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How to maintain a collaborative workplace at scale

Collaboration is a startup cliche. Here’s a primer on keeping that as your company grows.

Piano’s North American staff at their winter 2021 holiday party. Kneeling, left to right, is CEO Trevor Kaufman and COO Kweli Washington. (Courtesy photo)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink,’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.

Kweli Washington has gotten it wrong before.

That’s not something to expect of this polished Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar turned tech executive. He’s now the COO of Piano, the 650-person digital customer behavior firm with staff in 13 countries. The company, with clients including LinkedIn, Nielsen and NBC Sports, maintains a headquarters in Old City Philadelphia and is opening a retail flagship in Manhattan but has aggressively grown through acquisition in Europe.

This month, the company acquired 20-person SocialFlow for “under $50 million” and last year raised a $88 million Series C. Both moves fit an aggressive growth strategy that has come with challenges. Years back, after the initial fanfare of an early acquisition of a European company, all of Piano’s executives went back home to the United States.

“We didn’t have a sustained presence over time,” said Washington, 46. “There was a growth in the perception that we didn’t care as much.”

That puts team culture, morale and a spirit of collaboration at risk. It took concerted effort to reverse that early source of mistrust between acquirer and the acquired. What Washington now calls a “mistake” is an effective reminder that a fast-growing company has to continually revisit, and reinforce, its values.

Consider collaboration — so honored a characteristic that it has become a startup cliche. It’s a lot easier to encourage idea sharing between your product, engineering and marketing teams when you’re a team of five. That’s harder at 20, 50, 100 and 200 employees. It’s something else entirely when you’re acquiring companies or making a blistering path toward taking your company public.

Surging private-market business investing has increased the number of so-called hypergrowth companies, which has encouraged an academic discipline in scaling company culture growth. How to protect company culture as your company grows? Define company culture and your employee value proposition; develop a digital library of resources and standard operating procedures; and invest in top-flight managers, who translate vision into daily practice.

Washington has thought a lot about how these and other lessons translate for maintaining a collaborative workplace as your company grows.

Define company culture with clear observable behaviors

Washington started with Piano in 2014 when the company only had 15 employees and was named COO in 2017. He was always an executive but he says he takes the mechanics of operations seriously. He says his title could be “Chief Wiping-Up-Coffee-from-the-Counter Officer.”

It’s the little things, he says. That’s an example of what researchers might call an “observable behavior” that demonstrates collaboration. Those moments stick with other employees who reinforce the value across company growth.

Washington says he also does this by prioritizing his use of “we” and “our” not “I’ and “my.” (One caveat on that: I was once advised to use “we” for a win and use “I” when accepting responsibility for a loss.)

To match Piano’s global ambitions, Washington prioritizes international experience in their hiring — work, study and pleasure all welcome. That hiring pattern reinforces it as priority and, Washington says, happens to be a quality that lends itself to open-minded, collaborative professionals.

Develop written standard operating procedures

Few, if any, companies do this perfectly but it’s worth pursuing. To scale priorities, it takes a digital library of resources (templates, employee handbook, etc.) that can formalize characteristics like collaboration that individual contributors reinforce. This starts with on-boarding but it goes well beyond it. Managers should constantly encourage these to be updated.

Early on, companies rely on high-performing employees to translate between teams and procedures. That is made difficult as more teammates are added to the process. It’s crucial to get systems and processes recorded for others to follow, even if cross-team sharing will still prove necessary.

Invest in managers who are ‘cultural ambassadors’

A founder might set an early vision. Quickly as a company grows, the quality of its managers are crucial for the transfer of culture, especially cross-departmental collaboration.

Research by Gallup uses “noise” inside an organization (the inconsistency of employee action and company strategy) as a metric for organizational health. Some noise is healthy; that’s how new ideas and approaches develop for an organization to grow. Too much is chaos. That research points to a straightforward solution: better trained, supported and informed managers.

One rule for Washington: “no phone throwers,” a reference to the tantrums he saw from some Wall Street executives early in his career. No matter their skill or knowledge, don’t keep jerks around, he says.

Plan for the announcement as much as the decision

Startup leaders pride themselves on making quick decisions. Corporates and big institutions have a reputation for being slower-moving. When done thoughtfully, that can be for good reason.

“One of the hallmarks of larger organizations is that communication gets increasingly difficult,” Washington said. “It needs to be pursued with greater intention.”

Some of that is logistical. Washington said Piano has invested in the technology for higher-quality video calls, and the company puts a heavy emphasis on language learning given their intercontinental footprint. Much of it is strategy. Leadership considers how a company update will be received across time zones and cultures and team contexts. It takes more time but it prioritizes a focus on cross-departmental coordination.


What did Washington learn from Piano’s early falter in Europe?

After a big acquisition, plan to have an existing senior executive on site for at least the first six months to a year, and pre-schedule cross-team social events for at least that long. Assume there are local differences and identify them as quickly as possible.

It seems he lived by his advice. In September 2020, he worked from their Amsterdam offices so he could also be in the same time zone as a French acquisition. His family stayed in Philadelphia, and he’d only get to visit them every four to six weeks, but it demonstrated the company’s investment and values, even though he’s back home.

As Washington put it: “Collaboration is all about sharing what we’ve learned.”

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Companies: Piano
Series: How to Work Remotely / Builders

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