What Happens When The Water Cooler Is On Zoom?

If there were Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for organizations in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the topic of company culture would most likely be in the realms of the top rung.

Last year, at this time, in almost every company across the globe, the buzz words were connectivity, security, productivity, and in many cases, the even tougher topics of downsizing and salary reductions.

Those of us lucky enough to have kept our jobs werent at all concerned with living any company values. We had to figure out how to use zoom, teams, blue jeans; unravel a whole other culture of online meeting etiquette; get used to feeling like a professional while in sweat pants; minimize the sounds of our over-excited dogs, avoid the surly cats incessant photo bombing and try to sneak in an answer to one of the toddlers many, many why?” in between nodding in agreement to a presentation.

But here we are. Its year 2 of the pandemic. And theres a different set of concerns, goals and vocabulary.

Company culture is back on the agenda and more difficult than ever because now were talking about how to create an internal culture when theres not always an internal one.

We did a little pseudo-research and asked industry peers and friends about the state of company culture in the time of Covid-19.

A marketing executive said of her company, culture has been de-prioritized. Understandable given the abruptness of the lockdown last year. But theres no good reason any longer.”

We try to do a social hour with the extended team”, said an HR consultant. But the problem is that in the office socializing was a break from the norm like getting up and away from your desk to grab a cup of coffee with a colleague. Now, its yet another hour sitting in front of your laptop. Its exactly what we want a break from!”

In our conversations, we noticed that social rituals and interactions dominate the definition of company culture. But typically, when we create internal values for our clients, were putting into place signposts to influence how colleagues work together not how they socialize with each other. So why this sudden forgetfulness?

Experts say that culture needs to be made visible by calling it out. There may be common work habits and practices among colleagues but if theyre not pointed to and labelled, they may be missed, and with them an opportunity to create a sense of cohesion.

For example, one company has what they dub the golden hour. Between 12 and 1, no internal calls can be scheduled. The very fact that mental well-being is being considered by the company, and that everyone respects this hour, is indeed part of the company culture. But for many, as much as they appreciate the initiative, they dont attribute it to culture. The company had to repackagethe hour to make crystal clear how it stems from and feeds, internal culture.

At another organization, coffee roulette is a thing. Thirty-minute online morning coffee with whoever pops up on the other end of the screen. This could have been a purely social meet-up but isnt. The intention is to spark conversations about work between colleagues who, out of the office, would never have the chance to cross paths. Coffee roulette is the online extension of the sort of internal culture the company leaders advocate: cross-team discussions, openness, collaboration and the belief that ideas can come from anyone, and from anywhere.

A third organization worked hard to find a way to retain their emphasis on charity work and community involvement as a way to bring the company together while doing good. Even with everyone working remotely.

The failure to translate company culture online may stem from a lack of understanding – or simply the time and effort – of how to reinterpret company values to different circumstances and work modes.

Or it may be due to an existing general lack of culture.

The real question is did we ever have an internal culture?”, asks a general manager of an agency based in Dubai. We thought we did. But I believe a strong, coherent culture would have seeped through the screen.” 

In todayworld, company culture should probably be zoom-proof.

We turned the lens on ourselves here at Bellwether.

At Bellwether, we can describe our year so far with this word: hybrid. Some of us still work from home; some from the office; some of us are in the same country; some of us are far-flung.

We have a new colleague. Who we have never met in real life. Weve all spent countless hours working with him online. But theres so much we dont know. We dont know what its like to be shoulder-to-shoulder at our desks with him for 8 hours a day. We dont know his choice of birthday cake. We dont know how he takes his coffee or how often. Or if hes a vegetarian. We certainly dont know the kind of shoes he tends to wear.

But what were the most curious about is whether he has a sense of the Bellwether culture.

Turns out our culture is indeed showing! With the exception of a couple of assumptions that werent all that accurate, he pretty much nailed what life inside the Bellwether office would be like. This was both good and bad news: the positives have been maintained but we couldnt hide our flaws. Even behind a laptop.

Bellwether Branding is a strategy-led brand consultancy that believes in asking questions and considering varying and opposing perspectives. The first question we now must ask any of our clients when working on an internal culture component is remote, physical or hybrid”? Well be ready to help our clients with any cultural challenges they may have as soon we finish dealing with our own.