For smaller tech companies, attracting and retaining top talent has always been a challenge. They can’t match the salaries the big tech firms offer, so the smart ones compete by offering a terrific employee experience.

Table XI, a fast-growth digital consulting firm, had a remarkable work culture — with the office at the very center. Their space was cool and inclusive. The atmosphere was both focused and fun. They had a terrific chef who made wonderful, family-style lunches every day. Everyone liked spending time there — employees, clients, and friends.

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, people haven’t been going into the office much lately. In fact, many companies, including Table XI, no longer have permanent office space. While some tech companies are pushing for a return to the office, at Table XI, all employees now work from home or in coworking spaces. 

So, CEO Mark Rickmeier was faced with a challenge: how to recreate that special culture without an office? 

In the beginning, as he shared with me recently, the TXI leaders tried some tactics many companies have used: delivering food to people’s homes (didn’t work) and scheduling virtual happy hours (boring). So this company that is built on creative thinking had to apply those same creative techniques to its own culture dilemma.

Understanding the problem workplace culture solves

The primary challenge was identifying the problem — a classic in design thinking. The purpose of a company culture wasn’t just to give people somewhere fun to hang out. One of the fundamental cultural objectives was to make sure employees felt a sense of security. Scared employees don’t do their best work and are likely to jump ship if they feel insecure. To avoid that, the TXI leaders did two things: 

First, they visualized the worst-case scenario. What happens if we lose our biggest client? Surely employees were thinking it, so why not say it out loud? What if we’re just doing OK, somewhere between thriving and hemorrhaging money? The leadership team not only answered these questions, they shared the answers with their entire staff. If they had to cut costs, they would share the pain. Layoffs would be absolutely a last resort. 

Then they moved to phase two, letting as much light into the company as possible. Fear thrives in darkness. By being exceptionally transparent with employees about how things were going, they could minimize the anxiety. The leaders made the unusual decision to share the state of the business with their employees: financials, sales, key metrics, everything.

Building a remote work culture that can transfer knowledge 

With the main problem identified, it was time to turn to the benefits. An office facilitates interaction. It’s OK if the bulk of the company’s knowledge is locked inside people’s heads, as long as you can just walk over and ask the person who knows. That’s not as easy over Slack, and the “library problem” was starting to become a real issue. 

To solve it, Table XI added a head of internal communications role to the senior leadership team. This person was tasked with documenting everything, making the tacit knowledge held by a few available to everyone. This was an area where technology could help out immensely. Mark recommends Notion, a content database that works like Wikipedia, as a useful host for storing and sharing this type of information.

Learning to listen remotely to the employee experience

Chance encounters in the hallways bring another benefit: active listening. How can remote leaders get in touch with what their people are thinking and feeling? They tried using a survey, but counting the frequency of answers wouldn’t give them the intel they needed. It frustrated them that people couldn’t see each other’s responses — not great for the transparent culture they were trying to model. 

Thought Exchange presented a solution. The technology allows people to respond to questions at the same time and react to each other’s answers. Another tool was Culture Amp, which enabled leaders to design an engagement survey that provided a “heat map” showing where in the organization there was the most distress.

Creating the virtual spaces where workplace culture can thrive

The final challenge Table XI had to address was the one that seems most difficult: spontaneity and serendipity. In a virtual world, interactions are either scheduled or asynchronous, making it hard for the off-the-cuff collaboration innovation requires. 

To capture some of that chance magic, the team began using Ohyay, a program that creates a virtual office space where people can hang out together. Leaders hid “Easter eggs,” little surprises tucked inside the virtual space. Another useful program was Disco, which enables impromptu shout-outs and other forms of appreciation. 

Taking a “test and iterate” approach to fully remote organizational culture

Two things impress me about this project. First, the TXI leaders did an excellent job of identifying the key cultural elements that were lost when the team became virtual. Second, they experimented with tools until they found the ones that enabled them to recreate the benefits and problem-solving capacity of their unique company culture.

I still think work teams benefit from being together in a real office at least part of the time. But after talking with Mark, I’m more ready to believe that many of the positive aspects of on-site work can be approximated virtually — provided you have the right motivation and the right tools. 

If you would like help sustaining your company culture in a virtual world, get in touch at ggolden@gailgolden.com.

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    What great ideas and solutions for today’s challenges. I am sharing with one of my organizations.
    Thank you.