Using experience data, focusing on underserved employee groups and doubling down on transparency can be effective strategies, members of the Braintrust say.
Good afternoon! As the pandemic's two-year anniversary creeps up, we asked the experts to think about how building company culture has changed from in-office to hybrid to remote environments. Even when every employee was in the same space, creating a winning culture was often an uphill battle, but as the nature of work has changed, so too have the strategies for achieving that workplace buy-in. So we asked the Braintrust to tell us what's proved successful at their companies. Questions or comments? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief People Officer at Qualtrics
Before the pandemic, Qualtrics had a strong "in-person" culture, with 91% of our employees working in a physical office. In March 2020, we went from 25 offices to 3,000 "home offices" essentially overnight.
Yet, during the pandemic, we went public, hired more than 1,500 people, delivered new products and acquired three companies — all while working remotely.
Building upon our culture — the heart of who we are as a company — was, and still is, critical to our success. The pandemic highlighted the importance of staying connected with our employees, listening to their needs and leveraging feedback to adjust plans along the way. This is how we maintain and evolve our company culture to deliver a great experience for employees. We want to get it right, not be right.
When evolving culture, especially in a virtual environment, there are key actions leaders should take.
- Identify your core values and the impact you want to have on the world, unifying your employees — from executives to individual contributors — around these values. At Qualtrics, we call these TACOS: Transparency, All in, Customer obsessed, One team and Scrappy.
- Pair experience data — what your employees are thinking and feeling — with operational data — how they are performing — to design and continuously improve work experiences.
- Be purposeful in how you connect with your employees and what works for them.
- Lead with empathy. Employees want to feel a sense of belonging and connection with the people they work with, and it’s critical for leaders to foster a culture that prioritizes listening, understanding and meeting people where they are.
Head of Business & COO at Asana
Culture is a living, breathing function of the business. It’s a manifestation of all the people in your organization and how their behaviors support or detract from core values. At Asana, we think about building and nurturing culture the same way we think about building and nurturing products. We look to design the best possible culture for our employees to thrive by testing and measuring programs that support growth and impact, while learning and iterating as the remote work environment rapidly changes.
As we apply these principles, we’ve been creative in designing and redesigning ways to build internal employee appreciation, spaces to create belonging and opportunities to build relationships. To foster a sense of belonging and inclusion, we encourage employees to seek communities within the workplace and prioritize re-creating “watercooler moments” despite being virtual. This can be as simple as building dedicated Slack channels where like-minded individuals gather and share experiences on everything from being a new working parent to the latest Netflix binges.
Knowing remote work had a downside impact on communities of color in particular, at Asana we’ve created Gradient, a multicultural employee resource group to serve communities of color and address challenges in the growing remote multicultural workforce.
While many global employees have struggled to balance work priorities with family care, we built “no meeting Wednesdays” and “Flexible Fridays” to allow time to focus on creative or strategic work while also being able to take time for personal commitments.
An important investment we’ve continued to make to foster and invest in culture is to listen. Our employee engagement survey continues to be an invaluable resource for leaders to understand, and act on, what matters most to our team.
Co-Founder and CEO at Workhuman
Let’s first acknowledge that after two years, both “work” and “culture” are still being disrupted by the pandemic. People had to switch over to virtual work in a matter of days, and their success at doing what was once unimaginable has leaders asking, “What else might we change for the better?” The time has come for building culture.
At its core, culture is the sum of shared values. Organizations need to find ways for their people to live and breathe those values daily, but as we know now, it also needs to be done virtually. Because we are communicating through a variety of technologies — email, messaging, video, etc. — each of these interactions is an opportunity to reinforce those values and further build culture. And what’s more, organizations can invest in an internal platform where employees reinforce values and build connections with their colleagues by publicly sharing moments of recognition and gratitude — such as Workhuman’s Social Recognition® solution, one part of Workhuman® Cloud. This kind of platform allows all employees to send each other meaningful, personalized messages — something like, “I see you living this value through your work, and I appreciate you for it.” — showcasing their gratitude for everyone in the organization to see.
An employee recognition program helps create these positive human interactions between employees without needing to be physically side-by-side in an office. Until we can safely be together again, organizations can continue to reinforce their culture virtually by publicly saying “thank you” and expressing gratitude as often as possible.
Senior Vice President, People at Slack
Embracing transparency and access as core attributes of your organization is the best way to develop a strong digital culture.
Technology can play an important role here. Now is the time to reorient company activities around a digital HQ: a single place where all employees — regardless of time zone or location — can collaborate, with seamless and equitable access to the people, information and tools they need to do their best work. Technology used in this way can be instrumental in creating a sense of shared purpose, one of the bedrocks of company culture.
This kind of digital-first approach is most effective when leaders intentionally leverage technology to break down silos and enhance inclusion. For example, holding digital office hours each week, defaulting to public channels for new projects, communicating early and openly about developments or adopting policies like “if one dials in, all dial in” ensure all employees can participate on a level playing field.
Finally, managers should experiment with creative ways to build authentic human connection on their teams. Something as simple as celebrating your teammates’ wins in a channel each week, or creating a space to share cute pet photos, can help build a sense of belonging at work.
Chief People Officer at Mastercard
The shift to virtual has amplified the importance of agility in learning and adapting to change. Learning is central to Mastercard’s culture. We strive to equip employees with new skills and opportunities, and we create space to learn by implementing meeting-free days and flex time, allowing employees to focus on their growth.
Recently, we launched “Unlocked,” our opportunity network. Unlocked is a digital platform that allows employees to connect with one another and engage in opportunities within Mastercard, including short-term projects, mentorship and volunteering. What began as a way to explore a new approach to work has evolved to take on many of the challenges we face today: collaborating in hybrid workspaces, supporting our teams’ wellbeing, recruiting and retaining talent, and addressing business challenges more quickly and at scale. The platform is global and for employees at all levels.
Our ability to adapt to a rapid pace of change is essential and requires us to be intentional about learning. Unlocked allows us to do exactly that — we are leveraging the platform for cross-level mentorship to connect with our employees directly to gather a different perspective on rising trends in technology or the future of work. Our leaders are making it a part of their growth as much as our employees are making it a part of theirs. We see continual learning as a skill and this platform allows Mastercard to challenge traditional ways of working that encourages a curious mindset, cross-generational learning and empowers employees to drive change.
Chief Human Resources Officer at Cigna
Culture building – virtual or not – starts with emotional intelligence, or EQ. That has to be the basis of every interaction between managers and employees, ensuring that we’re cultivating an atmosphere in which all employees feel comfortable speaking up. EQ also helps managers find opportunities to level the playing field between employees in the office or those at home – for example, requiring that all meeting attendees use their own cameras so everyone can easily pick up on body language and other cues, regardless of whether or not they are in the room.
It’s also important to acknowledge that people spend a lot of their time working, so feeling a sense of belonging and connection to a mission is crucial. Time and time again we hear our employees referring back to Cigna’s mission as the focal point of what keeps them inspired, engaged, and connected. Lastly, our 11 Enterprise Resource Groups provide a forum for development, networking, and mentoring. Most importantly, they help people feel connected and more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Jan. 20, 2022).
Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is a Research Editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.
More from Braintrust