In the tech world, the phrase “office culture” evokes images of open floor plans, kitchens stocked with organic chips and gluten-free protein bars, kombucha and nitro cold brew and of course the requisite ping-pong and foosball tables.
But office culture is so much more than physical space, organic snacks or free lunches. It’s defined by interactions between colleagues and driven by shared values and common goals for success.
But how do you maintain that culture when everyone is remote, connecting on Zoom calls, via Slack or over email?
Like the rest of Silicon Valley, Synack hasn’t been in our offices since March 16, when the first shelter-at-home orders took effect in California to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Right now, we’re not even sure when we’ll return to physical spaces — or what that space will eventually look like — as we’re monitoring best practices and health guidelines for returning to the office safely.
We hustled to adjust to remote work all while trying to maintain our culture and community and ensure employees — many coping with children suddenly shifting to virtual schools and spouses figuring how to work from home, too — remained engaged and weren’t overburdened and overwhelmed by their new realities.
It’s uncharted territory for people like me whose responsibility is managing the office and the culture that accompanies it, when that “office” evaporates. We needed to completely retool our approach to fostering the office community and engagement that we spent years cultivating. What would this look like in the virtual space? How would it translate to Zoom or Slack? How could culture continue virtually? How do you replicate the kinds of connections and community that happens organically over group lunches and happy hours?
We didn’t have the answers. There is no proven map. So, we’ve been taking an experimental approach. Some things have worked, some haven’t. But what we quickly discovered is that office culture isn’t determined by physical spaces or office decor, it’s the result of the people and the personalities and the common respect for the work we’re all doing. That does translate into the virtual space — and in some ways it’s even more defined and articulate. Remote work makes cultivating office culture an intentional practice.
Before COVID, we came together through themed contests, product demos, office hack-a-thons, impromptu gatherings around desks and conference rooms and of course the proverbial “water cooler,” which for most of Silicon valley is a high-end espresso maker. But we were still siloed and divided by departments. The sales team had a different culture than engineering, for instance. And many of our team members already working remotely weren’t able to participate in the activities centered on the physical office.
Synack today: Going virtual broke down those barriers and helped foster even more conversations and connections across teams and geographies. The in-person interactions have morphed into company-wide Slack conversations and online trivia contests. We’re making sure everyone feels our appreciation through new swag and care packages, as well as reaching out to colleagues to see if there’s anything we can do to help in these ever changing and uncertain times. We’re hoping to foster an even greater sense of comradery, and encourage more company wide participation in virtual events. And, so far, it’s working.
Some of these efforts won’t work for every company, but here’s how we’re hacking the virtual work environment to achieve an even greater sense of community:
- Sending Care Packages: Although a bit daunting to take on, we decided to create care packages to send out at regular intervals to every team member. Easier done domestically, but also feasible internationally. Some of our most popular care packages were mini metal and wooden puzzles. These quickly brought out the competitive spirit in the team as many people raced to see who could solve them the fastest. We sent out mini s’mores, too, so even if we couldn’t have a typical summer, we could still share in the common nostalgic flavors of the season. Employees shared photos showing their solved puzzles, or how they were enjoying their Synack Smores on a warm summer night. The care packages seemed to be a big hit with employee families, too.
- Starting (virtual) Conversations with Questions: On a weekly basis, we plan unique, playful, light-hearted questions to ask the entire company in an effort to learn more about each other. It’s been wonderful seeing employees from all over engaging with one another, who ordinarily would rarely have cross paths. For example, Synackers were quick to respond to “What’s your all time favorite movie and why?”
- Inclusive Challenges: Along with our themed care packages and conversation-starting questions, we’ve cultivated teamwork and enthusiasm by putting out creative challenges. Our latest challenge involved solving a quiz made up of emojis or figuring out which Superhero each symbol belongs to.
- Interactive Games: Zoom fatigue is real. Now that our meetings have moved to Google Meet or Zoom, it can be a bit difficult to motivate people to join an extra video chat that is just for fun. At some point, having to make conversation becomes more work. Providing activities such as streaming a Jackbox Game Break every week, gives employees the chance to channel their playful, competitive spirit and interact, while remote.
- Looping in the Family: To take it a step further, knowing that numerous employees are quarantining with their families or roommates, many of the newly created contests strive to include all members of an employee’s household. Some of the most participated activities include a virtual scavenger hunt and a summer t-shirt design contest.
Virtual culture is still a work in progress, but Synack is also uniquely positioned to thrive in this environment. Prior to the pandemic, many of our employees already worked remotely, scattered around the US, Europe and the Middle East. We are also proud to host a community of highly skilled researchers from over 80 countries. From a business perspective, Synack was built for this transition.
From a cultural perspective, this shift was an opportunity to bring the intentionality of company HQ culture to the broader, global Synack team.
Not every new culture initiative has been successful, though. It’s taken a bit of trial and error to learn what sorts of challenges, questions, and activities are popular with the team. Yes, care packages stuffed with treats and swag are always a huge hit, but a contest center around sharing the most flowery clothes had only one participant.
But it’s critically important to have a committed creative team to brainstorm how to foster this culture and the community and not be afraid to take chances. We’re all figuring out this new world together. And even though some things will return to normal, some things won’t. We should hold onto the new openness and deliberate approach to fostering culture that’s emerging in the virtual world. It’s making a more cohesive and connected Synack. That’s something we’ll all want to hold onto even when we once again share meals together or laughs and work together IRL.