Watch: How to build a company culture that isn’t office-centric

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Contrary to popular opinion, company culture is not a nebulous thing spun out of nothing.

It is a living, breathing reaction to big choices that employers make about things like perks and training and performance assessments, and to little choices we all make every day—about how we greet one another, how we conduct ourselves in meetings, and whether we socialize at lunchtime or not.

If you accept this, then you also accept that culture does not have a physical address. Yet many of us consider our company cultures to be bound up in our offices—which does not bode well when you’re working remotely or building a hybrid workplace.

On Oct. 28, Quartz held a workshop on how to create a company culture that’s not tethered to the office. The hour-long panel, part of our Quartz at Work (from anywhere) event series, was sponsored by SAP SuccessFactors. Click the large image at the top of this page for the complete video replay, and read on for the key takeaways from our panelists.

Consider making “listening” a cultural value at your company

Doniel Sutton, chief people officer at Fastly, says this is especially important when you are sorting out changes in people’s work locations or schedules. “I think in a lot of companies as we’ve seen over the last year, some of the biggest and most innovative companies, like Google and Apple, have struggled to really figure this out. And it’s because it’s complex and you’re dealing with human emotion and it’s not something for which you can just introduce technology as a solution.”

At Fastly, Sutton says, through “listening circles,” Slack channels, and employee surveys, “We’re listening a lot, we’re asking a lot of questions, we’re gathering a lot of feedback, and we’re acting on that.”

Consider building a network of cultural ambassadors, like Fastly’s “employee experience champions”

When Sutton’s team sent out an open invitation a few months ago to join its new network, 130 employees (out of fewer than 1,000 total) answered the call. The group has become a think tank and a sounding board on a variety of topics, including performance management.

“We were really surprised at the resounding level of interest in being part of this,” Sutton says. Importantly, she notes, “it’s not just those who are rah-rah and extremely supportive, it’s those who’ve been around for a long time and have experienced a lot of our programs and initiatives and want to see change, so they’re very vocal, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”

Remember where culture comes from

Normally, culture is communicated through three major means, says André Spicer, an organizational behavior professor and head of the faculty of management at Bayes Business School in London. There is the physical space and artifacts of the company, there are the things people say (i.e. the mantras and phrases you might hear repeated by leaders at a town-hall meeting), and there are the deeper values embedded in a company’s business or practices.

In the pandemic, Spicer says, “you’ve moved from this situation where you have a culture communicated through these artifacts to a culture which is more communicated by words. That has big implications for movement from a kind of ‘thick culture,’ where all of your senses are being reminded and triggered to reinforce that culture, to a rather ‘thin culture,’ where the culture is just coming to you on the screen which is in front of you—it’s not surrounding you.”

You may have to take steps to make up for that, whether in clarifying the language you use to communicate culture, bringing people together on occasion for formal meetings or casual meetups, or taking inventory of the deeper values and ensuring they ring true to employees based on their everyday experiences on the job. “What a lot of the evidence shows now is that the way in which culture is communicated and reinforced is not through words or what people say, but through practices or what people do,” Spicer says.

Remember the role for technology in reinforcing your culture

“Often when people are working in their home offices, they start to feel like they’re disconnected [from the culture]. And while they’re working more, they have less time to get things done,” observes Jill Popelka, president of the HR software provider SAP SuccessFactors. “Technology can play a role in helping you understand how your time is being allocated throughout the day. Tech also allows you to discover mentors or—and we find this one to be really important—for finding learning opportunities.”

Remember your team leaders

Middle managers are crucial nodes for communicating company culture, but between the pressures of keeping their teams happy and productive and serving their own managers, they’re likely the most overburdened group at your company. This is probably true at any time, but particularly as the pandemic has forced managers to balance these things in an environment they couldn’t have possibly prepared for.

Says Popelka, “What I’ve seen from companies who are starting to succeed and help managers [is that] they’re giving them training and opportunities to learn from each other on what works … and clear direction for them on what they need to do to  help support their teams better.”

She suggests that managers, and their managers, engage in what she called “radical prioritization.”

“Sometimes they’re struggling to know which of these 10 priorities can fall to tomorrow,” Popelka says. “As leaders and managers we have to get crisp on priorities.”

Forget the foosball tables

When Evan Powell co-founded the software maker Reprise in March 2020, he knew the company would be all remote, and that it couldn’t rely on the typical trappings of startup culture. And that was just fine by him.

“When you think of startups, you think of the foosball table, you think of the snacks, you think of the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality, which I think can be dangerous,” Powell says. “It can be inadvertently abusive to employees. The way we frame it here, I say it as. ‘work hard, be good people.’”

You may have to think differently about hiring to get the culture you want

From an organizational design standpoint, I think a lot of times with startups it can be tempting to be scrappy” and hire junior employees who are hungry to make an impact and relatively cheap to employ, Powell says. But that wasn’t the strategy at Reprise, which makes software for designing product demos and has grown in the pandemic to 100 employees. Understanding that the company would be all-remote, “we brought in senior people first to build out some systems, so that when we brought someone in who was junior, they didn’t have to figure out how things worked without someone right next to them.”

Fastly’s Sutton echoed the point, saying you “may have to invest in more skilled labor.” Going remote in the pandemic, she says, “has changed the makeup of the talent that we recruit.”

Don’t leave culture to chance—be deliberate about it

“You do need to force it” when you’re remote, Powell says. At Reprise, each department holds office hours every week to promote learning and collaboration; during “Watercooler Wednesdays,” everyone gets paired up randomly with someone in another part of the company, for a conversation on a suggested topic. Then everyone gathers and shares what they learned.

SAP SuccessFactors promotes “Focus Fridays,” where staff is encouraged to get out for a bit, and take calls on a walk instead of at a desk. “It hasn’t affected productivity at all,” Popelka notes. She also is sure to include something fun or personal at every team meeting. “Be vulnerable,” she says. “Talk about something at the beginning or end of the meeting that’s just human—if that’s your pet or your kid, or the fact that the leaf blower is right outside your door at a really inconvenient time, we’ve all experienced these things, so let’s bring them up and have a little fun with them.”

Study your culture like an ethnographer would

“If culture is more about practices than words, and we learn about the way to be around here by seeing what people are doing, then you need to observe the practices,” Spicer says. For a project with a UK financial company, he is encouraging leaders to apply “ethnographic methods,” of the kinds used to understand neighborhoods and small societies, to take inventory what their people do on a daily basis, and to identify tensions “between what they say the culture is and what people think the culture is.”

This kind of work is perhaps harder to complete in a remote environment, but it can include things like observing a Zoom meeting and figuring out the practices you want to preserve, and the ones you want to root out.

Appreciate where your culture lives, particularly when people are working remotely

“A lot of times people think that you lose the in-person nature of things when you’re not in an office,” Reprise’s Powell says. “But our company exists in all of our employees’ homes—we’ve sort of broken down that barrier. So there’s a sense of genuineness that we have to have, that we’re able to have, as a remote company, [in] that we’re part of people’s lives. I have employees who block 2:45pm to 3:15pm every day so they can go pick up their kids after school.”

In other words, their workplace culture and their home culture are inextricably enmeshed.