5 Ways to Build and Preserve Your Startup’s Culture in a Remote Work Environment
By Jen McGee, Manager of Training and Development
At the beginning of 2020, Rise Buildings was in a groove. We were (and still are!) the magic behind the scenes of a dynamic and powerful technology solution for commercial office and multi-family residential buildings throughout the US and internationally. Operating out of our Chicago HQ, the Rise team was a powerhouse of determined, intelligent, and innovative top performers. We were in the midst of hiring new team members and expanding our business. Then a pandemic hit and the world pressed pause. We stopped coming into the office, and we came upon a new challenge: how do we maintain momentum and preserve the strength of our culture? How do we continue to become a better company when we can’t come into the office?
The unfortunate truth is that many companies hit the brakes once the pandemic started. Company cultures suffered and sometimes broke once physical amenities like the water cooler, rooftop decks, and gyms became inaccessible. Colleagues began to feel distant without weekly happy hours and once high-performing teams became awkward and less productive.
As head of training and development at Rise Buildings, I was determined not to lose what makes us special and successful despite the physical separation across our team. The first step was recognizing that the status quo had shifted. Preserving our culture meant adjusting it – adapting to the new world we found ourselves in (not the one we wish existed). We looked at which parts of our culture were strongest and most successful, evaluated which of those parts could continue without being in the same place, and modified them to best fit the new environment.
By not wasting energy trying to preserve every aspect of our culture when we moved to home offices, we’ve become stronger. Here’s what we’ve done and what we’ve learned:
Training Apart Together
Before we became 100% remote-based due to the pandemic, we held monthly workshops to become product champions. These hour-long sessions were focused so that attendees could really dig in and understand everything our product does, how it affects end-users, and how to teach and facilitate that purpose within the entire company. But, and this is an important differentiation, these sessions were for EVERY employee at Rise – not just client-facing teams.
With the pandemic, we decided to increase the frequency of these interactions, making them weekly instead of monthly. These Rise Boot Camps became not just a time to teach each other about the product, but a moment for the entire team to convene and learn together; to have a shared experience. These sessions also concentrate on creating dynamic and power-house speakers and presenters and how to best use preparation time and debrief meetings. This is an important part of our onboarding process, too, as everyone is challenged to excel at their role to teach it to new team members.
As we trickle back into the office, these sessions will remain a focal point. These meetings keep our team together and unified in spirit and purpose as it binds us through a shared vocabulary about the product and the company. They also ensure that no matter who a client talks to at Rise, we can all offer the consultative support and expert advice upon which our reputation is built.
In addition to team trainings, Rise implemented a talent optimization program that matches job expectations with behaviors. This powerful platform makes employees and managers aware of each other’s natural habits and native character sets so we can efficiently become better at working with one another and better executing our roles. This knowledge changed conversations from “Do you like this approach” to “You are so great at getting buy-in from the team when it comes to new initiatives; how would you roll out this next project?”
This isn’t about keeping people in a box; it’s about recognizing and supporting individuals. Through this, we’re able to meet individuals where they are instead of where they should be, and then give them the tools to succeed. We also use this process of understanding people when hiring. Research shows that the more employees have to modify their natural behaviors, the faster they may burnout and the more frustrated they may feel. When there’s a match of task and natural talent, everyone wins. And when you add distance to the work environment, avoiding these frictions becomes even more critical as the natural feedback that occurs in a traditional office environment is harder to deliver remotely.
Surveys of Truth
Quarterly engagement surveys have also played a key part in making our team continue to feel heard and connected. These anonymous surveys rate how team members feel about various aspects of their job and our company. The reports give our leadership team unmatched insight into areas where we are excelling and where we can improve – areas that have shifted with the new office (or lack thereof) dynamic. We are careful that results are not taken personally but instead open lines of further communication, increasing engagement and accountability in lieu of the occasional water-cooler chat.
These surveys reveal how we’re progressing towards the ever-elusive goal of work-life balance (something that is uniquely defined with any corporate culture and for any individual). The surveys also provide metrics on otherwise difficult-to-measure elements that are important to our Rise culture beyond work-life balance like individual and team accountability and the effectiveness of transparency.
Coming Home Again for the First Time
It’s hard to be humble about the Rise culture. We think it’s pretty great – for us. Built on authenticity and transparency, our culture has grown organically, led by our founders and transmitted by hiring the right people for the right roles.
We’re all one team at Rise. We want to achieve collective progress, but we also care deeply about each other as individuals. This allows us to confidently and comfortably be ourselves with each other. While we regularly challenge the status quo, once a decision is made, we’re collectively committed. This belises aspects of our culture that can, at times, reflect a bit of herd mentality: we’re outwardly protective and supportive of each other. At the same time, we’re not afraid of constructive conflict because that’s how we push one another and how Rise gets better.
Since the pandemic began, many companies have reduced headcount. Not at Rise. We seized the moment to strengthen our team and ramp up our hiring process. Since March 1st, we have hired 3x as many new employees as we did in the second half of 2019 and each of these employees has been interviewed and onboarded 100% remotely. The true litmus test of our culture is how connected new team members feel to the collective whole, without having ever met anyone in person. As we have begun returning to the office, our new team members tell us it feels like coming home even though it was their first time walking through our office doors – a strong indicator that our culture is able to vacillate between in person and remote work. ”
Communication and Mentorship
The team mentality extends past “we” vs “me” and is embedded in every part of the Rise day. Rise team members are empowered to own their development and mentor those around them; if someone is curious about another area of Rise, they’re welcome to step in and see what it’s all about. This is especially important in an environment where the informal flow of information is impacted by physical separation. This accessibility and open communication feeds into a transparent culture where training and development is the responsibility of everyone, not just the department head or leadership team. We’re all responsible for Rise moving forward and even though we have a specific point person for a project, we’re all responsible for each other’s success.
But Wait There’s More
While the above actions enumerate some of the ways we’ve been able to strengthen our culture over the last several months, they are by no means exhaustive or transitive. What works for us may not work for everybody. Regardless, we’ve learned one absolute Truth that applies to all companies – hoping that things will work the same when the world around you has changed is unlikely to help your organization improve.
Think you might be a fit for our culture and interested in joining the Rise team? Check out our open positions!