Can company culture survive Zoom?

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 14, 2021
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
Hand in Hand Soap's financial controller Arnie Cohen and his green-winged macaw Zoey make an appearance during a recent meeting. Courtesy Hand in Hand Soap

Can company culture survive Zoom?

Sabri Ben-Achour Apr 14, 2021
Heard on:
Hand in Hand Soap's financial controller Arnie Cohen and his green-winged macaw Zoey make an appearance during a recent meeting. Courtesy Hand in Hand Soap
HTML EMBED:
COPY

It’s a typical meeting at Hand in Hand Soap. Chief operating officer Julie Atwood, from her square on the screen, calls out across the Eastern seaboard: “I’m in Nashville, we’re from all over – Arnie’s in Pennsylvania, Chris, you’re in North Carolina.” A chatty green-winged macaw named Zoey is seated on the shoulder of the financial controller; the meeting is occasionally punctuated by her contributions.

Hand in Hand began operating remotely because of the pandemic and Atwood has pushed to keep it that way, even after the country is released from lockdown. “We have since decided to remain an entirely virtual company,” she told Marketplace with resolve.

There is no office anymore, and the savings have more than paid for all the equipment for Hand in Hand employees to work from home. Recruiting is a dream, Atwood added; the talent pool from which the company hires has expanded from Philadelphia-based to the entire United States. In the past year, Hand in Hand has hired eight people from all over the country.  

“None of us have met each other in the same physical space, only the founder and two of the employees that helped grow the company to this stage have met each other in person,” Atwood said.  

The dynamic she describes is a source of deep misgiving for some business leaders.

“What is it in your culture that gets lost when you bring on a bunch of new people during a time like COVID?” asked Adin Meir, president of CodeGreen Solutions, a sustainability consulting firm. CodeGreen has commiteed to keeping its office; Meir worries that company culture suffers remotely.

“You really felt the power of that culture when you were in person but now that you’ve lost some of that magic,” he said. “I don’t think everyone can work from home all the time.”

The concept of “company culture” is saddled with certain imagery in the imaginations of Americans: the trust exercises of decades gone by, the freewheeling indoor playground layout of Google offices, the oppressive pressure to produce at any given law firm. A company’s culture is intangible, and often privately derided as an invention of PR, but it is very real.

“Company culture is really about the connection that employees have, number one, to a company,” said Bradford Bell, professor of strategic human resources at Cornell University, who has studied work and remote work for many years. It’s why, emotionally, an employee chooses to work at one company as opposed to another, all things being equal.

“Why do they choose to work for one organization versus another is often based on their perception of how they fit,” Bell said. “I also think company culture is really important for signaling what companies value.”

Are we an innovation company? Are we a traditional company? What is the point of this company? How is disagreement handled here? Is seniority more important than innovation? Are rules to be bent, broken, or followed with precision? How are ideas challenged? None of this is handled or transmitted through the employee handbook, Bell pointed out. It’s transmitted through relationships.

“Maintaining relationships really becomes a challenge for coworkers when they’re working remotely,” said Bell. In previous eras, remote workers have been more prone to fall out of sight and out of mind when it came to getting promotions or certain assignments.  

Emerging from the pandemic, a lot of companies are mulling over a hybrid model, where people work from home but still come to the office from time to time. If people do go back into the office, Bell warned, they shouldn’t be doing stuff they could be doing at home. “When they come in the office it should really be about collaboration, it should be about those social elements,” he said.

Paul Hanges, chief executive of digital entertainment company JibJab, is still figuring out what approach to take.

“My gut instinct is that a world in which we go to the office a few days a week and then are home a few days a week gives, probably, the worst of all worlds,” Hanges said. “It doesn’t really give people the flexibility to live where they want to live, because you still have a big commitment: getting into that office center a few days a week. And it doesn’t give you enough time together to really get those cross-departmental interactions, brainstorming, strategy sessions, as you might hope.”

Instead, Hanges said: “We will live in a world where we are working from home, fully separated for four to five weeks at a time, and then all come together for a one week on site. You’ll do you strategy sessions, your corporate-culture building, your new-hire orientation and anything else that revolves around everyone being together and interacting and building that corporate culture.” Four to six weeks later, you do it all again, he said. Hanges plans to experiment with a number of different arrangements over the coming months to discover what works best.

Atwood at Hand in Hand Soap said there will be special events to bring coworkers together physically, similar to Hanges’ vision for JibJab.  But, she said, her company has something that gives it an edge over most others when it comes to remote culture: purpose. “We have drawn so many folks to the company because of the mission and the purpose and the values of the company that inherently, in who we’re attracting, we find there’s a common culture,” she said.

The mission of the company is to provide soap-based products to children in Haiti and elsewhere in the developing world to prevent illness and death.  (“For every product purchased, one bar of soap + one month of clean water is donated to a child in need,” reads a banner on the website.) Employees are energized by that mission and wanting to connect from the beginning, she said.

“I see it with every single member we have, they’re looking to connect and support each other,” said Tanya Mulicka, product supply and logistics director at Hand in Hand. “I think that’s pretty par for the course for a mission-driven company. I think another thing that works to our advantage is we are a smaller company. I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to migrate to a remote situation if you’re working for a giant company with thousands of people. It might be isolating.”

Atwood said she puts a lot of effort into scheduling relationship-building time. “I call it the Hollywood Squares,” she said, “we meet every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for one half-hour as a team.” It sounds like a company show-and-tell, with staffers’ birthdays and other personal achievements celebrated. “We sort of just share as much as we can,” said Atwood. “It’s almost become an advantage because I think there’s more intention put toward getting to know each other, sharing the personal items and not just tasks.”

The importance of intention should be one of the most valuable lessons about company culture to come out of this pandemic, said Jennifer Howard-Grenville, professor of organizational studies at Cambridge University Business School. “Culture isn’t just inertial, it doesn’t come for free,” she said. ‘You have to keep feeding it.”

So as much as companies are worrying about the physical spaces their people will work in — an office, a home, or both — they need to think just as hard about the culture they will work in. From anywhere. 

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.