Build off-work spaces to connect teams


Take a look at job boards today and you’ll likely notice that every tech company vying for top talent is quick to tout their flexible, remote-ready setups. During the pandemic, the use of productivity apps such as Teams, Slack and Zoom has skyrocketed. A recent Mio survey found that 91% of businesses today use at least two digital messaging apps in addition to email, video conferencing, and workflow apps like Jira and Asana.

These changes have presented employees and companies with unprecedented opportunities to hire talent, regardless of location. But while companies have admirably found their footing in digital productivity platforms, that same ingenuity hasn’t taken hold when it comes to fostering corporate culture and community.

Before the pandemic, companies competed to create the most attractive “campuses” available: on-site cafes, fitness centers, health centers, mothers’ rooms, daycares, nap rooms, and more. These were spaces where colleagues from all functions and groups could socialize informally. All of these benefits recognized something important: an essential part of our working lives is not just typing on the keyboard. It’s also about sharing ideas and opinions with each other, engaging in casual conversations in the hallway or break room, and finding people with similar hobbies or interests outside of the work context. And there is also a good business case for these socio-cultural investments. A Boston Consulting Group study showed that companies that focused on culture were five times more likely to achieve exceptional performance than companies that neglected it.

When companies moved away during the pandemic, these spaces of social connection in the workplace did not sustain themselves virtually. Zoom fatigue has become much more than a light-hearted joke for many of us, with stress and burnout rampant among those forced to work from home. The loss of these in-person social spaces and cultural practices also came at a critical time: in the age of COVID, an employee’s need for purpose and community in their work has only increased. , especially among Gen Z, according to a report from Cognizant.

Going forward, businesses can no longer rely on craft coffee or laundry detergent benefits to create culture. While there is still a raging debate over whether the future of work is in the office, remote or hybrid, it is becoming clear that the reality lies somewhere in between, and companies must create social spaces that exist in more than the physical realm.

During my time as Chief Technology Officer at Cisco, where I led thousands of engineers around the world, I always tried to nurture a sense of community at work and invited people to a ” birthday chat” every month. The idea was to bring everyone together with a birthday that month (regardless of level, role or function) to spend time getting to know each other. People from different time zones would join virtually. There was only one rule for the “birthday chat”: don’t show up with your job title. Instead, I asked them to share who they were as a person, regardless of their job title: parent, musician, athlete, or artist.

When I started Fable in 2020, we bonded remotely with poetry readings, short meditations, painting lessons, and reading together in digital book clubs. We have also adopted the Swedish tradition, fika– loosely translated as sharing a coffee break with friends – and made it our own: an unprofessional ritual for discussing everything from our favorite fictional world to “pantry baggage” (i.e. the things we hate to throw away). I’ve seen many other examples over the years, including bringing your pet and/or child to the meeting, group cooking classes, living room scavenger hunts, yoga classes, and parties. virtual.

It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to opportunities to create hybrid cultural activities, but there are a few guiding principles I’ve learned from my years as a CEO that leaders need to keep in mind. .

Share values, beliefs and norms: Define them for your organization and align them with your purpose. Even if you’re an entrepreneur in a startup, it’s never too early to make work culture a priority.

Stay connected remotely: You often need a different way to connect with the remote that doesn’t feel like another meeting on your schedule. It could be virtual cooking classes, painting together, or forming book or film clubs. Look for asynchronous opportunities to enjoy and discuss an activity to make it as inclusive and convenient as possible.

Defining emotional culture: Emotions can go viral and feelings can spread digitally, so define upfront what are the acceptable “emotional standards” for your company or team. For example, is it okay for someone to express their grief over the loss of a loved one in a private chat message? What about venting frustration with news or politics in a shared work channel? In a flexible environment, those unspoken rules about how, when, and where to express our feelings at work need to be made clear. Don’t wait until there is a tipping point before sharing and working out how best to communicate in solidarity with each other, especially virtually.

Create rituals: In a flexible work model, you must come up with new rituals that not only enhance, but also foster and shape your culture. Resorting to occasional happy hours on video conferencing platforms is not enough. Here are some guidelines:

  • Rituals should be fun – people should look forward to them and want to participate in them.
  • Rituals should be optional – don’t make participation mandatory; rituals should be different from work.
  • Rituals should be inclusive – give everyone the opportunity to lead the ritual and vary the topic and activity so everyone feels included.
  • Rituals should be a priority – don’t keep canceling them; it sends a signal that you don’t like them.
  • Rituals should be light – don’t ask people to get ready.
  • Rituals should reflect your culture – anchoring rituals on what is core to your business and what makes it unique.

Regardless of these cultural practices, HR teams and leaders should reinvest as they have in building campuses, not just in productivity app spaces, but also in non-work digital spaces that promote the enrichment and connection of teams. Organizations that successfully do this will build the resilience needed to thrive in our post-pandemic hybrid business world.


Padmasree Warrior is the founder and CEO of Fable.


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