Column: How to Build Company Culture In a Work-From-Home World
Spencer Rascoff is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire and dot.LA, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. He is currently executive chairman of dot.LA and a board member at Zillow and TripAdvisor. In fall 2019, Spencer was a Visiting Executive Professor at Harvard Business School where he co-taught the "Managing Tech Ventures" course. In 2015, Spencer co-wrote and published his first book, the New York Times' Best Seller "Zillow Talk: Rewriting the Rules of Real Estate." Spencer is the host of "Office Hours," a monthly podcast on dot.LA featuring candid conversations between prominent executives on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and startups.
It seems like almost every day another tech company announces an extension of their work-from-home ("WFH") plans. First Zillow (my former company) said they'd allow employees to WFH for the rest of 2020, then Google and Facebook announced something similar. And then Twitter one-upped everyone by announcing that they would extend WFH forever.
I've had several tech CEOs tell me that Twitter's announcement raised the stakes significantly, and is forcing these leaders to rethink their own policies.
Regardless of how far this WFH arms race goes, one thing is clear: WFH is here to stay in one form or another.
In order to maintain productivity in a WFH environment, companies have fully embraced collaboration software, video conferencing and other strategies and tactics to succeed. But they're now facing a much harder challenge: how to build culture remotely.
It's actually quite easy to make a video-conference WFH meeting as effective as an in-person meeting. But remotely building the special esprit de corps that makes a company truly succeed — and be desired by potential employees — is very hard.
Unfortunately for those of us who care deeply about company culture, the long trend in workplace design going back 5-10 years is one of more remote and home-based work, and less in-person in-office time. For example, from the time we started Zillow in 2006 until when we went public in 2011, we had only a few hundred employees, and they were almost entirely in our Seattle headquarters. But by the time I retired as CEO in 2019, we had over 4,500 employees across eight offices, and less than half of our employees were in the Seattle headquarters. Dozens more were completely home-based.
The trend towards decentralization began out of necessity as companies sought to tap different talent pools in order to grow, and to station employees physically closer to their customers. But the coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly will accelerate this trend, and it seems very likely that the next generation of great companies will be decentralized, and probably some will be mostly remote.
Said another way, the leaders in workplace culture from 2000-2020 were companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Zillow, which built their culture around in-person events (think: volleyball games and frisbees around their corporate campuses). But the leaders in workplace culture from 2020-2040 will be a new generation of companies whose employees have a very different relationship with their company. Less important will be physical perks like on-site dry cleaning and bringing your dog to work; more important will be programs around career development and mentoring, and ways in which the company allows workers to balance their job with outside interests.
How do you build company culture among a distributed workforce?
Repetitive Communication is more important than ever
In a remote environment, it is imperative that senior leadership consistently and repeatedly communicate with the team. Reiterating the mission, key goals, milestones, strategies and priorities is critical. In addition, one must communicate repeatedly and through multiple channels in order to break through the clutter of employees' everyday lives. For example, a CEO must remind the team of the top 3 priorities for the company via slack, via video all-hands, via all-hands emails, and probably even reinforce it through social media (if the priorities can be published externally).
Celebrate little wins
One of the small joys of an office environment is the opportunity for in-person celebrations of big accomplishments such as product launches and milestones achieved, and the little wins such as employees' birthdays or weddings. It's important to replicate this in a remote environment as much as possible. Video conference calls have a tendency to trend towards a transactional nature which is antiseptic and demotivating. Overcome this by celebrating small wins in any way you can. A simple method is to do weekly "shout-outs" in video all-hands meetings.
Try to build relationships among team members
Again, look for ways to replicate the serendipitous in-office experiences remotely in order to build relationships and trust among team members. Examples include a "bring your pet to lunch" video call; a make-your-own company swag day; and even a crazy-hair day. (Yes, I stole that last idea from my kids' school, but it's a good one for a company also.)
Assemble in-person from time to time
I believe that the company of the future, post coronavirus, will be mostly remote but will still gather in-person a few times a month. An in-person all-hands (with video for those not based in the HQ city) is invaluable. Likewise, some company activities such as brainstorming sessions and annual business planning are best done in-person and you should try to accommodate that via IRL meetings.
Building company culture is important no matter the company's stage or business. But in a remote environment, it's more important than ever. If you have ideas on how else to build culture in a remote organization, please tweet them at me.
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As Thanksgiving approached, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti implored residents to stay home and halt all nonessential travel as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
But on Thanksgiving Day, Peter Pham, one of L.A.'s most prominent early-stage investors and the co-founder of Science Inc, a Santa Monica startup studio and early-stage venture fund that manages over $100 million and recently launched a $310.5 million SPAC, posted a selfie of himself atop Las Vegas' High Roller ferris wheel.
He was clutching a can of Liquid Death, the bad boy-themed canned water brand that has improbably become Science's buzziest startup. Pham guzzles six cans a day, because he says he does not trust municipal tap water.
"I'm not afraid of dying," Pham told me recently. "There's risk for everything and COVID is a risk that I feel very confident in my ability to deal with. I could be wrong and that's OK. I am OK if I fucked up and I die from it."
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