The following is a guest post by Julia Rivard, the CEO of Eyeread (a Concrete Ventures portfolio company) and behind game titles Squiggle Park & Dreamscape. Julia and her team are reshaping how gaming and education can work together. In this post, she talks about how to build company culture in a remote world.
The drawbacks of a remote team
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a multitude of workers to make the move from the workplace to working from home, the remote culture was the norm for many companies and a rapidly growing trend in various industries. However, while working remotely certainly has its benefits, as many who are new to the concept quickly discovered, it also has its drawbacks.
The primary issue expressed by the majority working from home or a remote location is the lack of connectivity amongst the workers. Feeling disconnected and unable to experience the company culture or collaborate with team members in a productive and engaging environment. Each of these factors, if left unattended, can lead to a loss of productivity and general dissatisfaction with work.
Foster company culture in a remote world
I’ve been a part of the remote culture and managing a remote workforce for quite some time, and so I was well aware of this fact already. I knew that it was critically important to foster connectedness amongst my team members. In previous years, this was easier, as we normally meet twice a year in person for team retreats, which help to bring us together in a manner much more engaging and encouraging than a simple day or two spent at the office.
But in 2020, with COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, this was not possible. Instead, I needed to develop other strategies to keep us all motivated and feeling like a strong and connected team. These ideas and strategies I put together for our team can be put into practice in many organizations and various industries. They serve to keep remote teams all heading in the same direction and feeling immersed in the company culture as a cohesive group.
Before sharing these ideas, I’d first like to point out that developing a strategy for connectedness is not necessarily something that can be planned overnight. It takes ample preparedness, and I certainly had to do my homework before putting everything together. It also means having a clear picture of your company objectives for the year, and that isn’t always something you can come up with on your own.
Develop a strategy
As 2020 was drawing to a close, I met with key players on my team to get their insight and to hear about their thoughts and learnings from the past year. Not only did this provide me with vital information I could use, but it also made team members feel more involved right from the start since they knew their feedback was going to be reflected in the upcoming plans for the year.
The initial planning and involvement of my team didn’t stop there, either. I let them know that although I already had a high-level plan established, it would likely change by the end of our week of planning based on our strategic conversations and the priorities. Despite the potential for change, everyone appreciated having a starting point, a clear owner and a clear sense of which KPI they are contributing to and how it is measured.
With prep done, we set out on our week of planning to get alignment for 2021. When reflecting on the three days we spent together these are the standout ideas that helped make everything work and work really well.
Show value to receive value
First is making sure there is space for all voices to be heard.
This was a deliberate commitment to enable all team members to share their thoughts at many points during team meetings. It encourages commitment, fosters engagement, and increases connectedness. It also promotes productivity, and increases overall workplace morale, even in a remote company culture. There is great value that comes from the voices that are typically less vocal. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge. We made a point during every session to lead with a round table on how everyone was feeling in one word. One word is important because it is quick and there is very little pressure. I also called people out to add their thoughts if they hadn’t spoken up. In short, show every member of your team that you value their work and their input, and you’ll receive great value in return.
Make sure to not try and do too much. These virtual meetings with my team were a part of three days of virtual planning to kick off the year. It’s an intensive process, but also one that is so worthwhile so long as you don’t overdo it. In the past, internal feedback surveys have made it clear that staying on a Zoom call for more than one hour sucks the life out of the team. This was an easy fix. I made sure there was plenty of time between meetings to recoup and recharge and a break every hour during longer meetings. This served to keep the energy flowing and the ideas blossoming.
Show that you care
It’s also so important to go the extra mile to show you care. In early December, while preparing, I was really struggling with what to do virtually that could be special and heartfelt. I also wanted to build anticipation for the upcoming planning sessions. My solution came from the recognition that our team is family and what my mom did for me when I couldn’t be with my family was to send a care package. So I built a care package for each member, with the dual purpose of building anticipation and spreading love. I instructed them not to open the package until the first day of our virtual meetings.
I filled the boxes with relevant items like instant coffee, the “White Fragility” book to showcase the company’s commitment to ongoing learning about the BLM movement and systemic racism that was so much a part of our conversation in 2020. A tech-themed cookie cutter with my mum’s favorite cookie recipe, and notepads, pens, markers and sticky notes, to enable team members to be more physical in our planning sessions – like we would be if we were in person. Additionally, the care package also included a few other thoughtful items and snacks, as well as a mini bottle of champagne for our team celebration on the last evening of the planning sessions.
And, to make it even more special, there was one box that had a golden bottle (the rest were Henkel) and the special person who opened the golden bottle was the team’s choice award of high performer. Opening the boxes and the reveal of the team award was great fun and clearly helped invigorate the team to get our Q1 and Q2 initiatives clearly lined up and prioritized with clear and measurable targets.
Add knowledge and context
Finally, to bring fresh thoughts into our conversations and to bring new context to the team, I arranged to bring in expert speakers. I was fortunate to be able to bring in Mike Yates and education disruptor, TED Talk speaker and founder of ALPHA Schools in Texas and Lance Priebe, Co-Founder of Club Penguin and now Hyper Hippo Games. The team loved both presentations/Q&A. The speakers came in on the first of the three days, which really provided a great context for conversations to follow.
It took a bit of work and thought to do something different to build company culture. I think the hardest part was just getting started. Sometimes as founders and leaders in our companies, it’s hard to pick our heads up for fear of not driving an initiative forward, but I can assure you, this time and small cost paid back so much more.
The rewards are worth the work
As much as all this pre-planning might have done for the team, I think I received the biggest reward and benefit. On the last day of the roundtable, I asked each person to describe in one word how they feel, and some responses I received included:
I couldn’t have asked for anything more.