As the pandemic turned previously office-bound businesses into remote workplaces literally overnight, a common concern among executives was whether their company culture would survive. Yes, they could run on fumes for a bit, relying on long-standing relationships and ingrained behaviors to keep some semblance of their culture alive in the digital realm. And they largely succeeded in this. Of the 2,100 people around the world surveyed in July 2020 by Quartz and Qualtrics, 85% said their work culture was the same or better than it had been before the pandemic, while just 15% said it had deteriorated.
But what would it mean to go months, and now the better part of two years, without regularly rubbing shoulders in the hallways or hosting holiday parties or exchanging feedback face to face? How could cultures that were once defined by swank furnishings or kombucha on tap in the communal kitchen jump off a screen and into people’s home offices? How could the values at the heart of a culture be instilled in new employees who were onboarding virtually?
We have good news and bad news about what happens next.
WHERE CULTURE LIVES
The bad news: Unless every single one of your employees is at the office every day, you can no longer make the physical workplace the centerpiece of your culture.
The good news: Your culture was always about more than that, whether you realized it or not, which means there are plenty of levers left to pull to nurture the culture you want.
Here are just some of the many places where your company culture exists, far beyond the kombucha bar:
📣 Language choices: It might be time to lose the sports metaphors.
💻 Meeting norms: Does everyone have a chance to speak?
🏖️ Time-off policies: Mozilla shuts the whole company down one week a year.
🙂 Inclusion efforts: Don’t let personal discomfort become a roadblock.
👨👩👦👦 The way you describe your team: Maybe a company is more like a village than a family.
❓ The way your team deals with doubt: Do you banish it or incorporate it?
📥 The digital work tools you give people: There’s a whole new wave of apps to choose from.
🧢 The swag you hand out: Read for some unusual suggestions.
😛 How you help folks unwind: Like a virtual escape room.
👋 How you treat people departing for new jobs: There’s a way to do it gracefully.
Note that none of these places where culture lives requires a physical address.
TRY THIS EXERCISE
When I think about the indicators of culture that drew me to Quartz, my mind always goes first to Janet Yellen—or, more specifically, to the printed-out photo of her that used to adorn the otherwise unmarked door to the women’s restroom at Quartz. (The men’s room was delineated with a picture of Ben Bernanke.) When I came upon the photos during a restroom break between interviews, I knew I had found my people.
Aha, you are thinking. This is an example of a physical manifestation of culture, one you wouldn’t ever come across in a remote environment! That’s true. But ultimately it wasn’t the photos of the former Fed chairs that told me, a former banking reporter who tends to find business news much too stuffy, that I was home, professionally speaking. It was the sensibility that led someone to put those print-outs there in the first place. Once Quartz became a remote-first company, I still encountered that same sensibility, whether in the irreverent banter on our Slack channels for business and finance, or in the earnest request from our newsletter team to have me write a Quartz Obsession email about Jamie Dimon (I said yes, so stay tuned).
Here’s an exercise: Write down the markers of your company culture. Next, screen them for the values you want your culture to reflect. If the norms are exclusionary, or promote burnout, or create an unhealthy amount of competitiveness, it’s time to change them. If they still sit well with you but they revolve around the office, think about where else—or how else—you might capture some of the same magic.
GOING OFF THE RAILS
Crucial as it is to build culture deliberately, and with a growth mindset, it’s also important to be able to spot when things are souring.
In 2019, public relations firm Weber Shandwick reached out to crisis PR practitioners and asked: “What conditions typically precipitate cultural crises?” These were the six most commonly cited signs of brewing trouble:
- Inadequate investments in people
- A lack of accountability
- A lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Poor behavior at the top
- High-pressure environments
- Unclear ethical standards
Read more here.
“I would contend that a company with a strong identity demonstrates small, distinctive behaviors that run through its daily existence. They may not be written down (in fact they’re often more powerful when they aren’t) but they are known and shared. They need to be consistent with what the company does, with its stated mission, and with what the people who work there believe. They need to be endorsed by the CEO, or they wither. They’re specific, not universal. After all, the principles and behaviors that work for one company aren’t necessarily right for another.”—John Shaw, chief strategy and innovation officer, Superunion
Read John’s complete article in Quartz at Work: Without an office, what defines a workplace?
READING (AND WATCHING AND LISTENING) LIST
On remote cultures…
- Watch: Quartz at Work’s workshop on building company culture remotely. With some 17th-century history, a recent case study, and a wealth of remote knowhow, our expert panel will advise you on how to center your culture when everyone is spread out.
- How global teams build trust quickly. Trust is the bedrock of any healthy culture. Read this to find out how companies can build what the academics refer to as “swift trust formation.”
- There are two kinds of trust. HBS professor Tsedal Neeley explains what it takes for remote teams to trust one another.
On company culture in general…
- The surprising fragility of company culture. A sale to a global conglomerate nearly broke the culture at C Space. A rebuilding effort paid off—until the revamped culture went awry, too. Read the story of how one company twice confronted the challenges of a cultural redesign.
- The Good Girls Revolt. Former Newsweek editor Lynn Povich’s 2012 book tells the true story of how she and her female colleagues rewired the news magazine’s deeply sexist culture. (The story also served as the basis of an entertaining but short-lived TV series.)
- Culture reboot. On episode 76 of business coach Jerry Colonna’s Reboot podcast, former Netflix executive Patty McCord makes the compelling case for why radical transparency is the hallmark of a healthy company culture.
Have a great weekend,
—Heather Landy, Quartz executive editor (and one of many keepers of Quartz’s culture)
One ✊ thing
If you’re ready for a radical culture overhaul that centers the values of equality and inclusion, get inspired with Quartz at Work reporter Lila MacLellan’s thought-provoking article: How to run a feminist company.