How do you create and sustain a tight knit culture when your teams can’t always be together in person?
For many leaders, the answer seems to be: you can't. One of the top cited reasons to return to the office is culture. Some think that remote work makes it harder for people to connect to the organization and to their coworkers.
But it is possible to cultivate an inclusive and supportive environment even in a dispersed setting. As an engineering manager at Humu, I’ve seen firsthand how with intention, care, and commitment, culture can thrive and even be strengthened in a remote setting. Among the most effective tools we’ve used are rituals.
Rituals are the repeated practices that occur in your company. In product development, we plan for the project, we do a daily standup or check in, we do a weekly update on progress, and we do a retrospective at the end of the project. Other business units have their own rituals around quarterly planning, goal setting, kickoffs, and reviews.
Done right, rituals are also a great way to bring your cultural values to life. In a dispersed world, deliberately designing rituals is even more important because many of the informal mechanisms for transmitting culture and values are less accessible in a team split across locations and time zones.
Here are three careful and deliberate rituals that have helped us stay connected, even when the pandemic forced us to work remotely.
Welcome individuals by celebrating them for who they are
Almost every human culture has rituals for welcoming people to the community and celebrating their arrival. These range from study and recitation for a bar mitzvah, to partying and dancing at a quinceañera, to goofy icebreakers at the beginnings of seminars and conferences. The welcome you create strongly influences new employees’ perception of what it is to work at your company.
Humu has created a very deliberate set of onboarding rituals for "Numus", as new Humu employees are called. Let’s zoom in on one in particular: introducing the new employee to the entire company.
On their first day, a Numu meets with an assigned ‘buddy’ who is their cultural guide. This buddy not only answers questions but also asks them, getting an understanding of the Numu’s background and how they got to Humu. Two days later the buddy introduces them to the entire company during a company all hands. They present a slide celebrating the Numu's unique background and interests, favorite foods, interesting hobbies, and the story of how they came to Humu. Welcomes flood the chat, and the Numu has an opportunity to say hello to the entire company.
This ritual has the effect of immediately making the new employee feel welcome at Humu, and reinforces the cultural value of putting people first.
Structure casual collisions to promote internal visibility and collaboration
With the shift to remote work, one thing lost is the natural spread of information during informal "water cooler" chats and in person collisions. Data from Microsoft has shown an increase in siloing and a decrease in communication between disparate parts of the organization, with a 7% decrease in the number of business groups employees interacted with, a 26% decrease in the time spent with cross-group connections, and a shocking 41% decrease in the time spent with “bridging ties” - connections spanning disparate parts of the organization.
Deliberate ritual design can help alleviate this problem.
In April 2020, within weeks of our shift to fully remote work, Humu co-founder Wayne Crosby introduced a new meeting called "Drinks and Demos".
Drinks and Demos is a biweekly opportunity to share work in progress. There is a heavy emphasis on "No demo is too rough", encouraging the sharing of everything from polished products to work in progress to rough sketches of ideas.
Expectations and norms are carefully signaled. The focus of the event is on sharing and celebration, not critique. Attendees are encouraged to share positive feedback live in the chat, but to take any questions or criticism offline. This keeps the energy high and lowers the barrier to participation.
This ritual has dramatically helped with internal knowledge sharing, creating opportunities for collaboration and co-creation even in a dispersed environment.
Create positive feedback loops and encourage recognition
During our biweekly all hands meetings, there is often a section called "All Funs", an opportunity to have fun together as a group. The activity varies, but the goal is always fun.
In mid 2021, Humu introduced a variant to "All Funs" that explicitly reinforces one of Humu's core values: Amplify. The root of this value is to make small moments magical, and one of the practices already in place at Humu was a #cheersforpeers slack channel where Humuns regularly call out and celebrate each other.
The new ritual is simple: A "Cheers for Peers" wheel that randomly selects one Humun who either made a #cheersforpeers shoutout or was shouted out. That Humun then spins a new wheel to win a prize, with options ranging from a custom emoji to a $50 Spa gift card.
This change is very small. It didn’t take much work to implement, taking advantage of the existing All Funs ritual to reinforce the value in question. And it works - the already popular #cheersforpeers channel has become even more active, and this self reinforcing feedback loop of positivity continues to grow.
When everyone sits around a table to have lunch together, you don’t need to design rituals specifically to make a new employee feel welcomed. When employees randomly bump into each other while grabbing coffee in the kitchen, you don’t need to worry about how to prevent silos. In a world where everyone is talking about the latest wins together over drinks, you don’t have to think about how to prompt celebration.
But within a dispersed team, deliberate design becomes increasingly important. The key to bringing culture to life is taking intentional action, and modifying or introducing new rituals is one of the most powerful and leveraged actions you can take.
Want to join our team? Check out our open roles to learn more.