Working from Home Improved This Company’s Culture. (Even Though They’re Headed Back to the Office)

August 19, 2020
Amanda Lee August 19, 2020

When I took over as PuppySpot’s CEO a few years ago, I had a vision to bring our employees together as often as possible. That necessitated significant travel and costs because we were spread over 4 locations. Over the past 2 years, however, we have decided to simplify our real estate footprint and trimmed down to 2 locations, our headquarters in Jersey City and our largest office in Hollywood, FL. Our other office transitioned to remote work. I still believe that nothing can replace being all together at once for big brainstorms and collaborations but remote work has proven to be better than expected.

I work closely with my human resources department to ensure that we offer the best available and appropriate perks, benefits, and amenities to keep our staff happy and healthy. Since the pandemic hit, all of the rituals and routines we had implemented at the office had gone out the window so we had to shift gears and begin to rethink what our company would look like – and feel like – while all working from home. The one thing I knew right away was that just because we’d be sitting separately we didn’t have to feel apart. 

Nothing by any means was normal about those first few weeks of quarantine, but I was amazed and impressed at how quickly many of our team members adjusted to the realities on the ground. Walls that had existed between offices came down over night and the team rallied as one. This made my job as an executive a whole lot simpler. Rather than have to motivate people and monitor them as they entertained freedoms and flexibility like never before, I was confident almost immediately that everyone was playing their role and doing their part to ensure that the business continued to operate at the same standard we’d expected of one another. 

With all the daily work responsibilities taken care of, we turned our attention to the more significant shift that companies like ours had to confront and endure – what company culture means amid a time of indefinite remote work. First, we had to recognize that everyone was busy, especially parents scrambling for childcare coverage.

Our primary focus was squarely on empathy.

We had to be mindful of people’s mental health, recognizing that they were experiencing and managing a lot more than usual at home than they’d typically have on their plates. Our hope has always been to revolve our strategy around transparency and responsiveness. So we embraced right away the acceptance that kids and dogs would be making cameos in the living room backgrounds on Zoom calls, but we encouraged people to bring them close to the cameras and introduce us all to their loved ones. This was an immediate hit with team members, who arguably for the first time were truly getting a glimpse into the lives of their colleagues. And it cost the company nothing to implement this approach.

More structurally, we instituted at the start regular Zoom yoga sessions and virtual happy hours to bring people together for activities and events outside of set meetings. Staying connected while dispersed was a hard prospect to come by, but our team was up to the challenge. Over time, though, these weekly or monthly traditions can grow stale if they’re perceived as repetitive. As a result, we’ve transformed happy hours into a bingo game one week, trivia night the next, and are constantly tweaking the formula by changing up the process of how our happy hours function and what’s expected. And also who leads them. Last week, one of our team members led a cooking demo of how to make chili. This, for us, was a new way to engage. We know that different people interact and engage differently. It was heartwarming to see so many staffers following along and making their own chili at home in tandem.

More than anything, what people look forward to and get excited about is surprise. One day last month, we arranged to deliver pizzas to everyone at their respective homes and then to encourage everyone to eat together. By way of company culture events, this was not an expensive or labor-intensive one to pull off. But it’s the one that people are still chatting about for many weeks afterward. We’ve done our best to bridge the gap and to offer typical in-person experiences while seated at home and gathered virtually. If all is going so well with the business and the company culture, you might ask why we nevertheless plan to return to the office.

During this time of pandemic, we’ve seen everyone step up. To keep the momentum we must keep connections going online. Even as we reopen our Headquarters in Jersey City in the coming months, I anticipate that much of the company culture will remain online. The office will be open and available for small groups of people at a time to congregate and work together, however, the types of events and rituals of the past won’t come back any time soon. Ultimately, what people want out of company culture is to know that executives are thinking about them and supporting them; in the past four months, we’ve built goodwill and trust across the organization.

When the organizational walls came down, we got to see people for what they are. That’s as much true about executives as it is employees. What gets you through the stress and toughness of the time is the joy and pride the team takes in it all. While none of us would have wished for this global crisis, I’ve been unexpectedly pleased with what I’ve seen develop inside my company. As this situation starts to stabilize, and we settle into a new normal, people will seek and strive to reconnect. I firmly believe that we’re in a better position now than we were before to enable those kinds of connections to take place and to last.

About the author: Claire Komorowski is CEO of PuppySpot

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