Building a digital culture in a post-COVID world

Fernando Polo

21 May 2021

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If nothing gets in the way (fingers crossed), most Western countries will be rejoicing with COVID in the rear view and workers may be summoned back into their offices. Some companies have announced they are going remote first or allowing a hybrid model. But, will employees be willing to return? 

According to a recent survey of 2,000 adults who’ve been able to work from home during the pandemic, “an overwhelming 87% want the ability to continue doing so after the risks of the virus subside”. Another survey finds that 58% would look for another job if forced to return. Will businesses be able to stop this tsunami?

Productivity is no longer in question, but a typical complaint from many executives is that it’s impossible to maintain the corporate culture if people are not in the office. To be honest, most corporations boast about their culture but their size makes it truly difficult to distinguish it. Each team, office, business unit may have their own, if any at all. Many simply give up on the idea of building one and keep on decorating the walls with nice mantras everybody scoffs at.

If the remote tsunami finally comes and your corporate culture is chained to a building in 2021, you might find yourself in a hard place. If someone thinks that culture can only be built in person, what may be happening is that culture is limited to casual conversations in the hallways or around the water cooler. Seriously, building a strong culture takes more than just letting casual interactions flow. Planning and execution are paramount. And yes, it can happen beyond the walls of an office.

What is culture, anyway? And how do you build it remotely?

Whatever formal definition we may use, it’s always easier to state what culture is not. It is not about perks, general coolness, hipster offices or good vibes. Nor is there such a thing as a “good” or “bad” culture, but rather strong and weak cultures. New joiners perceive a strong culture since week 1. Loose cultures are those people struggle to explain about.

Of course, culture has a lot to do with “this is how things are done around here”, but I like to highlight a couple of points when questioned about it: 

  • Culture is experienced. You can talk or write about it in order to explain your operating principles and desired practices, but your co-workers have to experience culture by themselves. They have to see it with their own eyes, not just hear to talk about it.
  • Great corporate cultures align beliefs and behaviours. If you state certain values as part of your culture, you’d better walk the talk. The wider the gap, the weaker the culture and the more frustrated everybody will feel. Preaching by example is the biggest hurdle to building a strong culture, and the devil is in the detail.

But how do we work on our culture now that distributed work is here to stay? We wrote about how to work on your culture some time ago. The first point, People, has little to do with presenteeism. Hiring according to culture means looking for candidates that align with the company values. Firing according to culture means that certain behaviours won’t be tolerated no matter how well the team member performs. When hiring, let’s make sure that a strong culture does not translate into less diversity (especially, diversity of thought).

The other two areas of work are more impacted by the absence of face to face day to day interactions: storytelling, structures and rituals. But let’s talk first about the idea of a digital culture.

Is there such a thing as a digital culture?

2020 will be remembered as the year work went digital. But can culture be digital too? Of course, digital touchpoints and tools now play a bigger role in the way we experience the culture of our company. But video calls are not that new, and surely we’ve had lots of amazing (or disappointing) interactions with colleagues over a phone in the past. But the medium might be the message. And some of the new digital tools are making a true difference when it comes to spreading “how things are done around here”. 

Enterprise messenger apps like Slack or Google Chat democratise access to experts and colleagues everywhere, flattening hierarchies, breaking internal barriers and fostering collaboration. If we ask for help there, the fact that everybody (or nobody) jumps in to help will get broad exposure. No need to gossip about it around the coffee machine. The tool thus becomes part of the experience. 

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But digital linked to culture represents more than just a bunch of apps. We held a webinar last week (check my slides here) to discuss the idea of digital culture and the values that represent it. 

Agility is in the DNA of digital startups. Meritocracy plays a key role when running an open source software community. If you look at the rise of the blogging phenomenon 15 years ago, knowledge and conversation were king. We all learnt humility the hard way, when people who knew more than we did commented on our blogs. Openness, constant learning, agility, collaboration… It’s time to speed up vaccination and inoculate many of these principles into our organisations.

Storytelling and rituals that transcend the walls of an office

In 2015, we published a book to reflect on digital leadership and tell true stories of our company daily life that illustrated the type of behaviours we all liked to see around. The book became a new joiner guide to the Rebellion and of course, it can be read on a kindle. It’s no joke. Asynch communication, video, audio, smart devices and digital tools are a true boon to storytelling. And a post-COVID world will require more of that.

Building a digital culture on your organization

Rituals are needed to facilitate experiences and foster conversations about leadership, management and culture. Many were held in person. Even fully remote companies like Autommatic invest millions every year to organise offsites. But daily or weekly meetings like afterwork drinks may suffer in a hybrid model. 

Finding ways to promote online gatherings is tricky, because they add up to our screen fatigue. Audio only group conversations with tools like Discord or Slack could be an idea. Some years ago, we launched Rebel Zooms: 1 hour video chats arranged on the not-so-famous-then service, to get to know colleagues we don’t meet often or are based in different locations. A facilitator plus some simple guidelines were enough to foster social bonds among colleagues. Games, group dynamics and general facilitation are important ideas to explore to maintain remote attention.

We moved our Rebel Fridays —a weekly gathering where external guests join us to talk about their projects— online as soon as Covid lockdowns spread. The vibes are not the same, but it’s still something most Rebels want to be part of. A Now Playing channel on Slack (Google Chat since last week) lets us share videos and Spotify songs to connect with other colleagues.

But rituals are just one part of the equation. We also need some structures, or specific mechanisms to sustain the type of practices we look for. When we talk about how we push radical transparency at Good Rebels, we talk about our Rebel Outlook, the inProgress and our crowd setting salaries. 

Every third Wednesday of the month, the whole company gathers to share project learnings, Rebel news and focus on our financial performance. Even interns get to know what EBITDA stands for or the difference between turnover and revenues. Detailed financial information of all of our projects is then shared on Rebel Brain, kind of an internal online forum we keep on Basecamp, the project management tool.  

The inProgress—our performance appraisal methodology— is open so that everybody can see other colleagues’ evaluations and who rated who and how. Our salaries are public and we set our raises every year in a distributed, decentralised way that gives everybody a say. If you want to know a bit more about our culture, check out this video I’ve recorded as a guest lecturer at the University of Sussex.

People, storytelling and rituals. These three elements and other additional structures (i.e. a blog where every co-worker can write) shouldn’t be bound to a physical place. The tools and methodologies we use to build corporate cultures are being digitilised as every other aspect of our lives is.

You shouldn’t wait till everybody is back at the office to plan and work on your digital culture. If you don’t start doing it now, the water cooler won’t do the job.