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Is Your Company Culture Quarantined? Here’s How To Get It Back

Joe Rosenthal,

Head of Midwest Business Development

Depending on what you use as your reference point, we’re now roughly a month into most states’ stay-at-home orders. For many companies and their workers, that’s meant adjusting to a new life of remote working. In our last piece, we shared some of our team members’ insights into what we’ve learned since going fully distributed two years ago. Based on the favorable responses we received, we decided to publish a follow-up piece focused on some of the hurdles that arise after the technical issues and logistics are handled. (Even our grandparents and kids seem to be Zoom masters now!) 

In our internal chats about what to cover, one thing kept cropping up: Culture. Once the novelty of being able to easily connect with your colleagues through Zoom or Google Hangouts subsides and the acknowledgment that Slack will keep your projects basically on track wanes, there can be a feeling that something essential has been drained away. That something, in our experience, is company culture. Although hallway chit chat, water cooler gossip, and happy hours can often get dismissed as non-productive time, there’s no mistaking that work life exists in these moments – probably at least as much as it does in scheduled meetings. In the words of ExpandTheRoom Experience Designer and Researcher Kerrin McLaughlin, it’s these moments “that separate a company from a bunch of workers.”

“You need to nurture culture right now more than ever,” says James Cole, ExpandTheRoom’s co-founder and CEO. “If it mattered before, it matters 10 times as much now.”

But how can culture, connection, and employee morale be fostered on small screens separated by hundreds or thousands of miles? On a macro level it’s not a simple solution, and every company will need to set out on their own journey to discover what works best, but fortunately there are some easy wins on the road to fostering a strong and productive company culture.

When ExpandTheRoom (ETR) decided to make the switch to a fully remote workplace, preserving culture was immediately identified as a critical piece of the puzzle. The company inventoried the situation and made a list of what specific rituals and events were informing the culture, and then decided to reinvent them rather than try to replace them. Some things made the leap and many did not.

Re-Invent Rituals To Unify Remote Teams

One-on-one meetings are a staple in most companies, but they can take on a different tenor in the remote landscape. With routine interactions intrinsically more limited, 1:1s can be modified to encompass more than work status or blocker updates. They can serve as an opportunity for more personal interaction, for example swapping tips about handling the kids or changing up the day during the current COVID crisis. It’s worth thinking about how you’re currently utilizing these meetings, and carve out – or add – time within them to build connections with colleagues.

Another company tradition in danger of being lost was a Thursday lunch that took place at the office. We used to go around the room and each person would talk about something professional and something personal. But the model ended up feeling stilted in the virtual state. There was little engagement, and people were easily distracted. Now we crowdsource a topic from the team via Slack in the week or so prior to the event. Then everyone hops on Zoom, breaks open their lunch, and enjoys being together. For some of the best lunches, the conversation starts with the prescribed topic and veers organically to unexpected places. Like anything, the more authentic the better. There’s a fine line between programming and being prescriptive. When it’s too prescriptive, it seems fake and inauthentic – or even a chore. But when it’s too loose, it can be less valuable. 

There’s perhaps no better example of finding this sweet spot than the quickly created master cut of all employees’ favorite music videos. It was an impromptu idea that within days turned into an edited piece shown at the lunch. Everyone had to guess which video belonged to which person.

After the lunch, the conversation continued on Slack and private messages reminiscing about grunge, obscure ‘80s bands, classic hip hop, and Alanis Morissette. As a rule, we’ve found that music is a great connector; everyone has stories and memories of songs they want to share.

Build Culture With Innovative Ideas

While some company customs are re-inventions, others simply spring up from the remote ether. The Google Map Tour is one example. A team member is nominated to lead a virtual tour of their life, and they use Google Maps Street View while on Zoom to lead their colleagues on a trip around their hometown. They show their house or apartment, the places they go to lunch or grab coffee, their favorite stores, where their kids play baseball, and other local points of interest. We’ve also spun it as “Where did you grow up?” These shared experiences generate empathy and understanding – and they are often pretty hilarious. 

In addition to the remote lunch, ETR conducts a monthly Knowledge Hour, which is programmed by the same small committee that organizes the lunches. The Knowledge Hour is just as it sounds: a chance for ETR team members to share their expertise and know-how with the organization. Crowdsourced curation is key; topics have included “Introduction to Databases,” “Presentation EQ,” “Content Strategy,” and “Intro to Adobe Experience Manager” – a diverse diet that promotes cross-functional expertise and builds bridges between people and departments. Of course, like the lunch, there are times when the best Knowledge Hours go off script. Recently, one of our programmers who’s based in Alaska told us about his side business making paella and how he’d made a quarantine paella from the contents of his freezer and pantry.

In another moment of inspiration, a Chrome browser extension called Netflix Party was utilized to allow the design department to all watch the same movie, a documentary about design, at the same time while chatting about it. Sometimes all it takes is some serendipitous technology discovery and a willingness to do things differently.

The same concept could apply to a lot of different industries. It could be agriculture or a food company watching something pertinent to their field. For larger companies, all of these activities can be executed at the department level to keep them more manageable. Consider combining small departments for more cross-pollination. 

Aim For Hits But Don't Fear Failure

ETR has hosted online games for some time now.  Among the successes were Jackbox, which is now a staple, and a virtual bomb defusing game called “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.” We are looking into bringing classic board games into the mix. (Zoom tip for gamers: You can share audio as well as your desktop.) On the flip side, Dungeons and Dragons didn’t work out well. The games are too long! Another miss was an app for Slack that tried to randomly connect people during the day. It was inconvenient and often clashed with peoples’ schedules. Bottom line: the value of the activity has to be high, and it’s vital to test the ideas out thoroughly before bringing them out into the harsh light of workday reality.

Along similar lines, ETR has experimented with mindfulness classes, virtual hackathons, an employee-programmed company radio station, and online exercise sessions. As Angela Kurzawa, a virtual health and fitness coach who works with companies and individuals alike, says: "In today’s environment, it is crucial for people to have options to keep their bodies moving." 

For companies like ours that work with different clients in many industries, it’s also an opportunity to become familiar with their products in unique ways. We work with a craft beer and burger franchise called Black Tap. They’re hosting a fan art program during the COVID crisis where people can design and illustrate their own CrazyShake recipes, so we’re all participating as a team and posting the art to our Instagram account.

Hiring, Managing, and Measuring Your Success

In addition to the innovations and routine adjustments noted above, it’s also important to think about how other essential company processes are affected in a remote environment. The hiring process, which is a fundamental building block of culture, can be very challenging. The interview process is different, naturally. And it’s a harder climb for new hires to get into the culture and feel a part of the company. For that reason, ETR makes a point of creating real-world interactions such as flying new team members in for all-hands orientations and holding an annual offsite. Both are currently paused due to COVID, but it’s worth mentioning for companies in the remote game for the long term that a balance between real and virtual is very important. 

And generally speaking, inasmuch as there is value in planned moments, there is also value in smaller and less scripted occasions. Since we work in relatively small teams, it’s conceivable to not see someone in day-to-day work for three to six months. As an individual you have to take the initiative to reach out and connect with your team. As with any relationship, you need to put effort into it, formalized or not.   

And then, when all is said and done, there is the issue of success. How do you define it and how do you know your culture transformation is working? Naturally, there is the work itself. Are you maintaining the high level of quality you always have and delivering for your clients the way you want to? Beyond that, you need to check in with your team often. This can happen in lots of different ways but we find regular 1:1 meetings and annual employee reviews are good vehicles. Some folks find products like Know Your Team helpful. Perhaps the best metric is employee retention. If tenure is good, there’s a good chance that culture is working for you.

“In a remote world you have to work even harder as a manager,” says Cole. “It’s important for your team to know there’s an open-door policy even when there’s no doors. That can be hard. You have to supply tools and ideas for your team. You set up events. You need to make time to talk to people individually. You really have to invest in your team.”

And still there is more to the equation. At the end of the day it’s up to individuals. All the preparation and planning in the world don’t work if the team isn’t up to the task and willing to invest in it. And really, that’s what culture is. Once the beliefs are established and a tone is set, the people are what make it all come to life, whether it’s in a real world office space or in virtual rooms scattered around the globe.

If you’re interested in brainstorming ways to instill a stronger culture in your organization, we’d be happy to chat about it. You can reach out here.

ExpandTheRoom is a full-service design and development agency formerly based in New York City. We went remote in March 2018 and haven’t looked back since.  

Joe Rosenthal

Head of Midwest Business Development