth a read.

Available here.

2) Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World - David Epstein

Pushing back against the 10,000 hours to success concept, Epstein argues that instead of laser-focusing our attention on the mastery of one subject, we should widen our skills and gain a breadth of experience. By developing range, he says, we can gain a stronger hold on areas like business, sport, music and more.

Taking these lessons into people management - will helping your employees broaden their skill set instead of specialising, make them more effective? You might have to read it to find out.

Link to book.

3) Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business - John Mackey & Raj Sisodia

John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods Market, the eco-friendly supermarket now owned by Amazon. Reimagining an economic system is a bit ambitious, but having spent his career building a business that’s kinder to the planet, he knows a thing or two. He also made a ton of money along the way, so it’s a story worth reading.

'Conscious Capitalism’ aims to serve customers, employees, suppliers, investors, society, and the environment. Easy!

(If you’re considering how to transform your own business into a force for good, why not consider becoming a B Corp?)

Link to book.

4) Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable - Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons's previous book Disrupted was a hilarious look into his journey into new employment as a 50-something, when he joined HubSpot - a deeply weird, cult-like marketing startup in Boston. His cynical eye for seeing through wide-eyed corporate guff got him a job as a writer for the excellent comedy show Silicon Valley.

Lyons’ second book provides a more targeted skewering to the ridiculousness of corporate life - “Personality tests. Team-building exercises. Forced fun. Desktop surveillance. Open-plan offices. Management fads.” Startup life being a "beanbag dystopia” is a phrase I particularly enjoyed.

Available here.

5) Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It - David Graeber

A nice complement to Dan Lyons, this angrier tome is written by a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. It’s a hilarious and nightmareish look into the world of utterly pointless jobs, which have grown in number throughout the digital age. It’s a useful reminder that people need to feel valued in whatever they do.

Get your copy.

6) Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World - Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

There are some big delusions we all participate in throughout the workplace. The authors of this book claim we’re victim to many such faulty assumptions at work, and offer ways of doing things differently for the good of managers and employees.

Ideas like "people don't want constant feedback, they want helpful attention” and “people care more about the teams they work for than the companies” are challenging but evidence-backed. The authors actually argue company culture isn’t as important as insightful employee data. Depends on how you look at it, but we could be persuaded.

Pick up a copy.

7) The Emotionally-Intelligent Office: 20 Key Emotional Skills for the Workplace - The School of Life

The School of Life is an organisation that teaches how to live, love and work, led by philosopher Alain de Botton. They’re big on self-knowledge, compassion, and honesty without being prescriptive. So a book like this is their forté - "in-depth exploration of what really lies behind our problematic behavioural patterns in the workplace, and a blueprint for the emotional skills we need to overcome them.”

Get the book.

8) Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That Is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World - Erica Keswin

This one wins the prize for longest title. But it’s a thoughtful, evidence-backed call for better relationships in the workplace. Keswin uses loads of case studies to show how respecting staff wellbeing, autonomy and relationships can lead to better performance.  

"The most successful leaders are those who actively form quality relationships with their employees, who honor fundamental human qualities-authenticity, openness, and basic politeness-and apply them day in and day out. Paying attention and genuinely caring about the effects people have on one another other is key to developing a winning culture where people perform at the top of their game and want to work."

Link to book.

9) The Joy of Work - 30 Ways to Fix Your Work Culture and Fall in Love with Your Job Again - Bruce Daisley

The title makes it sound suspiciously like a boss wrote it to fire up his underperforming staff, but it’s actually the real deal. Daisley backs up his ideas with actual experiments:

"Are lunch breaks for wimps, or do they actually make us more productive? Is it true that you can improve team performance simply by moving the location of the kettle or coffee machine? Why are meetings so often a waste of time, and how can they be fixed?”

If you’ve ever been in an office job and thought “surely we could do things a bit better?” - as a manager or employee, this one’s for you.

Available here.

10 - Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup - John Carreyrou

This is a fabulously readable 'what not to do’ guide. It’s an award-winning story of the astronomical rise and fall of Theranos, a multi-billion-dollar medical tech company that was based on a product that basically didn’t work. If you want a healthy and stable company culture, just don’t do what Theranos did.

Available here.