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Creative ways to build office culture virtually

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how important a strong company culture is to achieving excellence, efficiency, profitability, and, of course, talent retention. Like many businesses during the pandemic, Thinkso’s convivial culture was in danger of collapse as we faced uncertain times and transitioned from a brick-and-mortar office to a fully remote company. It took some real creativity — and a good dose of humor — to revive our culture and keep it thriving.

Below are five tips based on what we did to shift from a tight-knit, in-person office to a remote one that’s just as joyful and connected.

Tip #1 Reinvent the staff “cocktail hour”

It’s crucial that the time you do spend with staff members in virtual group settings is used actually getting to know them (as the one-off, random interactions that were endemic to the in-person setting are no longer the norm).

So how do you make what was once a casual, in-person cocktail hour, a virtual one — and one that people actually want to go to? You name it “Cocktales” (because who doesn’t like a good play on words?).

But seriously, focusing each “Cocktale” hour on an interpersonal activity with a theme or question works surprisingly well. Pick a topic, and each week a team member shares their stories around it. The Thinksorts have really gotten into it — even one-upping each other each week with visual aids. Here are some of the topics we’ve covered:

  • Family Secrets — Share a crazy or shocking incident, relation, or factoid from your family. (We’ve heard stories of attempted murder and questioned paternity.)
  • Childhood Toys/Attachments — You’d be surprised how many of your coworkers still have a security blanket or a traumatizing story about their childhood bike.
  • Thinkso Cribs — This started out as ‘share what’s on your desk’ and morphed into ‘show us where you live (and now work)’. Many of us thought this would be boring, but it was super engaging and really brought us together. (In fact, two Thinksorts learned they coincidentally both grew up near Nabisco factories and were able to delight in the same childhood memory.)
  • Two Truths and a Lie — This game is always a fun way to find out bizarre trivia about your coworkers, including what celebrities they may (or may not have) run into in real life.
  • My Worst Roommate Was… — Again, you’d be shocked by the entertaining horror stories that emerge from this one and what you learn about your colleagues from their younger years.

Too many people to just focus on one colleague per week? Pick something everyone can share on the same call. One week, we played the #1 hits from the day of each Thinksort’s birth. It turned into a fun desk chair jam session and inspired new playlists. It also made us realize how many generations we span and how awesome that is.

We also found rotating the “Cocktales” host each week gives every team member a chance to lead and be engaged. It helps the shyer folks participate in a meaningful way and in their own style.

Tip #2 Have fun with snail mail

Digital fatigue is alive and real. And while in-person gatherings (see tip #3) on a regular basis may not be feasible, the U.S. Postal Service can deliver on the personal touches we miss from in-person office life. Here’s how the Thinksorts have used mail to ensure old-fashioned tomfoolery from in-office days lives on:

  • April Fools’ Day: We use the principles of Secret Santa to anonymously dole out jokes each spring. Check out the heartwarming, hilarious, and harmless practical jokes the Thinksorts pulled off this past April Fools’ Day. The planning, and at times subterfuge involved, will leave you at a loss for words. We’ve done this for the past two years. It’s a keeper.
  • Company Mascot: Our summer intern is responsible for conceptualizing and fabricating Thinkso’s mascot for the year. The mascot then dutifully travels around to each Thinksort, à la Flat Stanley. Hijinks ensue. Meet our current mascot, Opal. (She even has her own Thinkso email address.)

Tip #3 Be deliberate and selective about IRL meet-ups

Frequent in-person get-togethers are not always feasible for smaller remote businesses, especially when staff live all across the country. But, a yearly gathering to celebrate your team pays dividends.

We chose to make our annual pro bono initiative, Give a Brand!, and our annual staff retreat, Flake Day, the one in-person event of the calendar year.

This past summer, the Thinksorts gathered in the Catskills, where our Give a Brand! client was located. It was the perfect place to hold Flake Day, because there are so many outdoor (computer-less) activities to do: Railway Explorers, lunch by the water, a boat cruise on the Hudson.

An in-person gathering requires a lot of planning, a significant financial investment, as well as understanding clients (because we have to close our virtual studio for 2 – 3 days). But spending a couple days as a team is the glue that holds together all the other virtual culture-building activities we do. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Genuinely embracing each other after an extended absence of in-person contact — or, for the very first time — is irreplaceable.

Tip #4 Reinforce best practices and core values with a bit of imagination and formality.

The off-the-cuff “good job’s” and “excellent work’s” are hard to capture virtually. However, staff recognition and sharing feedback are still essential. To make this work virtually, add some structure and planning. For example:

  • “Excellence Meetings” — At a team meeting once a month, leaders and colleagues give kudos, props, and snaps to their fellow teammates and mention specific projects or gestures where that person shined.
  • Quarterly Check-ins — Before Thinkso made its move online, quarterly check-ins and biweekly office hours between individual staff and firm partners were cultural fixtures. Now, these encounters are even more valuable because they are the rarer moments of one-on-one interface. They also enable staff to reflect on their progress and obtain concrete, constructive feedback from those evaluating their work.
  • Digital Birthday Cards — Who said you need to be in person to celebrate staff birthdays? Virtual options, like, give staff the opportunity to send a virtual birthday card, with more room for humor and creativity than just signing your name to a piece of paper.

Tip #5 – Get staff input

Culture building — whether virtually or in person — will always be more effective if it is a collaborative effort. Getting staff involved in the planning generates more creativity and ideas, gives them a feeling of ownership, and turns them into ambassadors when you roll out the idea. Here are a couple of the structures we’ve put in place to gather staff input:

  • Core Values Committee: Thinkso’s Core Values Committee meets monthly to discuss and monitor how our company’s core values are integrated into our daily work. Because core values and culture building go hand in hand, this committee has been instrumental in developing creative ways to foster community and culture. This approach also ensures that virtual efforts and practices will not be viewed as better-than-nothing substitutes to in-person gestures, but considered valuable cultural mainstays.
  • Annual survey: Every year, Thinkso’s partners distribute an online survey to gather staff’s thoughts on their experiences at the agency and how their leaders can improve or continue doing what they’re doing. A formal yet easy way to collect feedback can give you insights into your culture you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed or obtained.

Your virtual culture is not set in stone. With a little creativity, thoughtfulness, and a good sense of humor, it can evolve and grow with the people — and their talents and personalities — that your organization employs every day.