“How do you scale culture? It always seems to fall apart.” With these words, Josh Levine, author of Great Mondays, kicked off our most recent webinar with some hard truths, setting the tone for a fascinating conversation full of real talk and fresh new insights. Josh was joined by Dennis Field, Manager, Employer Branding & Internal Marketing at InVision, for a fireside chat where they discussed the role that rituals play in culture. The short takeaway: even if you’re not thinking about them proactively, rituals are critically important in building and reinforcing relationships and connections. (This is especially true at scale and for remote, distributed, and digital teams.)
We’ve recapped the key points of their conversation, as well as some of the insights and ideas from our audience participants and friends at Bonusly, below. Read on for actionable ideas that you can take away for your organization, no matter your size or geographic makeup. Hint: it’s not a virtual cocktail party.
Setting the Stage: Relationships Are Everything
While it might sound intimidating to start the conversation by acknowledging that company culture has a tendency towards entropy, Josh shared some words of hope: if cultures are prone to falling apart, then the relationships between people are the transmitters that keep it alive. Or if you prefer a scientific metaphor, relationships are the “synapses.”
“Once your organization grows beyond 50-100 people, you’ll start to see those relationships weaken. As a human, you only have the energy to connect with about 50 people, which is kind of your tribe.”Josh Levine
Great Mondays, Author
Now that we no longer have ways to interact with one another every day in a physical space, the relationships are weakening—even the strong ones—and the degradation of relationships naturally affects how we work together. Rituals become more important when we’re spread far apart. Knowledge work requires collaboration and connection, and relationships are the key to getting the work done, let alone innovating.
Build the Buzz
Dennis joined the InVision team around the 50 employee mark, and he recognized right away that the company’s remote-first community had created something special. He attributes the strength of the culture to its authenticity, and points to the way that InVision has thoughtfully deployed technologies and tools that play up the humanity of the team.
Dennis described InVision as having “the energy of an office, buzzing, right in chat,” even in the pre-Slack days. While at the time, these technologies were thought of as just chat tools, InVision started using messaging platforms as virtual offices from the get go. So what does authenticity mean for InVision? It means that the culture feels human, empathetic, and connected, even among people who have never met in person. From there, any decision about programs or technologies seeks to play up and supercharge the human relationships and dynamics that might happen naturally IRL.
Emergent vs. Explicit Rituals
Josh shared that rituals come in a few shapes and sizes. They may serve big groups or small groups, and while some rituals are explicit, or sanctioned from the top-down, others are emergent, or organic from the bottom-up. The most important thing is setting the tone that these rituals are welcome and encouraged.
So how has InVision supported rituals that build relationships and strengthen connection? After all, while it’s easy to find your people when joining a company in the early days, it can be hard after that 50-person tripwire, especially when you’ve never met in person. Dennis points to two key drivers: finding a tribe, and deputizing new hires to scale culture.
Emergent Ritual: Finding a Tribe Through Hobby Channels
One emergent ritual that Dennis shared and many of our participants echoed was the concept of the “hobby channel.” Within Slack, InVision has tacitly—and then formally—encouraged employees to create channels devoted to their hobbies, whether that be woodworking, fishing, reading, or something else. These channels, like all affinity channels, create clear spaces where employees can connect with like-minded people, and go “beyond the work,” as Dennis put it.
Explicit Ritual: Deputizing New Hires to Scale Culture
On the other side of the equation, as the company approached a period of hypergrowth, the People team explored explicit rituals to keep the team’s bonds strong with all of the rapid change coming down the pike. They knew that relationships were a likely area of breakage, so they invested in building an onboarding program that ensured that the culture would scale intentionally with new hires.
Ship, Iterate, and Measure
Many rituals start as emergent behaviors, and then take on a life of their own; they may continue on their own momentum with tacit approval from the organization, or they may receive explicit support from the company—sometimes with additional resources and promotion, when appropriate. We wondered, what happens when an organization tries to formally promote an informal, organic ritual to more people? Or tries to implement a new ritual from the top-down? The answer is that it doesn’t always work, but it’s worth experimenting to find out. While it can be difficult to talk about failed experiments, both Josh and Dennis wholeheartedly supported trying new things until you’ve found your sweet spot. Not every ritual will work and take root, and that’s ok. Some will fizzle, some will take off, and some will morph into an entirely new ritual. Trying is the only way to know what’s best for your team.
Experimenting Is Key
Dennis shared an example from InVision, where they experimented with a virtual office-style open Zoom call that people could pop in and out of, stemming from the insight that the team missed those small interactions that you might experience in an everyday office setting. “It never took off,” Dennis told us. “We put some resources behind it, and it wasn’t a bad idea,” but the execution wasn’t the right way to address what people were really craving. (If you’re looking to do something similar for your team, try out Donut Watercooler, our newest launch that sparks serendipitous conversation that mimics the office watercooler, right in Slack.)
Iterating between Asynchronous and Synchronous Connections
What starts as an asynchronous ritual can morph into synchronous, and vice-versa. Sharing another example of a ritual going beyond its initial form, Dennis spoke to the realistic challenges of scaling as a distributed team, and said that you have to “get through the glass,” or create spaces with some friction and awkwardness to create a more human workplace. When they created the Co-Ownership Forum as a way to connect individuals and leadership and foster better two-way communication in Confluence, it took off and ultimately has evolved into a live, open Q&A after All Hands. It’s done wonders for connecting the team and reinforcing values of openness and trust. That trickles down to the managers & ICs, since people know that they will be safe to ask honest questions.
Josh reinforced that dedication to exclusively synchronous connection is one of the biggest reasons why rituals fail (or as you may be used to discussing it: Zoom fatigue) — and that it’s a testament to the InVision team’s desire for connection that the ritual stayed strong and transitioned from async to synchronous.
Plan Around Feedback Loops
While it’s not always easy to gauge success quickly for a ritual, it’s possible to measure if you start intentionally. InVision’s People-centric work is similar to building product, in that they start small, pilot, add more people into the pilot, and then roll out intentionally by cohort. This method allows the team to keep getting feedback as they go. Dennis shared that a key inflection point is often moving from one business unit to the other. His recommendation is to build support with leadership in the business, and also build a groundswell of excited employees. This creates a sense of FOMO, since everyone wants connection (no matter how long they’ve been remote). The combination of top-down & bottoms-up creates co-ownership inside the business, taking these programs from a “niche fun thing to something that has business justification, because it provides value.”
Identifying and Amplifying Emergent Rituals
InVision has created a work environment where people feel comfortable being themselves at work and that’s enabled some authentic, organic rituals to emerge from the business, which the People team can then reinforce. As Dennis put it, “anything that’s working starts bottoms-up, and then they come to us with what’s working.”
Some asynchronous examples that started as emergent rituals, which are now part of the culture:
- “Class photos” for new hire classes
- Cross-team coffees through Donut
- Sending Bonusly money to new parents to buy diapers
Josh pointed out that identifying emergent rituals can be difficult, even for colocated teams. At InVision, as a design-first company, the People team uses listening tools to guide the process. Through focus groups, they will learn more about the specific employee responses to a given question, and then they put the feelers out to the larger team in Slack to see if anyone is already solving the challenge in a creative, bottoms-up way. They comb through the stories and feedback to understand where employees feel supported, or not, and how they can do better. Everything starts with asking the right questions, really listening to the answers, and looking at the data that your team has.
“A key question that we ask when identifying emergent rituals is: do you want the People Team’s help?”Dennis Field
InVision, Manager, Employer Branding & Internal Marketing
Ritual Recommendations from the Community
While this conversation was going on, our audience participants also had a ton of ideas, and a vigorous conversation going on in the Chat section. See some of the program ideas they shared, below!
Karen: “We did a Halloween recreate an album cover, movie poster or famous painting using everyday items found in the home.”
Britney: “We host a weekly lounge hour where it’s a NO WORK TALK session to catch up over optional drinks…it’s one of our most successful events that transitioned from being beer in the kitchen to a Zoom, and it’s completely optional! Everything is really optional as we want to allow people to make the decision on what they feel they need or want in terms of connection.”
Katie: “We use Donut Watercooler and have it set up to send a topic/question once a week. Our employees seem to enjoy it, and it promotes some casual banter. I’ve also found when possible, offering content for employees is a great way to connect versus more virtual connections. For example, we asked employees to submit photos of how they found joy through quarantine, and then put it together in a photo reel to share out. A t-shirt design contest for some company swag, a version of Memory where we used employee headshots for the photos…”
Maggie: “We just had a tarot card reader come to our most recent virtual happy hour, it was a huge hit!”
Regina: “We evolve and try new things all the time. Taking a break from everything has also helped set a reset button. The #pet channel on Slack is the most fun and coffee buddies is still working for a small group. We are having a family-friendly magician on Thursday night in December.”
JD: “We have set up multiple “Concerts for…” and had employees sign up to perform musical numbers, so we turned it more into a talent show/night out at a concert, than just a virtual cocktail hour.”
Sarah: “We launched a virtual platform that brings people together remotely for opportunities to socialize, learn and pursue wellness. It’s very simple – a weekly email announcing events (we average two a week), a webpage on our internal website with the calendar, and a Zoom link. We do coffee chats every other week, 5-minutes meditations now and then, our ERGs are using it to bring people together, and we deliver learning opportunities based on whatever is going on at the company.”
Ben: “We hold asynchronous trivia every Tuesday that our team loves.”
Michael: “Zero Zoom Mondays (to use some alliteration).”
Kelcie: “Breakout rooms are highly effective in our organization with regards to building closer relationships between employees.”
Miguel: “For Zoom calls, we give folks a fun prompt of a photo to share as their background. We kick off calls with having a few of them give a story related to their photo. It’s fun and it builds excitement.”
Britney: “Our teams really appreciate the break out rooms, especially those more introverted who don’t feel comfortable talking in a larger format!”