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Building a Thriving Culture Through Zoom is Possible. Here’s Exactly How to Do It.

Yes, things are changing in the workplace. No, it is not the fall of Rome. If you are reading this it means you are facing the reality that the Zoom screen may be here to stay. But more importantly, you too know culture is vital to building a sustainable & growing company, and your company […]

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Yes, things are changing in the workplace. No, it is not the fall of Rome. If you are reading this it means you are facing the reality that the Zoom screen may be here to stay. But more importantly, you too know culture is vital to building a sustainable & growing company, and your company must continue to cultivate its culture, especially in this new digital era.

The truth is, culture is the foundation of everything in business. It’s why we do what we do, how we do it, and how we treat each other along the way.

It’s the feeling we get when we show up to our first meeting of the day. It’s the closeness of the team and how much they feel they are a part of something bigger. It’s the connection between team members that motivates them to work together to find success. Ultimately, it’s the energy behind every thought, word, and action of the team that either sinks the business or lifts it to heights that once seemed impossible. Culture really is the 90% of the iceberg that isn’t clearly visible on the business plan, but drives 90% of the success of the business.

But building culture seems hard enough to do in person, right? So, you might ask “how in the heck do I do this through a Zoom screen, Thomas?!”

I get it. It’s a new arena that doesn’t allow for the natural flow of organic interactions. The entire team is sitting in their bedrooms with pajama bottoms on not knowing exactly how to interact in the digital space. Amazon delivery people at the door and open browser tabs on the screen are distracting each person in the meeting. No one even knows if anyone is looking at them while they’re talking. It can be a discomforting experience.

And new hires feel it even more, not having had opportunities to have any “water cooler chats” by the keg of seasonal ale in the office. They are feeling alone and wondering if the others care about their very existence. I feel for them.

This new frontier can be scary because there are no best practices to lean on, no decades of research to be found, and absolutely no certainty in the path ahead. This is where the fear of failure and life crumbling down can begin to set in. You are not alone here. You are a human being and this type of stuff comes up, especially in uncertain times.

I have some good news for you though. While these times are new and quite strange, there is a path forward. There is a way, straight through the Zoom screen, to build a vibrant culture with a team full of meaningful relationships, passion for the work, inside jokes, and a strengthened motivation for the company to succeed.

Ready for the good ole 3 stepper?

Step 1. Create a Purpose and Values Aligned Team

This is ground zero of culture. People can only band together if they have a common purpose and direction.

With nothing in common, there is no trust, or even any reason to work together. When each team member buys into the Purpose, and knows that everyone else shares that same belief, a foundation of trust is built that allows culture to become real.

Having a team of people who are all on the same page with Purpose is like having a culture race horse anxiously waiting for the gun to begin the race. The team is primed and ready to love their work, build meaningful relationships, work hard to move the company toward success, and never want to quit along the way. So, first, get clear on the Purpose and Values of the company.

Part A. Uncover the Purpose & Values of the Company

For Purpose, ask yourself “how do we help our customers move toward their ideal reality?” For Values, ask “what principles guide how we treat each other, treat other people, and make decisions?” Do your best to make these statements actionable so they become an instruction manual for how to show up and do things in the company.

With Zupp, my client throughout the pandemic lockdowns last year, the Purpose we uncovered was “building friendships by turning every day into a new adventure.” This single Purpose statement conveys the work the company does that is both valuable to customers and meaningful to the team. Meaning, if they align everything in the company with this Purpose, they are virtually guaranteeing the financial success of the business and the success of the company culture at the same time.

Now that their Purpose is clear, they only hire people who are bought-in to bringing that Purpose to life everyday. They only do things in the business that align with this Purpose. And they only hold people accountable to metrics that move this Purpose forward. It streamlines everything and makes it easy to build a meaningful culture people can get behind.

A Value we uncovered was “We Create the Remarkable.” This Value is defined as “make things so extraordinary that people can’t help but share it with friends.” When Zupp is hiring new team members, this Value helps the team properly identify people who believe in doing work in this way. It also helps them identify who they believe could actually bring remarkability to life. Most importantly, this Value significantly contributes to driving the strategy and decision-making in company meetings.

Part B. Hire for Purpose & Values Alignment

Now that your Purpose and Values are clear, focus 80% of the interview process on identifying who is fully passionate about and committed to the Purpose and Values of the company. You can spend what’s left of the interview process vetting for the hard skills needed to do the job well.

When searching for their Partnerships Director, leaders at Zupp found not only someone who only had the perfect experience and skills for the job, but also someone who lived and breathed the culture of the company. This new hire, Brian, has become a rockstar, serving as a crucial contributor to the success of the company through the pandemic and beyond. Since day one, he was excited to build connections on the team and work with his blood, sweat, and tears to take the company to the next level.

Part C. Find Alignment on the Current Team

For current team members, invite them into 1-on-1 meetings where you explore the Purpose and Values with them to ensure they are in alignment. If they are, hold on to them tightly. If team members aren’t, set them free and pay them a few months salary to find another opportunity. Letting go of someone who is not fully bought-in is one of the most loving things you can do for someone. Instead of holding on to people who are not aligned or enjoying their work, let them go so they can find a new opportunity that fires them up.

While this step has nothing to do with Zoom, it remains the absolute foundation of building a thriving culture through the Zoom screen. The truth is, without a team who believes in a common Purpose, nothing will get your culture going, digitally or in person. Simply, people want to be moving in a meaningful direction with other people. It inspires them to stay and work with their blood, sweat, and tears no matter what happens in this ever changing world we live in. So, do this first. Trust me.

Step 2. Create Connection Experiences

This step is where sparks begin to fly. Connection experiences create space for team members to bring the culture to life by building real relationships and activating that feeling of “these are my people, I want to work with them, I want to work hard for this company, and I definitely belong here.”

This culture cultivation used to happen in the office, at lunch, or even at after-hour team hangouts. Now, with teams spread out across cities, states and even countries, this in-person reality just isn’t in the cards. This means we can no longer sit back and hope the team begins to organically bring the culture to life on their own. We have to step into a new era of proactivity and intention.

It’s actually pretty exciting stuff. Being forced into this proactive culture cultivation is a blessing in disguise. We can now create experiences that are designed to bring the culture to life, and get them on the calendar of every team member. The consistency of this puts culture-building on autopilot. No more hoping things happen on their own. As leaders, we now get to control the destiny of the culture of the team and the success of the company.

The key here is to create these two types of connection experiences through Zoom: group experiences and 1-on-1 experiences.

Part A. Create Group Experiences

These experiences invite the team to interact as a collective and begin to feel out the “this is who we are and how we do things” vibe.

At Zupp, we launched two weekly group experiences to cultivate the culture team-wide. The first experience is Team Play Tuesdays, where the team plays interactive online games together. This container creates an opportunity for the team to have fun and build relationships through play. The second experience is Thoughtful Thursdays, where the team watches a Ted Talk about a topic related to the company’s Purpose and immediately dives deep into conversation about it. This container creates an opportunity for team members to connect with each other’s perspectives on different topics, as well as feel heard when they share their own individual perspectives. As icing on the cake, many innovative ideas have come from these Thoughtful Thursday experiences.

Experiences like these are arenas for the team to bring the culture to life through the Zoom screen. Team members are able to connect with each other and really feel the Purpose and Values of the company come to life. Many inside jokes get created and people on the team begin to feel known by everyone. A collective sense of “we are in this together” becomes inevitable. This collective sense on the team significantly drives vital metrics like employee retention rate and team productivity, which increase the bottom line.

Part B. Create 1-on-1 Experiences

1-on-1 experiences are the other secret weapon here. These more personal experiences invite team members to begin building a web of individual connections across the company.

This web of connections becomes the unbreakable foundation of the entire company and the life blood of its success. Because when people don’t know each other, they tend not to care about each other. And when they don’t care about each other, they don’t want to work together, or see each other succeed. That leaves a vacuum for claws to come out, gossip to fill the void, and a lot of employees who are sitting at home alone constantly on the verge of quitting. This is clearly not good for business.

On the flip side, when team members feel connected on an individual level with each other, they want to collaborate, they get excited about meetings, and they support each other’s success in and outside of work. With each passing week of 1-on-1 connections building, the team becomes an unstoppable force, growing closer, working harder, driving more success for the business, and reinforcing the Purpose and Values of the company overall.

Back to Zupp for a solid example. In 2020, at the request of a team member to get more connected with the rest of the team, we created WhaZupp Wednesdays. This is a weekly Zoom experience with the entire team where team members are matched at random to have 1-on-1 conversations. To make it productive and minimize discomfort, team members are given 3 specific questions to ask and answer with each other: a funny question, a deep question, and finally asking how they can support each other’s dreams.

Since this kicked off, the results of these experiences continue to be astounding. The team grows closer with each passing week. They want each other to succeed. They want to work harder for each other and for the company. They finally feel like they truly belong. It is pure magic.

And remember, this began in the middle of a lockdown using the breakout rooms feature on Zoom. This is possible, my friends. And only with a few intentional clicks.

Step 3. Begin Meetings with Intention & End Them with Reflection

Can you imagine making a meeting through Zoom a place to cultivate culture? Wouldn’t it be dreamy if every meeting through the screen inspired people to care more about the company, work harder for its success, and be more likely to never want to leave?

It could be hard to picture because of what you may have going through in the last 13 months. The first reason for this is most Zoom meetings have team members who aren’t engaged. And that comes from them not knowing why the meeting matters, why their presence matters, or what the rules of engagement even are. The answer that brings this situation to a simmer is simple.

Part A. Start Meetings with Intention

This is vital to clear all the distracting thoughts coming from meeting attendees that are taking their attention away from being all in. Thoughts like “Why do I even have to be in this meeting?” “How long is this going to take?” “I’ve got more important things to do.” “Why are we spending time and energy focused on this?” These thoughts are often unspoken, lead to tension, and hold back a potentially productive experience.

To put these anxious thoughts and frustrations to rest, start every single meeting with a moment to share how this meeting is connected to the Purpose and a particular Metric the team is moving toward. Then share the vital role each person in attendance is playing during the experience. Lastly, share the Values that will steer how communication will go down in the meeting.

You might say something like “Hey everyone! The intention of this experience is to create a marketing strategy for this quarter that helps us align more with our metric of 50% conversion of leads. This matters because it is crucial for us to sustainably drive our Purpose of building friendships in the world. We all believe in this so let’s get creative today! Jess, your role in this experience is to share your expertise from digital marketing. Alex, your role is to share your perspective from the product user experience. Jenny, your role is to share your thoughts on execution of any ideas that come up. And I will guide us through this, then finalize the strategy. Some boundaries for communication will be practicing deep listening while we are each sharing, open mindedness to new ideas, and being curious instead of judgmental by asking questions. Sound good to everyone?”

When these intentions, roles and communication boundaries are shared, everyone leans in, feels connected, and is ready to contribute.

The second reason Zoom seems like an impossible place to cultivate culture is what happens when the video session ends. Each attendee is thrust back in their bedroom, alone with their thoughts. They don’t know how others are feeling about what happened in the meeting, and more importantly, they don’t know how others are feeling about their personal contribution to the meeting. There is a strange silence after the call that leaves too much space for team members to have negative stories come up about how others were judging them or not caring about the overall success of whatever the meeting was about. To clear all this up, we only need to do 1 thing.

Part B. End Meetings with Reflection

More specifically, end every meeting with an opportunity for everyone present to share a take away and a feeling word. When team members know they will be sharing, they lean in and listen a little more during the meeting, they feel like their perspective matters, and most importantly everyone is now getting to hear each other’s perspectives on the experience. A sense of mutual understanding develops that connects everyone on levels much deeper than simple task completion.

Once all of the team members share how they’re feeling, a collective emotional state takes over the Zoom room and brings a sense of calmness and deep trust to each person in attendance.

Sharing a take away and a feeling word also provides an opportunity for others to clarify any misunderstandings if they come up. No more false stories about how people feel about each other or how the meeting went. It is all out there. And that leads to more opportunities to heal tension, solve problems, and get work done.

The team at Zupp implemented this fully starting in 2020 and it made all the difference. Now, when there is tension, a team member could share a feeling-word like “frustrated.” This allows the rest of the team to understand why that person seemed tense during the experience. It also sparks an opportunity to check in with that person outside of the meeting and get on the same page. On the positive side, a team member could share a feeling-word like “empowered.” This helps the leaders know that they are on the right track and the team is in a position to deliver.

When team members share takeaways, often it is a positive reflection on the value of other team members during the experience. This strengthens connections and motivates team members individually. Other times, it can be a powerful revelation that popped up during discussion. It is useful for everyone to be reminded of those nuggets of wisdom to reflect on after the meeting. This reflection period makes everyone sharing feel like their perspective on what happened matters.

This is how you build culture. And this is how it can easily happen through the Zoom screen.

What Do I Do Next, Thomas?

As you already know, a strong culture is a crucial ingredient when it comes to creating positive outcomes for the team and in the business. When a thriving company culture is cultivated, Team Members are loyal, productive, creative, collaborative, and, most importantly, fulfilled. All of this leads to a sustainable & growing company that feels like it cannot be stopped. The company becomes a magnet for die hard team members and customers. And that makes life as a business leader easy and actually quite fun!

So, in the midst of this wild wild west of digital work, I invite you to see this strange time in the world as an opportunity to be even more intentional about cultivating culture in your company. You are being invited to rewrite the manual, do new things, and save the day for your team. So, enjoy this moment in your leadership journey as you bring your company into this new future.

If you want total immersion in the system that makes all of this easy for you and your team, email me so we can explore what actions we can take together.

With love and purpose,

Thomas Waterman, Chief Business Architect at Purpose Pioneers, [email protected]

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