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How to Design (and Redesign) the Practices of Company Culture

This is an excerpt from ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success by Melissa Daimler (McGraw Hill, May 2022)

Daimler is currently the Chief Learning Officer at Udemy, and she previously was a leader at WeWork, Twitter, and Adobe, as well as running her own boutique advisory and coaching business.

In this excerpt, Daimler details how company culture comes to life through a series of actions, or practices, that must evolve with the company; examples of when practices did not evolve (WeWork) and when they did (Twitter); and then dives deep into one of the most critical areas for how a culture is practiced, communication, sharing frameworks for intentionally designing how companies communicate.

“What worked yesterday is the gilded cage of tomorrow.”— Peter Block

When thinking about the practice of culture, I sometimes refer to a fable about the “Pot Roast Principle”—the tradition of cutting off the ends of the pot roast that was passed down to the next generation. When a granddaughter finally asked her grandmother how the tradition started, she discovered that the real reason was because the pot roast would not fit into her grandmother’s small roasting pan unless the ends were cut off. 

This is how traditions and practices get passed down. We watch, we learn, we do, without asking questions. When a company is young, implicit assumptions are made on how to do things, the wrong behaviors can get reinforced, and the ends get cut from the roast, even when the pan is bigger. Practices need to be reviewed and evolve with the company; if not, different behaviors get reinforced. 

Here is an example: when WeWork was founded in 2010, the company instituted a mandatory practice of bringing employees together during a three-day Annual Summer Camp. As the company grew, this practice remained. Many employees looked forward to the event every year, giving them opportunities to connect with colleagues and build a community with each other. Others had more mixed feelings. One of WeWork’s values was “together,” and this was a practice that the cofounders and a core group of leaders thought to be an expression of that. And that may have been true when the company had 10 employees, maybe even 100, but by 2017, at 4,000 employees, “Summer Camp” got complicated. There were concerns from employees about the appropriateness of spending three nights in a teepee with their colleagues in a field an hour and a half outside of London. Security and HR concerns aside, the practice, given the size and scope of the company, became quickly outdated. 

Could WeWork have retained the essence of the connection it sought through the Summer Camp, but in a different way that appealed to more employees? In reviewing its practices, WeWork could have investigated the practices of other companies that grew too large to have one global event. If they had, they might have been inspired to have smaller, local team events that didn’t include tents, overnight stays, or even alcohol, keeping the focus on connection and community and less on managing the omnipresent discomfort and stress.

ReCulturing Practices Book Excerpt Twitter FINAL | How to Design (and Redesign) the Practices of Company Culture | Coletividad

Practices are the informal, day-to-day, and sometimes more functionally oriented actions or rituals that employees and teams implement. The five core practices most companies perform on a consistent basis are communicating, meeting, learning, recognizing, and connecting. 

Just like we can design intentional processes that align with and reinforce culture, we can do the same with our practices. Company strategies evolve, our processes evolve, leaders evolve. Our practices must evolve too.

Why Practices Need to Evolve

As illustrated by the WeWork example, one of the mistakes many growing companies make is keeping the same processes and practices they used when they had 20 employees, even though their company has grown to 500, 1,000, or even 3,000 employees. Fortunately, it is possible to keep the essence of what that practice intended to do—mostly building team camaraderie, community, and connection—while also evolving the practice to ensure it continues to be inclusive and scalable.

In an interview with the New York Times, Matthew Prince, CEO of the cyber security firm Cloudflare, said that it is important to review practices as the company grows, with an eye on those that can exclude others. In fact, one of the dangers of growing “too quickly” is not evolving practices in a manner that is relevant to the changes accompanying the growth. Prince shared an example about a younger engineer suggesting a weekly practice of getting drinks at a local pub every Friday to talk about the week and get to know each other. Prince vetoed the idea because it wasn’t suitable for all people and all lifestyles. Could this practice, which might be a welcome one for a fresh MBA graduate who is single, translate to the schedule and responsibilities of a single parent or team member who has to commute farther to get home? 

Prince shared: “I explained that when you look at successful organizations, they’re defined by their ability to pull from the broadest possible pool of people. At some point, we’re going to want to hire a 50-year-old single mom or dad who has to pick up their daughter from soccer practice on Friday afternoons. If they can’t feel like they’re part of the team, then they’re not going to come work for us. That’s going to massively narrow the pool of people we can hire from. We wanted to make Cloudflare a place where, no matter who you were, you could come here and work, and you’d be judged on that work. We weren’t trying to recreate college.”

At Twitter, when everyone worked in the same office location, Friday afternoon happy hours were nice. They were called “Tea Time,” and started when all the employees could fit on a sofa and a few comfy chairs, grabbed a beer or “tea,” and talked about the week. What happened? What did we learn? What is not working? What is happening next week?

As the company grew beyond its San Francisco headquarters into other global locations, then numbering over 1,500 employees, Tea Time had to be rethought to accommodate new geographies. Friday afternoon is late in London and already the weekend in Tokyo. Twitter moved to alternating the time between evenings and mornings with different sites hosting. Each host would highlight business updates on a local level, sharing local cultural practices and team updates, all centered around the company’s values. Doing so helped all employees feel like they were contributing to the purpose, strategy, and culture of Twitter.

In my book, ReCulturing, Patty McCord – Netflix’s former chief talent officer and now human resources consultant – and I discussed the pull to hang on to practices and ways of working, even if they weren’t exactly working great before. “Beware of the smoke of nostalgia,” she said. Instead of asking, “Remember how it used to be?” think about how great it can be now. She reminded me that the infamous culture deck she co-created at Netflix was not created overnight, or even in a year. It was created over 10 years.

Evolving practices has become even more important with remote work. There are not as many social cues as there were in the physical workplace. Often, some of the most important work used to get done in the hallways in between meetings. Companies are now having to adjust more quickly to working remotely with the help of intentionally evolving their practices that reinforce the culture. For example, those once-a-month all-company meetings might move to a weekly cadence. Those team meetings that lasted an hour each week are now twice a week for 30 minutes. That pat on the back is now a comment on the company’s communication platform.

The Practice of Communicating

Like meetings, communication mechanisms are often not considered as intentional practices that need to be designed and evolved. Synchronous communication (one-on-ones with direct reports, peers, or your manager), team meetings, and all-hands meetings, as well as asynchronous communication (texts, emails, Slack messages, and yes, even phone calls) all need continued review. But first, a story.

A few years ago, I was stuck in New York’s JFK Terminal 4 trying to get back to San Francisco (yes, another airport story—I traveled a lot). My fellow passengers and I were standing in our designated lines at our departure gate, ready to board. The boarding time had come and gone. After 20 minutes with no updates, people lined up to talk to the gate agent behind the desk. But the agent didn’t talk to anyone—he was too busy talking on the phone. He seemed scattered, frustrated, and even angry. Then, he abruptly put on his jacket and left the desk without saying anything. The passengers started talking, making up the worst possible scenarios, looking at our phones, trying to figure out what was going on and what our action plan was. Was the flight canceled? Were we going to get home tonight to see our families? Should we look into booking a hotel for the night? Was it even safe to take this flight if it opened again? The collective anxiety was palpable.

As we were comparing our imagined scenarios with each other (and these are usually worse than reality), a woman named Diane confidently, intentionally, and even happily, walked behind the desk. She put her bag down and, before even taking off her jacket, got on the loudspeaker and told us, with a smile on her face, that she had no idea what was going on, but she would get back to us with an update within the next 20 minutes. There was a collective sigh of relief. While we still had no information, we had candor and a promise. We all calmed down knowing someone was now communicating with us.

And communicate with us Diane did—every 20 minutes. First update: “OK, I just heard from the captain. He said we have a flat tire—yes, planes get flat tires, too—and they were working on getting a new one. The good news is that there are no engine issues, so this won’t take as long as we had thought.” Second update: “OK, no new updates here, but I do have bottled water for everyone if you want one.” Third update: “Still no update, everyone. I am talking to the captain soon.” Fourth update: “OK, we got the tire! Still working on the timing of how long it will take to get on.” Fifth update: “The tire is on, and we should be ready to board by my next update.” Final update: “OK! Let’s board!” This took about two hours. 

When I work with leaders on how to communicate important updates, I often think about Diane. While leaders are dealing with more than a flat tire on an airplane, the takeaway is to over-communicate, even if we don’t have all of the answers. One of my mentors used to tell me that if I felt like I was communicating too much, that probably meant that I was communicating just enough.

One of my clients, Bonnie, was feeling the same way that first man behind the boarding gate counter was feeling. She was getting feedback that her team needed to hear more from her in the first few weeks of the global pandemic, when everyone was sheltering in place. 

Bonnie is a CEO of a fast-growing startup. She is an experienced leader. She had already worked with her current leadership team in building out a clear strategy, defining their values, behaviors, processes, and practices. So, ensuring everyone was safe and set up to work from home was just another process for her and her team. She gave updates on the business in the first all-company virtual meeting. Everyone seemed like they were coping well, considering the circumstances.

Yet, during one of our coaching sessions, in the third month of the pandemic with all of her employees working from home, she shared that she had not sent anything out to the team for several weeks. She was already overwhelmed with too much news, advice, and conflicting theories on what was happening in the world. She didn’t want to burden her employees with more of the same uncertainty. What more was there to say? Well, a lot.

While everyone was getting inundated with too much information externally, they craved more information from her as the CEO. They didn’t expect, want, or need answers. They just wanted a consistent connection with their leader. When we referred to her company’s values and behaviors, one of those behaviors had to do with ongoing connection. Since everyone had started working at home, she hadn’t ReCultured to identify different processes and practices to put in place that would exemplify that behavior.

Bonnie began a practice of daily 10-minute virtual stand-ups with her leadership team. She asked each leader to do the same with their teams. She had a virtual all-hands meeting every Friday (up from once a month). Bonnie participates in various group Slack channels and holds open office hours each week. She continues these practices today.

Communication is About More Than Information

A Wall Street Journal article pointed out that “Crises teach us that CEOs (and leaders) aren’t expected to be as right as they are expected to be engaged.” Leaders often don’t communicate because they don’t think they have any valuable information to share. Yet, good communication is about more than updates. It’s about connection.

As more and more companies are shifting to a hybrid workplace, communication becomes an even more important, active practice when not everyone is physically in the same place. We need communication, but we need to still be intentional about the kind of communication we’re sharing and how we’re sharing it. 

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, writes about the importance of deep work and focus. He writes in his latest book, A World Without Email, that “modern knowledge workers communicate constantly. Their days are defined by a relentless barrage of incoming messages and back-and-forth digital conversations—a state of constant, anxious chatter in which nobody can disconnect, and so nobody has the cognitive bandwidth to perform substantive work.”

Newport includes staggering statistics: The average office worker gets and receives 126 emails a day, and the average worker puts in only 75 minutes of uninterrupted work daily. Teams that work through asynchronous communication practices and answer the suggested questions will allow their members to focus more on deep work—maybe even get longer than 75 minutes a day of uninterrupted work. As a result, teams will feel more productive and experience a more meaningful connection to each other and the organization.

When major shifts happen, either externally or internally at your organization, that’s a sign to ReCulture. Slack, Microsoft Teams, email, text, Google Docs, chats, phone calls, and video calls are all available communication options. Be clear with your team about how to use these tools and the expectations around them. For example, Slack and text are more urgent than email. Do you even need to send that email? Could it go into a Google Doc that you review with someone at another time when you’re both meeting already? In 2005, researchers from the University of California studied context switching and the impact it had on productivity. They found that people could take more than 20 minutes to get back to a task after they were interrupted.

I used to send my team Harvard Business Review articles. Sometimes I would send them research reports that I found fascinating. Some of them would be over 50 pages. I would skim them and come up with so many good ideas that we could possibly do with our team that I wanted to pass them along to the team.

After a few months of this, one of my team members shared in a one-on-one that she couldn’t keep up with all the articles I was emailing. She said the rest of the team is also feeling overwhelmed by how much I expected them to review. Overwhelmed? Review? In my mind, the articles were just FYI. If they wanted to read them and they were useful to them to spark ideas, great. But no big deal if not. I was not clear in my communication. So, as a team, we created new communication practices by being clear what we needed and wanted, in the time frame we wanted it, in the subject line. We came up with: FYI (for things that don’t need to be responded to but read), NAN (“No Action Needed” for things that don’t need to be responded to or read), URGENT: if needed within 24 hours (could also be followed up with a text); and AN (“Action Needed” for things that needed a response within the next 48 hours). This helped all of us prioritize our communications and next actions. We even came up with a practice of highlighting the top three takeaways from an article if we shared it with the rest of the team.

Adapted from ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success. Copyright © 2022 by Melissa Daimler. Used with permission by McGraw Hill.

Written by Melissa Daimler is the Chief Learning Officer at Udemy, an online learning platform. She previously worked at Adobe, Twitter, and WeWork. She is also the author of “ReCulturing” on how to design company culture.

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