Creating a Culture Without Walls

By Sarah Churchlow
Director, Operations & Commercial at MASH

COVID-19 means the office will never again have the same influence that it did a year ago. As the line between work and life becomes smudged and the two parts of our lives bleed into one another, a broad-brush approach to creating company culture may no longer be the answer. Without the office-leveler, the different personalities and situations in an organisational family need to be identified and engaged with on an individual level. To create loyalty, the brands who employ us must positively impact our lives beyond work. 

A Home Without Walls

From parking next to Telstra phone boxes in remote Tasmanian villages to get WiFi, running in the pouring rain from caravan sites to Coles to get phone signal, dialling into team meetings from tiny Fijian islands, hailing a tuk tuk in Jakarta in a business suit and heels and discovering, after 4 months working together, that the head and shoulders of a team member I talk to everyday is the top of a 6ft 6 tall body, I know that MASH is not the space we inhabit but the culture running through our veins. 

That culture has been shaped by the shared values of our people. Each one of us left the corporate landscape, setting our sights on a life of greater freedom, fulfilment and ownership. We live these values every day through how we collaborate and co-create with our clients, MASH-Up teams and each other. 

However, from my years spent working in multinational companies with tens of thousands of employees, I have experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to inculcate company culture as teams scale and disperse. 

The Office as a Leveler

For decades, the office has been the common thread joining the patchwork of people in an organisation. Brought together under one roof, seemingly idle chat over questionable vending machine coffee or a slice of Colin (the Caterpillar….the world’s greatest birthday cake as all  Brits would know) creates camaraderie amongst colleagues and an emotional connection to our workplace. 

Recognising this, facilities managers have become adept at using space to promote a sense of belonging, with bespoke “desk ergonomics”, beanbag-littered “break-out” areas, subsidised canteens, gyms and, of course, ping-pong tables. 

Office-based brand activations are now commonplace. Who doesn’t grab any company merch we can get our hands on? From stationary to hoodies to umbrellas, companies can infiltrate their staff’s psyche by loading them up with branded goods, a tactic requiring little creativity or personalisation. 

But, with no physical location to plug their wears and staff separated more than ever before, not only by geography but in their personal situation, needs and concerns, how can brands remain relevant to their teams?

How do brands personalise their approach to culture? 

The first step is to identify the different personas in your organisation. Who are they? Where are they? Who are they with? How has the crisis affected them personally and professionally? How has the way they work changed? What are their expectations for the future? What do they need to make their lives easier and their work more fulfilling? What do they need to be able to give their best?

Once this is mapped, more targeted tools can be created to instill brand culture in a way that enriches people’s personal and professional lives. 

This will be bespoke to each brand and persona, but based on my own experience working with MNCs, both remotely and in the office, here are some thought starters:

1. Get Set Up for Success

Workspace ergonomics is now standard, but optimising space to maximise productivity and minimise occupational health hazards will need to be even more tailored in a home office environment. While I work from my kitchen table, my colleagues are in their living room or kids’ bedroom. When the Melbourne weather Gods are merciful, I like to work on my balcony, while my neighbour prefers her front garden. Inside my flat I lack natural light and have no space for a chunky office chair or extra monitor.

Organisations such as Google are offering their staff cash to spend on home-office furniture, but the companies who really want to provide value are going much further. They are offering individualised advice to employees based on what is possible, what their challenges are and what is most important for them in their space. It may be comfort, noise-reduction, natural light, greenery or simply an excellent internet connection. 

To provide an environment that maximises productivity and cultivates creativity, a personal approach is a must. A one-off investment will be returned many times over in productivity and loyalty. Find out what each person needs to operate at their best and provide it. Simple.

2. Communicate and Collaborate

The brands I have personally been most passionate about working for were those whose leaders welcomed two-way communication and open-minded discussion. In my previous role, each month, one of the Chief Execs would run a Q&A session in each of the company’s eight offices. As a publicly owned, bricks-and-mortar business, the questions were often uncomfortable, but there was no pre-vetting and the responses were unrehearsed. It felt genuine and so we felt a personal connection to the company because its leaders were human beings, not titles. 

This type of session can be easily replicated remotely (even without the mini-croissants). A weekly “Ask Me Anything” with different executives, for example, can illicit trust and give every individual a voice, making them feel valued and creating a sense of being part of something bigger.

3. Build Teams Beyond Projects

People don’t care about companies, they care about people. How often will someone say they don’t love their job but they love their team, or they have been working overtime so they don’t let their coworkers down? We care about the success and wellbeing of our colleagues and being perceived as a team-player.

The strongest teams I have worked in have connected on a personal level beyond work. In MASH we don’t just celebrate birthdays – we know what everyone’s perfect day looks like, who would choose chocolate over fries, how they spend their weekends and if their Friday tipple is tequila, vegan wine or a craft IPA. I know Ben has a cat called Smudge, Amy wishes she did and Kara makes the best vegan cookies you’ve ever tasted. Nobody expects a coherent sentence from me before coffee and nobody expects a serious suggestion from Tash on a Friday afternoon. I know how everyone takes their tea and how many wines tip them from silly to sloppy. 

Two of us even live together. Now THAT is team bonding. 

But close relationships can be difficult to nurture when teams are dispersed and communication focussed on work alone. 

One possible solution is to create a virtual “pod”, where each person has one or two others on screen all day. At MASH, we have found this incredibly helpful in connecting colleagues who are physically alone. Throughout lock-down I’ve had a teammate on my iPad beside me. As if sitting next to one another, we share music, thoughts, bounce ideas and have some general banter. 

Another tactic is to encourage conversation beyond work. At MASH, we have a weekly “brunch club”, when we discuss a topic chosen each week by a different team member. Some topics so far have been: describe your perfect day, people that have influenced you, how luck works, what creativity means to you, and how you respond to adversity. For one hour no phones, emails or social media is allowed, just open and honest discussion. This has become a sort of creative group therapy and has been a brilliant way to cultivate relationships and recognise where anyone may be facing personal challenges.

4. Actively Promote Wellbeing 

It’s no secret that mental and physical health has been a struggle for many of us during the pandemic. With no certainty about the future, the light at the end of the tunnel can be almost impossible to spot and motivation to care for yourself can be hard to find. 

To connect on a human level, it is vitally important that brands not only recognise the importance of wellbeing, but take action to help people live healthier lives.

At MASH we have focussed a lot on this. For example, each of our team has been obsessed with figuring out their perfect morning ritual. This has meant exploring what works for them personally – be it meditation, reading in bed, a walk or an intense workout. 

Each of us has been given a “health monitor” watch, helping us to identify if we are not getting enough sleep or movement, or if we are overstressed. Some companies are experimenting with healthy meal delivery, at-home workout plans, virtual yoga classes, subscriptions to meditation apps and counselling sessions. 

Each of these ideas can be gamified with prizes for tracking the best health goals, which brings us to the next point…

5. Create Healthy Competition

There’s no better way to engage people than to ignite their innate competitive spirit. Creating team challenges that go beyond normal work routines and encourage health and wellbeing is a powerful way to forge a sense of belonging. 

The best examples I have encountered use challenges that can involve families and housemates, bringing the brand into people’s homes and embedding it in their social lives. Some ideas could be weekly brainteasers, bake-offs, jigsaws or inventing creative uses for household objects.

6. Regular Tokens of Gratitude

Feeling appreciated is a crucial factor in work and life satisfaction and a little goes a long way on the path to gratitude. This has become a hot topic lately and I have personally taken to writing things I am thankful for on Post-its each day and sticking them all over my apartment (my housemate is not thankful for this). 

There are simple and inexpensive ways to regularly say thank you, it could be a basket of fruit, a selection of teas, a movie download, a box of toiletries, a bunch of flowers or something totally different. Brands have the opportunity to really get creative to make their people smile at the end of a tough week. 

In summary, there is a not a one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating company culture amongst remote teams. A combination of all of these things will be needed to ensure every individual can begin to adapt and flourish in a work-from-wherever environment. Brands who do not invest now in understanding their peoples’ individual personalities, situations and needs and address them on a human level, will face a loss of engagement and productivity during the pandemic and beyond. Your people are your culture – nurture them and you will reap the benefits for years to come. 

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