Building and maintaining culture in 2020: enter the virtual office

Founding a company is challenging for many reasons: 

• The constant string of extreme emotional highs and lows

• Creating a product from scratch

• Selling against large incumbent budgets

• Convincing others to join you on the crazy mission 

These are just some examples.

 

Hiring the team is probably the hardest element, but also the most critical, and once you’ve assembled the perfect team, you need to continually encourage collaboration. A team working in harmony is far more productive than the sum of isolated individual contributors, regardless of how strong each person is. The formation and maintenance of company culture is a frequently talked about part of growing a company, but it is often infrequently focused on in practice. This is especially true in the early days when maniacal focus on product and customer experience dominates mind share. This challenge has become significantly harder in 2020 as numerous companies were forced to go remote, and the need to build and maintain strong working relationships remained. 

 

Humans are social creatures, and the amount of knowledge shared through micro-interactions should not be underestimated. Innovation at the water cooler was championed by Steve Jobs, who is famous for designing office space to maximize employee interactions. He knew that spontaneous conversations, or chance meetings, sparked some of the most ingenious ideas and he sought to exploit these as much as possible. That ingenuity is defined by the architecture of Apple’s new Cupertino campus. The challenge facing every startup is how to develop and encourage an inclusive, spontaneous, innovative culture with every employee working from home and with new employees joining remotely. When doing so, it’s equally important to ensure every employee doesn’t feel like their home is an office, and a healthy separation exists to maintain balance. 

 

Imagine was founded in 2019, and we moved into our first office space in early January 2020. Move-in day was greeted with excitement and a feeling of optimism about what will be built in the space and how those products will change the world. It was immediately apparent that the ad-hoc conversations, both serious and fun, contributed to a happier working environment and to the development of the firm’s culture. It was also obvious some of the best ideas sparked from a spontaneous conversation or a shared lunch. 

 

Everything changed on March 16th, when San Francisco introduced a shelter-in-place rule, and we found ourselves challenged with many questions: 

• How were we going to continue to build team bonds? 

• How would we identify and attract high quality talent? 

• How would we onboard new team members? 

• Would new team members integrate into, and add to, the culture?

• How would we ensure team members didn’t feel isolated?

• Would the team maintain and build the trust between themselves that is so critical for productivity, feedback and iteration?

• [most importantly] How would we maintain the spark of creativity that occurs randomly when we were all together?

It’s worth noting that many remote-only companies exist, but they were set up this way from inception. Everyone hired was aware of this dynamic, and many had frequent in-person time on a periodic basis.

  

What are we solving for?

Employees have the opportunity to work in different environments when in a traditional office:

• Desks in an open-plan layout

• Private phone booths

• Individual or shared offices

• Meeting rooms

 

Some team members find noisy environments hard to concentrate in. Some thrive in the bustle. In a normal setting, team members can choose to be at their desks or isolated in a quiet private area. Group meetings on specific topics can occur in specific closed-door meeting rooms, or an ad-hoc conversation on the floor can result in a broader discussion if more people get involved after eavesdropping. Importantly, by having everyone in a communal space, everyone can interact with their peers immediately if needed with a tap on the shoulder, without fear of a missed email or Slack notification. If things get too loud: headphones on! Slack and other workflow tools can help, but an overflow of notifications can steer some to turn off notifications, leading to frustration if a quick question goes unanswered for hours. 

 

We needed a way to:

1.      Remain close enough to ensure spontaneous conversations can occur and continue to encourage innovation that results;

2.     Continue to maintain boundaries between conversations if one became too loud (mimicking diving into a meeting room);

3.     Continue to build culture across the team versus having many individual siloed meetings; and

4.     Not make any solution feel too much like “big brother” or be perceived as mandatory.

 

How did we solve this?

It became immediately apparent that we needed a way to somehow capture the culture of an office environment, and this manifested itself in maintaining a continuous video feed (we use Google Hangouts but there are many solutions available). We un-originally called it #virtual-office. We immediately set a grounding principle to the entire team: be a part of it as much as you want to. This is a simple concept, but without setting expectations and basic guidelines upfront we were concerned about a constant video feed feeling like there’s always someone watching over your shoulder. 

 

We set up a central #virtual-office Slack channel and pinned a Hangout link to it. Every morning we do a quick standup with everyone to get the day started. This brings everyone together and allows us to discuss the goals for the day - similar to walking into the office and saying hi to colleagues, and maybe catching up socially before settling into work, with the added benefit of coordinating the team for the day. 

 

We set up specific Slack channels for projects or teams, and pinned specific Hangout channels in those. These acted as virtual meeting rooms to discuss specific things that would be annoying for others if done in #virtual-office. 

 

We set some ground rules for the team:

• Maintaining the live feed during the day is encouraged, not mandatory

• Audio-only is ok; video-only is ok; neither is ok

• Mute etiquette should be maintained similar to conference calls - no one needs to hear your AC system working overtime!

• Turn your speaker volume down or off if you need to focus – similar to putting headphones on in an office – and keep an eye on the video or email/Slack notifications if you do just in case someone needs you urgently

  

Our biggest concern was to avoid any feeling of big brother at the same time as encouraging attendance. We felt strongly that our ground rules mitigated any potential big brother feeling, but did not have a light-touch way to encourage attendance: it was a fine line to walk. We knew that maintaining a base level of attendance and engagement would incentivize others to join in, so we continuously provided reasons for being there. 

 

We decided to make ad-hoc announcements in #virtual-office to encourage the team to join in but make sure we also post announcements to the team elsewhere so people aren’t left out. We found that most people wanted to hear things live and be part of a celebration of any positive announcements. As senior leaders of the company, we also ensured we led by example to stay online whenever we could. 


Conclusion

It is dangerous to try and claim we have all the answers after a short period of time, but in not so perfect circumstances, the #virtual-office has been a successful forum for us to build and maintain company culture. It’s clear this only works for reasonably sized teams and larger organizations would likely need to maintain this for smaller specific groups/teams. Fortuitously, #virtual-office has extended itself to encourage spontaneous discussion that has led to some amazing ideas being generated and is the main reason we wanted to share it. As company’s move past development cycles that were planned pre-COVID, we need to find ways to ensure constant innovation moving forward and encourage all initiatives we can to enhance this. We don’t believe this is a perfect solution, but it has worked surprisingly well and Imagine is committed to it for the foreseeable future.  


Feedback from the team over 4-5 months 


To help illuminate the positives and negatives of #virtual-office, we thought it would be helpful to provide some feedback from team members below. 


“In a world where remote work has rapidly become a necessity, workplaces have had to grapple with the loss of a resource whose value is unmistakable but hard to pin down - the organic, in-person ‘watercooler’ interactions that inspire creativity and cement our team cohesion on a daily basis. To achieve these benefits remotely, teams have had to find ways to recreate with intention and scheduling a phenomenon that used to be effortless and ad-hoc. At Imagine, we are fortunate to have a healthy culture. The credit for that goes to each and every team member - they are creative, vibrant, fun, and powerfully effective workers and collaborators. The virtual office didn’t create this culture, but it is an essential part of our toolkit for growing and maintaining it. For me personally, it has created an environment where I have felt closer to the team than I ever dreamed was possible in a remote setting.”

David DiCato

Software Engineer, Imagine 


“The past 4 months have not been easy for everyone. However, thanks for maintaining the virtual office, I’ve felt surprisingly connected to the team throughout the day. As a new engineer on the team, it was immensely valuable to be able to replicate the interaction model of “shoulder tapping” to ask a question despite everyone being remote. It feels like the team is always there for each other, which has helped us to continue building a healthy team dynamic.”

Jinjing Bi

Software Engineer, Imagine 


“I like being able to see all my teammates throughout the day and to be able to chat and have some of the banter that we would in the office. I find the best way to participate is to work with my video on and my mic muted because I like to see everyone’s face but it’s of course ok to kill your video. I usually just try to put a note into Slack or hang up on the call if I’m stepping away from my computer. And just like in a real office, sometimes people talking can be distracting so I installed a Chrome extension to be able to mute the tab when I need to. In general, I really appreciate the virtual office. I joined after shelter-in-place orders had already been issued for San Francisco but I still feel like I know my colleagues and have been able to build a relationship with them.”

Mitch Conquer

Software Engineer, Imagine 


“Taking our office to the virtual world has been no easy task.  There are so many elements you take for granted and just don't think about when sitting right alongside your coworkers.  Others have mentioned the watercooler talk, shoulder tapping, etc. A slack channel can replace some of the basic communication but it does not convey emotion over a problem, intensity of opinion, or urgency of questions. Now, during the global lockdown, we've had the unique opportunity of building the company culture up around the concept of using video chat as our office. Team standups and general chit-chat are still a part of the daily flow and keep the innovation going in a natural way. The best part, however, is no more fighting over a few conference rooms! While we are doing a good job at staying connected, virtual-office hasn’t been a drop-in replacement for the real deal.  We still haven’t found a great way to recreate a whiteboard session that is as efficient as a literal whiteboard.  Team lunches are also a little difficult with people being spread out physically and timezone-wise.”

Ryan Doyle

Software Engineer, Imagine 


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