Developing Community and Culture

Feature image: Developing Community and Culture

If you work in a small company, and are located in the same physical space as your colleagues, it's relatively easy to create a sense of culture and community. Humans have been gathering in groups since before recorded history. Culture develops within those groups based on the dominant values expressed by its members.

But how do you build that sense of community and culture within a company that operates in a fully remote structure? In our case, with intention shaped by the values of our leadership and team.

Traditional offices have physical spaces with defined usage, like lunch rooms, mailboxes, conference rooms, and offices or desk assignments. These spaces have been developed over decades of office use. In addition, those spaces lead to rituals such as lunch and coffee breaks where teams come together for informal chats, as well as larger team meetings for formal presentations. Those rituals in physical spaces are places where company culture is developed and defined.

Remote offices need similar markers and similar planning that allow for formal and informal communication, and some indication when a colleague is available for collaboration. There are limited physical cues for the standard uses of an office when no one is in the same space, which also limits the rituals that lead to developing company culture. These limits are why leaders within a remote company need to be intentional in the ways they structure the tools and cues they will use, and have a good grasp on the values they want to bring to the company. What values do you hold? And how will that carry forward to your online culture?

This post will discuss how we at Tighten address both developing community, and make space for a healthy online culture to develop.

Developing Community

As I alluded to in the intro, a big part of standard team building happens almost invisibly, based on the well established rituals of a physical office space. A lunch or break room allows co-workers to meet up over a meal or a cup of coffee and share informal conversations. A mailroom provides a similar venue for more formal business and intra-office communications such as invitations to conferences or notices related to insurance benefits. Offices and cubicles provide a visual confirmation that a colleague is present or away from their workspace. Conference rooms allow for larger team or client meetings.

At Tighten, those elements are all present- just crafted more deliberately. Our primary "office" is our team Slack. Within Slack, each channel becomes a room, similar to those found in an office building. However, it does not have the limits imposed by a traditional office building, because we can add new rooms and archive others without ever hiring a construction crew.

Every Slack instance includes a #general channel, and this is the one Tighten uses to share work availability status, using @in and @out to signal to the team that personal work hours have started or ended. We also use emoji for coffee or tea breaks, and @lunch and @back to represent when those breaks have started or ended. These are courtesy notifications so other team members know that you won't be replying while you are on your break.

The mail room - a more formal communication space - is present in the #important channel, which we created to share policy documents including benefits renewal and notices required by state and federal laws, as well as company-wide announcements. For conference-room types of formal communication, we have channels specific to client projects for day-to-day collaboration on that work and separate channels for team talks, and full company meetings. Separation by channel allows for dedicated conversation for those topics while video conferences are happening. We do use email as well, but find that to be less effective for day to day interactions.

Lunch and break rooms - those informal discussion spaces - are present in channels like #discuss-tv, #discuss-movies, #discuss-discuss. Although, to be completely honest, almost every channel in our Slack has hosted informal discussion at one time or another. We also host two informal team-wide video meetings a week, where we share the things that are happening in our lives: personal triumphs and tribulations, loved ones' successes, and even routine updates like how much adulting we completed last weekend.

Unlike an office building - where adding another room or conference space takes time and can get expensive quickly - we can create channels immediately and effortlessly as we need them. Some of our best channels have been created following a suggestion and quick discussion, like #pair-with-me where our development team can find someone else to help them problem solve if faced with a tricky code challenge. Or #discuss-dev-wfriends, where they can highlight and share an interesting tool or product that they found useful. We have a #kudos channel for intentionally calling out moments that make us feel grateful for the work and presence of our colleagues. It's informal peer-to-peer recognition, done deliberately.

Every team member and team alumni has a custom emoji with their picture. It's kind of like your work badge, but you can change it yourself if decide you want a new picture. I should note that we do not limit custom emoji to only team members. We have them for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, you just need a dancing Spiderman to make Friday complete. The use of custom emoji is one of the signals our team as a whole uses to say "hi" at the beginning of the workday, "goodnight" at the end of it, and laugh and high-five each other throughout the day.

Developing Culture

I asked our team what word they would use to describe Tighten's online culture, and got the following list:

  • safe
  • authentic
  • jocular
  • good
  • lively
  • helpful
  • welcoming
  • energizing
  • supportive
  • thoughtful

That list maps very closely to the values held by Tighten's team. If I had asked my team to choose a word that describes our team, these same words would apply.

If you've spent any amount of time on the internet, you might be surprised that we have words like "safe," "authentic," and "welcoming." As a whole, those are not words that apply to many online forums or even company Slack instances. How did we get there? I love this question, thanks for asking it!

Tighten has some great things working in our favor here - trust & positive intent, and an emphasis on collaboration. These aspects of our culture exist because we live by the values listed above: safety, authenticity, jocularity, and goodness. We bring our whole selves to work and are open about our shortcomings, making it a priority to support one another, building trust and empathy.

In any communication medium, every message has a sender and a recipient. Context and medium influence and affect how that message is sent and received. In text-based mediums such as Slack, it can be it can be very easy to misinterpret the tone of a message because we lack the context of body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. A joking note or quick feedback can sound much harsher via text than it would in person.

Our team as a whole is very good at paying attention to context. Nearly all meetings are handled as video calls to give as much context of body language and facial expression as possible. We also practice good faith in communicating with each other.

In our practice, good faith communication means the sender of the message holds the recipient in warm positive regard - recognizing and respecting them as a fellow human and friend who is trying to do good work. Trusting and empathizing with the recipient makes it easier to choose words that demonstrate respect, convey meaning authentically, and continue to build and maintain trust.

On the other side of the good faith communication bridge, the recipient of the message assumes positive intent when reading the message. In practical terms, that means taking in the words with the best and kindest interpretation. In a situation where critique or feedback is being given, that would mean understanding the feedback as well-meaning candor - "Cool, I learned something from this, and now know how to avoid this mistake in the future" instead of "I'm a terrible programmer and I'm failing at life."

We make the underlying assumption that we are a team: we're all here to learn from and support each other, and share the ultimate goal of doing good work with friends. The great thing about this approach is that we all have space to ask questions, make mistakes, and learn from each other without fear.

These cultivated habits and practices promote collaborative online communication instead of competitive communication. Competitive communication styles are along the lines of "I'm right, so you're wrong." and "Well, actually" corrections that don't invite further discussion or promote continued learning for everyone involved. Collaborative communication tends to foster higher trust and a more welcoming environment in BOTH online and physical work spaces.

So, it's not so much that we have a recipe of 1 part smart people + 3 parts online tools = GOOD CULTURE, but more that we have fostered and developed an online workspace that allows everyone on our team to share their own voice and influence our culture accordingly.

Thanks to Sara Bine and Tanya Tarr for the discussions that led to writing this post. If you're interested in hearing more about Tighten's online culture, let me know via email - or tweet me @minn_finn.

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