Corporate culture. It’s every C-suiter’s favorite buzz phrase. But at the smartest companies, it’s not just empty jargon. Because when it comes to the retention, recruitment, advancement and satisfaction of top talent, culture can be make-or-break.

There’s no quick fix for building a healthy, successful culture, but there’s simply no way to do it without thinking experientially. No one companywide BBQ featuring the local star quarterback will fix your company’s problems or foster feverishly devoted employees.

It takes consistent, sustained and intentional experiences to build a great culture. And fun for fun’s sake will produce short-lived gains. The best cultural experiences don’t distract from the company’s core business—they amplify it.

Big Spaceship grows buy-in through hack-a-thons.

Big companies often top the list when it comes to best corporate cultures. Apple. Google. You know the ones. But smaller players can have just as big a punch. Just look at media firm Big Spaceship.

A partner to well-known brands worldwide, Spaceship’s business depends on having a creatively fulfilled, bought-in workforce. Not only do they have a published manual of unstandardized operating procedures (written in plain English, to boot) but they also have a regular internal annual event called Hack Day.

On Hack Day, employees shelve their regular work and make something interesting and innovative together. The goal? Use some open-ended creativity to make the world a little better. 2016’s Hack Day contained projects like Emoji Combat, virtual reality “happy places” and a presidential meme aggregator.

Management uses these Hack Days to get employees more invested in the company’s culture. For example, on Hack Day 2015 participants were tasked with designing aspects of the agency’s new floorplan before moving office buildings. Big Spaceship Founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz told Little Black Book that it “seemed like an opportunity where we could get people extremely excited about the new space and what’s coming forward and how it’s going to open up new possibilities.”

Get Experienced

Receive new articles from Experiential Review as soon as they’re published, straight to your inbox.

Having people thinking about organizational design ... will mean they are thinking about how we work as a culture [and] as an organism.

Michael LebowitzFounder and CEO, Big Spaceship

While Hack Day is a day when client work is traded in for creative exploration, Big Spaceship proves how hacking the system can actually lead to neat innovation and more buy-in from employees, buy-in that ultimately benefits the clients they serve.

Bringing the C-suite to the ground floor.

No list regarding exemplary corporate cultures would be complete without adding one of the biggest names in corporate America. Costco Wholesale actually dethroned Google this past year in taking the title of America’s favorite employer by the Comparably Awards and Forbes has ranked them in the top three employers in the U.S. for the past few years. So what makes this big box retailer one of America’s favorite places to work? The culture.

Yes, Costco maintains good benefits and high wages for its employees. But what makes the difference in creating a truly unique, de-siloed culture is its down-to-earth management. During his tenure as CEO, Costco founder James Sinegal spent 200 days each year at Costco warehouses across the country to “lead from the floor.”

Taking the C-suite from the corner office to talk to the folks implementing the work doesn’t just help employees feel valued and more closely connected to the core company, it’s also often the only way to spot major problems. Not to mention, it just plain works. Retail giant Mattress Firm took a similar approach with bringing their entire upper management to stores across the country in a public speaking series. The results? Employee engagement skyrocketed and sales were boosted by 20 percent in stores they visited.

Organizing unconventional moments.

Outdoor retail cooperative REI has always been intentional about its corporate culture and values. Since 1938, the company has been very intentional in safeguarding and driving from its mission and values, which explains why it has made the Forbes annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list for over 21 years. Former REI CEO Dennis Madsen chalks this favorability up to the culture. Harvard Business Review says the company’s values drive every level of the organization:

It’s all about getting the culture right. Employees can get benefits and incentives anywhere, but it’s harder for them to find a place where they can totally immerse themselves in the culture.

Dennis MadsenFormer REI CEO, 1966-2005

No better signal that REI lives in accordance with this mission is its annual #OptOutside experience. Since 2015, REI stores (and its website) actually close on Black Friday to give their 13,000+ employees the chance to enjoy the great outdoors, as well as encouraging others to do the same. Branded under this hashtag, this day brings employees together under an umbrella that signals, internally and externally, that REI practices what it preaches. This company-wide win took an unconventional approach to create a worthwhile experience—forsaking short-term Black Friday sales—and it paid off handsomely.

The takeaway? Companies can seize the opportunity of the wide world of experience. Ultimately, if used correctly, experiences can increase employee investment, boost sales and solidify the image of the company in the eye of the public. And that’s what we call a win-win-win.

Sasha Blake

Author Sasha Blake

More posts by Sasha Blake