How to Keep Social Company Culture Alive as the Pandemic Continues
Tips on nurturing your team in the toughest of times
For half of 2020, the coined phrase ‘new normal’ conjured up thoughts of permanently working from home, interacting with your colleagues through a screen, and the end of workplace social activities. For Perlego, social culture is as important as clear communication, onboarding, or meaningful meetings in creating a strong working culture. The lifeblood of a young company is the people (who, as social creatures, are drawn to community, fun, and energy).
If lockdown truly was to be the ‘new normal’, Perlego was determined to work out the best way to keep our social culture alive.
Why do we care about preserving Perlego’s social culture?
It’s easy to recognise great and terrible culture in companies — both of which heavily influence the enjoyment of working and interacting with your colleagues on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to culture. For those lucky companies who consider themselves to be on the ‘amazing’ end of the scale, Covid represents a tricky challenge to preserving a culture that is hard to build up, but easy to lose.
To shed light on what we had to lose at Perlego, it seems best to paint a picture of a vibrant, energy-filled office — desks packed with chatty colleagues, roaming office dogs awaiting food from company breakfasts, Friday lunches, or home-baked treats. Perlego’s strong connections between colleagues is built on a foundation of inclusiveness, honest feedback, and team-oriented leadership. These hallmarks of trust are fundamental to great interactions at work and have promoted a positive work environment.
What are the challenges in maintaining culture?
The moment the pandemonium of the first lockdown took effect, it became a joint goal to preserve the varied social culture of Perlego in a remote environment. Of the many ideas tried and tested, some of them were a hit and are ongoing to this day! Others did not quite have the impact we wanted and slowly fizzled out.
Challenge 1: water-cooler/coffee-break culture: how do you maintain the culture of ‘micro-social’ interactions — from random coffee chats and desk discussions to lunchtime walks and idle gossip?
Lockdown slack channel. We set up a Slack channel specifically to keep up communication about the evolving lockdown, keep spirits high, and post daily challenges and memes. Verdict: 😎
Virtual coffees. Initially, a spontaneous message on quarantine-quarter to see if anyone had time for a Zoom-coffee. However, due to its popularity, we now have time set in the diary twice-weekly for Mocha Mondays and Coffee Catchups, with a cross-section of the company joining! It has been a great way to introduce new joiners to the culture of the company. Verdict 😎
Donut. A popular plugin to Slack — designed to match random colleagues for a quick chat. This was a less intense way to emulate the in-person random conversations in the office and Donuts can be configured to match 2 or 3 people at once. Verdict 😎
Challenge 2: interest-based culture: how do you maintain the social culture of interest-based activities that used to spontaneously happen in person? Interactions based on common hobbies such as music, climbing, yoga, reading, karaoke and research projects are much harder to simulate remotely.
Spotify playlist. The idea was to crowdsource music suggestions. Whilst this idea did not take off, it gave birth to the music channel on Slack, which is still quite active. Verdict 😕
Squad based socialising. A number of great ideas have been initiated by various different teams or squads in Perlego. From remote team breakfasts, daily end-of-work catchups, poker evenings, and games sessions (Among Us is popular). On the whole, given a bit of extra time each week, people have found effective ways to replace the social-culture of the office. Verdict 😎
Book of the day. Ironically as an ebook based startup, this did not catch on as expected. However, the idea morphed into the popular Perlego book club, which still holds monthly meetings and is even considering collaborations with other companies! Verdict 😎
Yoga live streams. As a relatively active company, this may have turned into a fantastic way of remote-bonding through exercise, but did not end up with much adoption. Linking to videos and resources for colleagues to use in their own time worked better. Verdict 😕
Innovation & Knowledge Sharing (IKS). Although more work-based, time was made for the product teams to work on their own projects every 2 weeks. Office-based work provided more organic opportunities to bounce ideas around and share knowledge, so introducing IKS remotely has done a huge amount to increase collaboration during the lockdown, especially with colleagues who are not in your direct team. Verdict 😎
Squad budgets. More recently, with the looming absence of a Christmas party, Perlego decided to set aside a budget for squads to meet up for Covid-friendly activities. New government regulations have made this impossible; however, the concept was built on a solid foundation → to empower teams to proactively meet up outside of the office, replacing the common post-work drinks or dinners. Verdict 😕
Come cook with me. If you can’t rely on someone else bringing great food into the office, you might as well learn to cook yourself! During the first lockdown, we had several come-cook-with-me-style evenings. One volunteer chef would post the ingredients required and then walk the rest of their colleagues through the recipe after work. Verdict 😎
Challenge 3: company-wide socials: the challenge was to replicate the success of in-person company socials, breakfasts, lunches and try and keep a small portion of that energy whilst remote working.
Social committee. A volunteer social committee was appointed very early on to look after all-things-social on a company-wide basis. These members help drive the social agenda and are responsible for keeping work fun. Verdict 😎
Social calendar. More recently we introduced a company-wide social calendar to add more structure to the week. We wanted social events to become synonymous with specific days — the aforementioned Monday-Mocha and Thursday Coffee-Catchups as well as Wellness Wednesdays. Having a permanent fixture in your calendar encourages you to keep that time free for the social side of work, something easily forgotten when you don’t have colleagues around to distract you. Verdict 😎
Whole company socials. Interestingly, having socials that don’t mimic in-person events takes advantage of what can be done more effectively on camera. Socials have involved the Wikipedia challenge, virtual scavenger hunts on Google maps, quizzes with answers denoted by holding up a coloured piece of paper to the camera as well as using ‘break-out-rooms’ on Zoom with smaller social groups. Verdict 😎
New joiners. More importantly, company-wide socials on zoom are a great way to introduce new-joiners to everyone. We have been lucky enough to grow this year by over 20 new colleagues, with each new-joiner preparing ‘two truths and a lie’ for the rest of the company to vote on! Verdict 😎
Objective 4: the other little things: there are tonnes of other things that build a great culture, including the unquantifiable aspects of being in an energetic office and surrounded by people. These are very hard to replicate… but we tried!
New joiner alert. It’s pretty hard to join a company remotely, but equally hard to get to know new colleagues when they join. Our newbie alert gives us some conversation starters with new joiners and is a great way of knowing who is about to join the team. Verdict 😎
Cameras on! It is now a company-wide policy to have your camera on whilst on video calls. Why? No one likes talking to a blank screen. Social interactions are built on visual feedback and there is nothing better to brighten your day than seeing someone smile. Verdict 😎
Have we maintained social culture?
Ultimately, it took a few months of trial and error to land on ideas that worked for Perlego employees, and has been encouraging to see the uptake and enthusiasm around many of the initiatives. It has been hard to completely replace in-person culture, but we definitely succeeded in creating a great remote social culture. Keeping a social agenda running requires a group effort, not just the organisation of the activities, but company-wide participation to ensure the ideas do not fizzle out.
In keeping the social element of work alive, we learned a lot about what works for Perlego, discovered many novel ideas, and will carry forward some of the activities when we are back in the office.
If you are also going through the challenges of keeping up your company culture during a pandemic, we have a few books that might help:
Wishing you could be a part of our team? We are always looking for talented humans — check out our career page 👀