Company culture is a way of describing unwritten rules that guide behavior at an organization.
It’s about how things get done, how ideas are shared and who will thrive in the workplace. Mission and vision statements and value words all help. Good ones help explain those unwritten rules — others are “just words painted on a wall,” said Beth Perkins.
Like a vacant lot, culture is always growing, whether you’re intentional or not, says Perkins, an HR veteran who is now the director of people and culture at 40-person digital product agency O3 World. You can end up with weeds or a cultivated garden. Culture can guide healthy behavior, or it can breed toxicity.
There is no end destination. Good cultures can turn rotten, just like that garden lost to weeds. Organizational leaders need to offer ceaseless attention and care, notes Natalie Vittese, the people and culture manager at xtraChef, a 30-person operations management platform serving the hospitality and restaurant industry.
Culture building can feel natural to many people professionals under normal circumstances. But the forced all-remote workplaces we’re now leading due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made this trickier still.
So Technical.ly invited Perkins and Vittese to have a conversation for the latest episode of The TWIJ Show, our weekly interview series focused on building better companies. We asked: “How can I build company culture virtually?”
Perkins and Vittese had complementary perspectives.
Perkins is leading culture for O3 World, a firm with a magazine spread-worthy, post-industrial chic office in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. The decade-old firm has a strong office culture, with many employees walking, bicycling and taking transit to the office for a fairly routine workday. That has been transformed over the last few months.
Vittese herself just started with xtraCHEF just weeks before stay-at-home orders swept across the U.S. Northeast. The company has dual headquarters in New York City and Philadelphia, which meant there wasn’t one codified culture. She’s had to enmesh herself in a new company culture almost entirely online.
Here are the high-level takeaways:
- Hallways are magic — Remember the serendipity and space for creation that can take place in in-person offices. Play games, make jokes or anything else that was your custom in any environment.
- It starts with leadership but should go beyond — Culture begins with founders and leaders but at its best culture extends beyond any individual.
- Go into the Zoom meeting early — Perkins advises that organizational leaders should make it a point to get to video meeting just a few minutes early to allow for chit-chat.
- Don’t force what you did in-person to the virtual realm if it doesn’t translate well — Recognize the strengths of virtual environments. That will mean much more asynchronous work; start and end times may range more. You may change your all-time and one-on-one meeting schedules. Trust.
- Experiment — Try new approaches and ideas. Be OK if something doesn’t work.
- Spend time on people — Remote environments make it very easy to operate even more efficiently than in-person. It’s OK to talk about people and feelings and experiences. It’s crucial.
- Encourage affinity groups — Whether people form bonds around cooking or parenting or about their backgrounds or living situations, these bonds are powerful. Don’t mistake them for distractions.
- Check your blindspots — Virtual environments are easier for people to feel isolated or unsupported. This is especially true if your organization lacks diversity among its leadership.
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