At first you thought it was a few months of working at home. Then it was just getting through the summer. Now, WINTER IS COMING! And you find yourself staring down the barrel of a long school year while working remotely. Wait… what are we going to do when it’s too cold for parks or outdoor dining? 

Could it be that our work might help us cope? I talked with three people from companies of various sizes — all of whom plan to continue their remote working arrangement and are doing their best to make it better for everyone. We discuss whether or not company culture could stop being a recruiting tactic and actually be the thing that saves us from loneliness. 

Introducing: 

So what is culture to your company? 

Culture has always been something that meant a lot in the creative world. Leave your khakis at home — wear a t-shirt and jeans. There’s beer in the fridge. There are couches in the conference room. And we play music throughout the day. (It’s how they tricked you into working long hours for low pay). However, all those perks now sound an awful lot like the setup I have in my current basement office. 

At Ample, Grey Group, Siemens, Frontgate and every other remote office in the world — we’re suddenly forced to take a hard look at what defines culture and ask ourselves, “How do we connect?” 

Mitch Beckman, an art Director at Grey Group reflected on some of the difficulties when you lose traditional ways of connecting. Namely, catered lunches and celebratory happy hours. Those just don’t work as well when you’re sitting at home, unsure of whether or not it’s your turn to talk. Instead, Mitch’s department has shrunken those interactions down to the team level. He said they’re encouraged to use video chat to connect and share conversations that used to happen naturally. 

“It sounds silly,” he said. “But knowing what people are watching on Netflix, their favorite cocktails, or their latest funny story really brings us together. One member of their team even provided a tour of their new house like an episode of  MTV cribs.” 

Since going fully remote at Ample, we’ve grown accustomed to only talking to people when we have an agenda and a calendar invite. So I’ve started Slack calling people without warning. Not to catch them red-handed… but just to chat. I think of it as popping by someone’s desk. It has resulted in some of the best conversations of my quarantine. It’s these pop up conversations where I hear about a colleague’s parent’s retirement, or their kids' disgusting habits, or another colleague’s strange ability to break their coffee maker every few months.

So maybe culture is about finding a way to connect on a smaller scale. 

Betheny Herr is the Cloud Solutions Marketing Manager at Siemens Digital Industries Software. As the length of her title suggests, she knows what she’s talking about. According to Beth, Siemens struggled to bring a defined culture to life across 300,000 employees. However, they’re taking this opportunity to create a remote workforce culture — helping people find ways to make it normal.

Take employee resource groups as an example. These are organized gatherings for people of similar interests or characteristics (young professionals, senior professionals, African American, LGBTQ, etc.) Traditionally, these meetings took place at a single location. In the past, if an employee was remote or had other commitments, they were out of luck. By shifting these online, Siemens has opened up opportunities for everyone to join in and engage. 

“This has been a huge shift and a positive one,” said Beth. “Now, these groups that focus on inclusion are truly becoming inclusive to all.” 

So maybe culture is about finding positive changes that will go beyond the quarantine.

Jason Calcitrai, a Sr. Director of Digital Operations & Marketing at Frontgate, agrees with that sentiment. He said it’s all about supporting people rather than just trying to hang on until things go “back to normal.” 

You would expect that working from home gives you more opportunity to control your own schedule and unchain yourself from the desk. At Frontgate, they were finding that to be the opposite. Jason said that they have started to make it a point to encourage people to take breaks and to take conference calls while walking. 

“We’ve even gone as far as to start encouraging meetings to end 15 min early to allow time for people to get up and stretch,” Jason said.

Jason went on to discuss the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic as well.

“Personally with my team, and company-wide, we’re making sure that people are using vacation days to unplug and recharge,” he said.  Some people don’t want to travel right now. That’s okay, but you still need a break — even if it’s just a staycation.” 

So culture could be showing and proving that you care about the individual. 

One way of showing you care is through actively helping them connect and grow. Mitch Beckman said at Grey, they’ve started to focus more and more on learning. 

“We do creative lunches. We watch things like workshops and tutorials together. Then use the chat to share comments and questions about it,” he said.

At Ample, we’ve noticed that more conversation and engagement takes place when there’s a shared focus and goal. Like Mitch mentioned, learning a new skill inspires questions and side bar conversations. People naturally start helping each other. 

To celebrate an employee’s birthday and another’s anniversary, Ample brought in an expert drink maker and COO from GorillaCinema. He even went so far as to procure some drink making packages that were delivered to our staff. We all gathered for a Zoom call where he instructed us on how to make a pre-prohibition Old Fashioned and a Corpse Reviver. We were all able to follow along, making drinks together and learning a little history and technique. The added twist of instruction truly increased the appeal and the participation. Several people even had their spouses join the call!

Beth said that Siemens has experienced similar results in how their new Town Hall meetings progress. 

“Where, once it was the same people from a single location — it now includes different people delivering new messages out to the team,” she said. 

When treated right, meetings that include a focused message to the whole staff (like a Town Hall), can inspire future conversations and opportunities to connect. 

So maybe it’s about investing in experiences that inspire growth and connection. 

Watch any movie or TV show and you get the message that work sucks and corporations are evil. But if you’ve read this far in the article, you know that can’t be true of all of them. In fact, many of us are actively trying to improve the lives and experiences of our teams. A winter of remote working is coming. And when we’re alone in our homes with the sun going down earlier and earlier, I believe that our culture can sustain us. We just need to be ready to adapt.   

What does culture look like in a remote workforce? 

Here are my takeaways for Ample. 

  1. Culture starts small. We must maintain connections with the people we work with. Just an extra 15 minutes after a scheduled call can make a difference. It’s a lot easier to cut each other some slack when we know where they’re coming from. 
  2. Culture embraces change. The way we’ve always done things isn’t going to work anymore. And that’s great! It’s a chance to make new traditions and structure that builds into what really matters. 
  3. Culture is about trust. We can’t just say we care about our people. We have to show them. It’s about trusting our team to take care of their work, and reminding them to take care of themselves.   
  4. Culture requires action. Ample is a team of doers. We have to give them the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills, and then challenge them to go build things together.  
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