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Can Culture Survive Remote Work?

December 1, 2021

By Mary E. Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

One of the number one arguments I hear against remote work is maintaining the workplace culture that was established prior to COVID. But I think, in some cases, if the right adjustments were made, culture was improved or at least maintained.

Keith Melnick, CEO of Austin-based insurtech company, The Zebra, recently wrote about what worked and what didn’t as they transitioned to remote work while trying to maintain the engaging culture they had established.  For The Zebra, culture meant connection and belonging. After going full-time remote for all staff, this is what he found:

What Worked

Orientation – Employee orientation takes on a higher importance for remote workers, as you can’t just simply pop your head into the office next door to ask a question. It’s important to give new employees an in-depth orientation with a list of contacts for everyday questions.  All policies should be easily accessible.

Accessibility – Pre-pandemic, The Zebra hosted CEO dinners, where the Melnick would meet with one employee from each department over dinner.  To replace that and remain accessible, they started 15-30 minute zoom meetings where the entire executive team participated. The team met with employees “speed dating style.”  All employees were invited, so they never knew who they would be “zooming” with.

Empathy – Once of the main concerns with going remote was the loss of office chatter – those Monday mornings where everyone talked about their weekends, which provided small glimpse into coworkers’ personal lives.  Melnick was concerned they’d lose those connections. Instead, they actually saw an increase in empathy amongst employees. The Zebra found that the culture they had built withstood going remote.  When the winter storm hit Austin, the employees helped each other out, offering their homes to coworkers’ family and pets – even coworkers they’ve never met in person.

What Didn’t Work

Over-the-top-gifting – To try to make up for the “lost” culture, they sent gifts to employees.  But it was overdone and didn’t result in any increased engagement.  They sent pampering gift sets, snacks, and a Valentine’s Day gift, but looking back Melnick states that he wished he’d done something more meaningful to his employees such as a few hours off early on a Friday or a mandatory lunch break.

Forced fun – They found that you can’t simply mimic an office environment online. They tried to mimic interoffice networking with online zoom meetings meant to just mingle and network.  In his words, “It was awkward at best.”

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