Company culture is a tricky topic, partly because it’s so subjective. For each and every employee, company culture means something totally different. And of course, the move to remote work has made defining or creating company culture even more confusing. Afterall, how can you make sure everyone is on the same page when they’re not even in the same space?
But the move to remote or hybrid offices is a great opportunity to throw out all of our old ideas about company culture, and build something new—a concept of company culture that isn’t handed down from the top, but instead includes every employees’ perspective, priorities, and buy-in.
At Daybase, we're all about these new innovations. We spoke to two experts who are tasked with helping companies invest in culture and better understand their employees in the remote landscape. Here are the three of the most important ingredients they say are necessary for creating a workplace culture that is sustainable, inclusive, and enriching for everyone on the team (not to mention the bottom line).
A baseline of empathy must exist for leaders to want to improve company culture. And in empathy’s most essential and obvious application, policies and benefits such as robust paid leave, affordable healthcare coverage, and predictable and manageable working hours are how a company shows its employees that it sees them as whole people, and cares about their well-being.
But empathy can and should go a bit deeper and help us solve some of the more nebulous issues around workplace culture. Michael Ventura is the founder of Sub Rosa, an award-winning strategy and design firm, and the author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership. Ventura has spent the last two decades working with organizations on internal culture and design—specifically at moments of either transformation or change. In his research, he has found that when leadership prioritizes empathy, employees feel more connected to and invested in their work, and business improves as a result.
“When organizations embrace empathy, they often find that decisions become more inclusive and collaborative,” says Ventura. “People start to see themselves in the choices the company’s made because the company has done what companies don't often like to do, which is ask questions, listen, and be willing to change behavior based on the response.”
But before organizations can utilize empathy as a tool across the company, they need to recognize how much things have changed since March of 2020, and realign their own expectations to reflect the new reality. This means accepting that people work different hours, have lives outside the office, and perhaps can’t return to the office full time, maybe ever. “We can't just expect that now that the latest spike has declined everyone will just change their lives,” says Ventura. “We've made changes already, and leaders need to acknowledge that and accept that the way organizations function and the asynchronous nature of it, as well as the differences in how we collaborate or work together, need to evolve with the times.”
In many ways, connection and empathy go hand-in-hand. When people have empathy, they feel connected to each other, and when they are connected, they are kinder, more resourceful, and willing to be solution-oriented. And while it might seem like fostering connection in a remote workspace is more challenging than if everyone was in person and just catching up by the coffee maker or going out for drinks after work, the truth is that for most people, real connection is formed in much more nuanced ways.
“Connection is not friendship,” says Lakshmi Rengarajan, a culture, inclusion, and employee programming strategist, and the former Director of Workplace Connection at WeWork. “When we make the focus of workplace connection about friendship, you're asking a person to evaluate whether or not they like someone, and you do not need to like your coworkers.”
In her research, Rengarajan has found that holding onto the idea that successful teams are made up of a bunch of happy-go-lucky buddies can be extremely detrimental to employees and the business as a whole. “This idea that people need to be friends with their coworkers is one of the most toxic and unproductive concepts,” she says. “[Managers] think, ‘well, if people aren't getting along, I need to have a happy hour to get everybody together.’ And that’s sort of missing the point, because that isn’t necessarily going to create real connection.”
The first thing organizations need to recognize is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, because every employee is different. Their needs, wants, work styles, and personalities might not magically line up in a way that allows for a weekly happy hour. There might be generational, gender, or other lifestyle differences that make team bonding exercises awkward and insincere. A little autonomy can go a long way, and that's where a Daybase membership for your team can help.
Real connection, Rengarajan explains, comes from the feeling of being seen, not from mandatory socializing. “Think about how you feel when someone unexpectedly sends you a card or buys you a gift that shows they’ve been listening to you. There’s no in-person, human interaction there, but you feel like you feel thought of, and you feel seen. That's a real connection.”
Creating these feel-good, connection-building experiences isn’t as challenging as one might think, even in a remote workspace. It can be as simple as asking people to include attributions in all of their presentations so every employee is recognized, or offering mentoring opportunities to everyone on staff and not just junior members. “If you're really thinking about connection, you're not just looking at interaction,” says Rengarajan. “You're thinking about policies, you're thinking about programming, and you're thinking about perks and amenities. It's all three of those.”
Ventura adds that having a unified and universally agreed-upon sense of purpose—an organization’s values, but also, the real goals for the organization itself, is necessary for everyone to feel like they’re working together towards something important. “The whole organization needs to be clear on why they do the work they do, why they've chosen to work where they've chosen to work, and what they come in—or sign on— to do every day. That’s really vital in making a company-wide culture stick.”
Both Ventura and Rengarajan agree that company culture can’t thrive alongside micromanagement or gatekeeping. In order to foster any sense of culture, organizations need to trust their employees to do the work they were hired to do, even if that means changing their own beliefs around how people should be managed—especially with so many employees working remotely.
“There's a necessary balance between oversight and trust,” says Ventura. “I think that in a lot of organizations, they are looking to recreate virtual means of oversight that you had osmotically when you were sharing a space together, and that feels very heavy-handed. Unlearning those behaviors has to start at the top, but there are some leaders that are resistant to that because that's not the way they learned how to lead, so it's sort of an old dog new tricks problem that some organizations are going to struggle with more as a result.”
For leaders who genuinely want to improve the culture of their organization, trusting their employees to know what work style works best for them (especially when they’re working remotely), as well as their own definition of company culture, is a necessary first step.
Along with leading with empathy and prioritizing real connection, being open and available for suggestions and feedback from employees at all levels, and experimenting with new formats, technologies, and work styles to make it happen is a sign of respect from the top down, and it always makes employees feel more connected. Taking it one step further, Ventura recommends that companies with employees who have only worked remotely lean on those people to write the playbooks on building company culture in this “new normal,” simply because they have no memory of what it was like when everyone at the company worked in the same office.
“While the need for connection is universal, how people experience connection is very different,” says Rengarajan. “I think it's important to take a step back and be like, okay, so what are people asking for? What are the unspoken needs? Some people experience connection through recognition, and others experience connection because we're giving them commuter benefits. And there are still those people who experience connection because we have a happy hour every week. But by seeing how your team actually experiences connection, you start to see the universe from which you should be operating and developing your connection strategy.”
Of course, getting to those answers isn’t any easier than solving them. It takes time, active listening, and a willingness to change the way you may have run your team in the past. But as Rengarajan points out, solving a connection or culture deficit at work is a lot like solving a problem in a romantic relationship. “You wanna make sure that whatever you're proposing as the solution is actually connected to the problem,” she explains. “For example, if your partner is upset that you’re always late, buying him or her flowers isn’t going to fix things. What they really want is for you to start showing up on time.”
Thanks for reading this far. Now it’s your turn to do the talking. Let us know how hybrid work is working (or not working) for you. You can find us in all the usual places: Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.