Building nonwork spaces for connecting teams

Have a look at job boards today, and you’ll probably notice that every tech company fighting for top talent is quick to tout its flexible, remote-work-ready setups. During the pandemic, usage of productivity apps like Teams, Slack, and Zoom sourced. A recent survey by Mio found that 91% of businesses today use at least two digital messaging apps on top of email, video conferencing, and workflow apps like Jira and Asana.

These changes allowed for never-before-seen opportunities for employees and for companies to hire talent regardless of location. But while companies found their footing admirably in digital-productivity platforms, that same ingenuity hasn’t taken root when it comes to fostering company culture and community.

Pre-pandemic, companies competed to create the most engaging “campuses” available: onsite cafés, fitness centers, health centers, mothers’ rooms, childcare, nap rooms, and much more. These were spaces where colleagues across functions and groups could socialize informally. All of these perks recognized something important: A core part of our work life isn’t just pounding away at the keyboard. It’s also about sharing ideas and opinions with each other, engaging in casual conversations in the hallway or breakroom, and finding people with similar hobbies or like-minded interests outside of the work context. And there’s a good business case for these sociocultural investments, too. A study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that companies that focused on culture were five times more likely to achieve breakthrough performance than companies that neglected it.

When companies went remote during the pandemic, these workplace social-connection spaces didn’t carry over virtually. Zoom fatigue became much more than a lighthearted joke for many of us with stress and burnout running rampant among those forced to work from home. The loss of these in-person social spaces and cultural practices also came at a critical juncture: In the COVID era, an employee’s need for purpose and community in their work only grew, particularly among Gen Z, according to a Cognizant report.

Moving forward, companies can’t rely on craft coffee or laundry perks to create culture. While there is still a raging debate over whether the future of work is in office, remote or hybrid, it’s becoming clear that the reality is somewhere in between, and companies must create social spaces that exist in more than just the physical realm.

During my time as the chief technology officer at Cisco, where I led thousands of engineers across the globe, I always tried to nurture a sense of community at work, and would invite people for a “birthday chat” every month. The idea was to bring together everyone with a birthday that month (regardless of level, role, or function) to spend time getting to know each other. People in different time zones would join virtually. There was only one rule for the “birthday chat”: Don’t introduce yourself with your job title. Instead, I asked them to share who they were as a person, before whatever their work title might be: parent, a musician, an athlete, or an artist.

When I started Fable in 2020, we bonded remotely with poetry readings, short meditations, painting classes, and reading together in digital book clubs. We also adopted the Swedish tradition, fika—loosely translated as sharing a coffee break with friends—and made it our own: a nonwork ritual to discuss anything from our favorite fictional world to “pantry baggage” (aka, the things we hate to throw away). I’ve seen plenty of other examples over the years, including bring your pet and/or child to the meeting, group cooking classes, living room scavenger hunts, yoga instruction, and virtual trivia nights.

It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to opportunities to create hybrid cultural activities, but there are some guiding principles I’ve learned from my years as a CEO that should keep in mind.

Share values, beliefs, and norms: Define these for your organization and align them with your purpose. Even if you’re an entrepreneur in a startup, it’s never too early to make work culture a priority.

Stay connected while remote: You often need a different mode of connecting with remote that doesn’t feel like yet another meeting on your calendar. These could be virtual cooking classes, painting together, or forming book or movie clubs. Look for asynchronous opportunities in which to enjoy and discuss an activity to make it as inclusive and convenient as possible.

Define the emotional culture: Emotions can go viral, and feelings can spread digitally, so define up front what the acceptable “emotion norms” are for your company or team. For example, is it acceptable for someone to express grief about the loss of a loved one in a private chat message? What about expressing frustration at current events or politics in a shared work channel? In a flexible environment, these unspoken rules about how, when, and where to express our feelings at work need to be spelled out. Don’t wait until there’s a crucible point before sharing and defining how best to supportively communicate with each other, especially virtually.

Create rituals: In a flexible work model, you must come up with new rituals that not only showcase, but also foster and shape your culture. Resorting to occasional happy hours on video conference platforms doesn’t cut it. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Rituals must be fun—people should look forward to them and want to participate.
  • Rituals must be optional—don’t make mandatory attendance; Rituals should feel different from work.
  • Rituals must be inclusive—give everyone an opportunity to lead the ritual, and switch up the topics and activities so everyone feels included.
  • Rituals must be a priority—don’t keep canceling them; this sends a signal that you don’t value them.
  • Rituals must be lightweight—don’t ask people to prepare.
  • Rituals must reflect your culture—anchor the rituals on what is core to your company and what makes it unique.

Whatever these cultural practices may be, HR teams and leaders should again be investing as they did with building campuses, not just in productivity apps spaces but also in digital nonwork spaces that foster team enrichment and connection. Organizations that successfully do so will build the resilience to thrive in our post-pandemic hybrid business world.

Padmasree Warrior is the founder and CEO of Fable.

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