Blog Barista: Dana Graham | June 15th, 2022 | Culture | Brew time: 5 min
Let me start by saying I don’t care for the term “work family.” I have a family I love, and they have absolutely nothing to do with my career. I want my work life to be its own entity. I like boundaries (and the George Costanza Worlds Theory). Certainly, I want to enjoy and trust my coworkers, and I want to feel supported and cared for, but I don’t want or need them to be “like family.” What I do want, though, is a work culture that is positive, team-oriented, and fulfilling.
When I started with KL&A five years ago, I knew right away their culture was the best of any of the jobs I’d had. People worked hard but had fun. Leadership actually cared about its employees (I once had a friend sincerely ask me, “what’s it like working in a place where they actually care about you as a person?” and I think that says everything about work in America). Teams worked well together at KL&A. All of that is still true… but, like everything, the pandemic has taken its toll and we’ve had to rework work.
Building culture is gradual – it doesn’t just happen. It requires some amount of intention. What develops may be organic and dynamic, but we must be intentional in our efforts to grow and maintain a team’s culture. So here are three things I’ve learned as my team has tried to rework work:
Use Your Communication Tools
It’s basically impossible to build team culture without real-time (or close to real-time) communication. Can you imagine if the ONLY communication you had with your teammates was email? You’d never get anything done, lost in a never-ending whirlpool of reply-alls. There’s just no substitute for face-to-face (or screen-to-screen, as it were) communication.
It often seems like every time we turn around technology provides us with new and additional ways to communicate, leaving us with tons of options. The key here is to find what works for your team and commit to it. We use Slack a lot. Its chat and huddle features are instant, and it’s nice to use messaging options across different time zones. We use it for our daily standups, various meetings, and team chats – some work-related and some not. We can share important updates, tricks of the trade, or fun things like jokes and memes. And since we have team members who speak multiple languages, they will occasionally use Slack to teach us swear words in new languages, bringing a little brevity and humor to our day. Whatever tool you choose, it should both enable and reflect your team’s personalities and communication styles. Whether it’s during a huddle or in a chat, I learn new things about my teammates all the time, it helps me to get to know them.
Like so many others, we also have a lot of meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. My current project team is generally a “no cameras” group, but that’s not always the case. For some meetings, like the Retro we hold at the end of each development sprint, we tend to turn our cameras on. It’s nice to occasionally have some “face-to-face” time to connect. However, I think this will be different from team to team. Maybe you want or need to use cameras frequently. That’s totally fine. I would just caution against mandating camera use as not everyone is comfortable with that and mandating anything can have a negative impact and possibly cause resentment.
Hold Frequent Standups/Check-Ins
Our old daily “standup” got its name because we would literally stand up at a quick morning meeting to start our day. And even though our morning meetings are now held on Slack (using the huddle feature), my team still calls them standups.
Our standups are done daily. Each team member gives a quick run down of what they worked on the day before, their plans for the current day, and any other updates that might be useful to the team. These daily touchpoints keep everyone on the same page and promote accountability and transparency. They also allow us to connect and check-in with each other on a personal level such as celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, sharing if we’re struggling with something and need a little support, and getting to know any new team members. Since my current project and team began, we’ve added 10 new team members. These daily standups have been an important way to get to know them and make room for what they bring to the table.
Make Time for Non-Work
Obviously, work is the priority in any office/work culture, but it’s important to make time for a little fun, too. Fun has always been part of the overall culture at KL&A, and we’ve worked hard to make sure our project team is no exception. In a remote environment, we sometimes have to be more intentional about our fun.
In addition to occasional lunches or meetups, we plan at least one event a month that is explicitly non-work related. Different team members take turns planning each month’s event so that all the different personalities and interests are represented. Most of our team is based in mid-Michigan but, as our company expanded remote work, we also have coworkers in Texas and Indiana. So, we try to alternate between virtual events and in-person (but pandemic safer!) get-togethers. Planning some virtual events ensures our out-of-state coworkers can still join us.
We have had a Jackbox game night on Zoom, played an ongoing game of March Madness bingo during the NCAA basketball tournament, and even a “This Is Your Life” Zoom event where each team member submitted photos and told the story behind them. As for in-person fun, we’ve had a backyard barbecue, played mini-golf, got together for a happy hour, and gone to a nice dinner for the holidays.
I think it’s important to note that our team’s events are optional. If you can make it, great. If not, that’s fine too. There’s no pressure to attend (again with the boundaries!), though I’ve noticed most of us do. A running theme for all these events is that there was almost no talk about work. Nonetheless, we left each of them a stronger work team, ready to do even better the next business day.
I’m fortunate to be on a team that’s a great fit for me with laid-back leadership and mutual respect among all involved. We work well together, and we have fun at and away from work, but that did not happen by accident! We’ve made intentional decisions to help build and maintain our team and its culture, and to make team strength a priority. And it never hurts that we keep finding thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate people to work with. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I sure can pick smart colleagues.”
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