The Secret to Compelling Company Culture: Prioritize People & Create Community

In the wake of both the great resignation and massive layoffs–and with recession looming– organizational culture matters. When the stakes are high, what elements contribute to a compelling company culture?

We asked learning and development leaders how they connect and grow their employees and enhance company culture, all while navigating a global workforce. They all expressed the importance of prioritizing people by creating community across distributed teams.

Prioritizing People

Employee engagement has to be intentional and leaders have to be human first. We want people to let their “human” shine through.” Mary Remillad, HomeLight

Mary Remillard is head of Learning and Development at HomeLight, a real estate technology company with a global employee base. She shared that HomeLight’s founder knows firsthand what cultural elements he wants to avoid. “Since our CEO came from the notoriously toxic culture of Wall Street, he already had a really good idea of what culture shouldn’t be, and wanted better for his own company. When he started HomeLight, he made sure his vision of “people first” was top priority.”

L&D specialist Rachel Wood has worked to develop holistic programs that specifically focus on the people side of Burendo consulting agency. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what role you’re in, or where you are located. If you shout for help at Burendo, people here care and will swarm around to help solve whatever the need might be.”

At French software company Aircall, Global Learning & Talent Development Partner Melissa Strong knows the value of prioritizing people. “Our people are what makes Aircall unique. As a company we have an amazing sense of community. Everyone wants to be a part of something exciting, to learn, grow and achieve something special in a community together. It’s unique and addicting to have this type of supportive environment.”

“People are what makes Aircall unique. It’s addicting to have this type of supportive environment.”  Missy Strong, Aircall

Creating Community Across Distributed Teams

According to recent studies, 61% of employees now identify as hybrid workers–their time is split between in-office and remote work. This forces creative endeavors to keep them connected and growing together. Beyond teams collaborating in Slack and virtual one-on-ones with direct reports, the leaders we spoke with think outside the box to keep distributed teams engaged. Whether it’s mentoring, shared learning opportunities, or inclusion efforts, they’re intent on connecting distributed teams and helping them grow.

With a passion for shared learning structures, Rachel has worked to break down silos and barriers at Burendo for the past 6 years. Her team focuses on decentralized, shared learning structures. “We are built around a community structure and have initiatives like mentoring programs that are linked to a broader collective support strategy. If someone needs help to collaborate, then they can look to the communities to see who can be assigned to a specific role.”

Beyond virtual coffee breaks & wellness programs, Rachel has seen the power of learning in community. “Burendo is a company where people are motivated to learn. We learn best through shared learning experiences that are based around communities.”

Learning in Community

“Burendo is a company where people are motivated to learn.  We learn best through shared learning experiences that are based around communities.” Rachel Wood, Burendo

As AirCall scales quickly, Missy focuses on staying true to their culture of community and collaboration.

Her strategy involves “creating moments for people to share, encourage, and guide one another.” Twice a year, her team hosts Aircall Conversations, inviting experts to present on a topic. Speakers give a keynote speech and then employees break out into smaller teams. “We recently invited a Navy pilot to talk about working through uncertainty, which proved very applicable to both Aircall’s current reality going through a CEO change, and also to the current potential of recession.” The AirCall Conversations have shifted to virtual to keep employees connected across distributed teams. “We made sure that the chat and online discussions were lively, to create an ambiance of inclusion and energy.” 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

“Because we are global, multicultural differences are expected and it is important to learn different communication styles.”  Missy Strong

Leaders recognize inclusion as more than a passing fad—it’s a cultural imperative to any organization navigating globally distributed teams. Furthermore, HBR research shows that developing inclusive leaders “directly enhances performance,” as they grow in cultural intelligence and become aware of their biases.

Inclusive spaces don’t happen by accident. At HomeLight, Mary’s team intentionally celebrates DEI and strives to maintain awareness of their own biases. Her People Team has tackled many projects in an effort to ensure organizational alignment, starting with interview practices and including current team members.

HomeLight’s Employee Resource Groups are employee driven, and model the type of momentum Mary and her team want to leverage. “We are continuing to develop a strategy of equity within our global company, and desire for everyone to have the same opportunity, influence and voice.  We want to make sure that no one feels negatively ‘othered’ because they are based in a country outside of where we are headquartered.”

Rachel describes Burendo’s culture as open and growing, two hallmarks of inclusivity. “Some of our work in inclusivity and culture building is in storytelling. We make a point of understanding traditions and beliefs, beginning with our founders.”

Honing their hiring practices is another part of Burendo’s strategy for shaping an inclusive culture. ‘As we hire, we look at people as a culture add, not a culture fit. We need the variety of skills, knowledge, and strength that people bring as individuals.” By putting people first, these leaders create sticky cultures that will attract and retain the right workforce.

Why Culture Matters

Back in 2020, McKinsey Consulting foresaw the type of workplace realities that would emerge as a result of enormous societal change–and as they reimagined the post-pandemic workforce, their advice was to pay careful attention to organizational norms and culture. Focus on what binds people together. “Your opportunity is to fashion the hybrid virtual model that best fits your company, and let it give birth to a new shared culture for all your employees that provides stability, social cohesion, identity, and belonging, whether your employees are working remotely, on premises, or in some combination of both.”

Rachel believes innovation is key to Burendo’s culture. “If you stop trying new things, then your culture is going to suffer.” HomeLight’s strategy includes attention to the overall employee experience. Mary says: “We try to not stay stagnant at HomeLight.  Every time we’ve surpassed a critical milestone at the company, we’ve taken the time to evaluate what “great culture” means to ensure we evolve alongside our employees’ needs. We make sure there are checkpoints along the way, and strive to be intellectually curious.”

As the new era of distributed work progresses–and teams become increasingly global and multicultural—in our interviews, the opportunity to let the people define and shape the culture shines through. In the most practical sense, it’s also effective for any company’s bottom line. As Missy points out:  “Without people, AirCall doesn’t have culture at all. And relationships are what makes things happen—results are reliant upon it. If they connect and care with the people they work with, then they will succeed.”

“Life is more than just staring at a screen for 8 hours a day.  It can be easy with people being dispersed to let work be just work, but when there is community- humans connect on a human level, and that impacts people’s quality of life for the better.”  Mary Remillad

Fighting for Females in Finance

“I discovered that the people in my GenderSmart circle are just like me, in one way or another. We’re all trying to make the world fair and equitable, just in different ways.” Bibi Gertrude Annoh Quarshie, Director of Operations, African Women’s Development Fund

Financial systems engage with and benefit men and women differently– particularly women of color. That’s why the GenderSmart community works to bring gender balance into finance, in terms of who makes investment decisions, and who gets investment.

Hoping to spark real and lasting global change, GenderSmart works to educate and network senior investment professionals, fostering innovation and collaboration in service of a more equitable world.

What began as a community of 300 investors four years ago has grown to 2,500 women and men across 50 countries, representing the climate crisis, education, health, and human rights. GenderSmart’s next chapter is an upcoming merger with 2x Collaborative: in January 2023, the two organizations will become 2X Global.

Fresh off their 2022 annual Summit, we caught up with co-founder Suzanne Biegel and Head of Programs Stella McKenna to learn how Circles has played a significant role in their community.

Can you share more about GenderSmart’s mission and values?

Suzanne: Our mission is convening people and connecting them together, to build relationships, increase their capacity for investing work, advance their practices and standards, and expand their imaginations.

GenderSmart is collaborative and values-driven. We try to be intentional with who’s in the room–they really need to have a mindset that is committed to this issue, thinking about not only their own organization and progress, but also advancing as a field.

Our team works very hard to create a safe space to connect as humans. We want people to feel like they have a place to commiserate, celebrate one another, and learn from each other–and also identify what’s not working. We work hard to think about where people are coming from and what the next step in their journey could be–to meet people where they are and push them a little bit further.

When so much of the world went virtual–is that when Circles came into the picture?

Suzanne: After Covid happened, we quickly learned how to flip to a virtual organization. I had experienced Circles as a participant as an Aspen Fellow, and brought it to the GenderSmart team because it’s an exciting approach and technology–I thought it could be a really important part of what we do.

For 2022, we planned three months of virtual programming consisting of formal sessions and expert hours, and we added the Circles component so people could connect in a different way and allow for more peer-to-peer sharing.

Stella: I was struck by how Suzanne described the impact of her Circles experience. We had all been online for 18 months at that point, and while people were getting creative on Zoom, Suzanne went through Circles and felt like it offered a next-level connection experience. In a world where people had lots of different virtual communities pulling them in, circles felt like an opportunity to really engage our community in a different way, and deepen those peer-to-peer connections.

Our hypothesis was that if we planned a content-heavy program and ran Circles alongside it so people connected with their peers, those elements would enrich one another, and people would increase their committment.

“It was a humbling experience because we shared challenges, difficulties and struggles, and everyone was honest about who they are and how they do their business.” Cecile Sevrain, Co-founder and Impact & Sustainability Warrior at TIIME – advisor, trainer and public speaker, France

How has Circles helped your community connect and grow?

Stella: We sorted members into groups based on their level of experience, and it really allowed for peer-to-peer connection. In the future, we’d like to try sorting the groups in different ways–thematically, geographically etc.

Suzanne: People just love the platform–how it makes them feel, the way more voices get heard. There’s just something about it that’s really special. 

Stella: I think something that potentially connects a group of people virtually and also in person is amazing. We trained facilitators to run the circles, and I contacted them before our in-person Summit to let them know which members of their circles would be in attendance, so they could also connect in person. 

When I spoke with GenderSmart members who went through Circles, the number one theme that stood out to me was that they felt like they weren’t alone. They really felt the connection was on a human level.

Stella: Yes. One of the standout moments of my year happened in a circle I facilitated. Someone who was a pretty active part of the GenderSmart community, and who I perceive as a well-connected person in the field, said “I’m very much still the gender nerd in the corner. In my organization, people either want something from me–because they’ve been told that they need to think about gender in their process–or they dismiss me as unimportant.”

Participating in circles was a chance for her to be around a table where she didn’t have to justify commitment to gender–everyone was already committed. It was a really good reminder to me that she still really needs that, even as someone who does this every day and is committed and making things happen.

“Sometimes at GenderSmart, we are peers but also competitors. In circles, those barriers come down” Luis Marquez, Director of Advisory Services / Gender Lens Investing, Maputo, Mozambique

I know you said your Summit was a huge success, and I’m so glad–the work you’re doing is so important, to me personally and the entire Circles team. What’s your vision for the future of your community?

Suzanne: First, we’re very much about building the capacity of the sector by connecting people with their peers. Second, we want to advance the standards and practices within the field. Third, to influence the broader market–and to get people seeing that this is just smart investing. We want to influence the financial system overall.

One important component are these communities of practice that are coming together. They will be fundamentally virtual, so using technology as a part of the solution is important. People really love to convene in person, but it’s not practical–we had people from 44 countries at the Summit.

Despite what’s going on in the economy and gender setbacks, at GenderSmart we’re very clear on what our role is in the world.

At Circles, we’re honored to connect and grow communities like GenderSmart. Learn more about the incredible work they’re doing in the world here.

What my Houseplant Taught me About Resilience

There’s been a lot of buzz about resilience as an essential quality during setbacks. When the topic came up in a slack channel recently, one colleague shared that they recently stopped using the word altogether: in their experience, expecting resilience invalidates pain and lived experience by suggesting that people simply persevere.

Indeed, the internet defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness,” a lofty ideal loaded with assumptions and probably blind to privilege. Likewise, a recent Forbes article suggests “know that you can adopt specific mind shifts to help create your best career year yet—and make the rest of your life pretty great, too,” placing the onus squarely on the individual.

Sure, there’s always that one annoying person sailing through life completely nonplussed, but often if you dig deeper, resilience (or lack thereof) flows from a combination of someone’s temperament, upbringing, life experience, cultural background, intersectionality, trauma, marginalization, and a whole host of other factors that attribute to a human’s capacity for “toughness”. If workplace resilience connotes bootstrapping–using every resource you have available–and not everyone has the same resources available, is it equitable to expect the same level of resilience out of everyone?

What if instead of tossing out the word resilience altogether, we brainstormed how to make workplace resilience a community effort, attainable for everyone?

A Tale of Resilience: Pretend We’re All Houseplants

Two new leaves just emerged from the top of my fiddle-leaf-fig, which is only significant if you understand the plant’s journey over the past few years.

I don’t remember when or how I brought said plant into my home, but after a cursory search on “how to care for a Ficus Lyrata“ I potted it, parked it near a front window, and watered it once a week per instructions. Which didn’t work for my plant. Which puzzled me.

Adding to my confusion were my other plants that thrive no matter what: over watered, under watered, near a window, in a dark room: it doesn’t matter, some plants just grow.

After months of struggle, I decided to move the fiddle-fig to the opposite side of our house, next to my desk which faces a bay window. I started researching what else the plant might need to thrive.

Years later, the thriving plant has remarkably grown several feet. 

A combination of the following allowed my plant to experience resilience, and these elements just might work for humans at work, too:

  • Space. The plant was crowded into a small pot and rootbound, so I repotted it into a much larger one, giving its roots room to grow. Is there mutual space for employees in your workplace to learn, share, listen and grow?
  • Communication. Yeah, I talked to my plant. I also listened to it by noticing its failure to thrive, and responded by trying something new. One of our customers, Glassdoor, holds space for communication by hosting circles where employees can process together during crises. How is your workplace fostering communication between employees? For example: does everyone have the opportunity to gather together and process during a significant world event?
  • Community. I put another plant next to the fiddle fig so their leaves could touch. According to Psychology Today, one way to practice resilience is to build social connections. Does your workplace offer regular touchpoints for small groups of employees?
  • Individuality. Even though the internet instructions recommended treating this plant species a certain way, that didn’t work for my plant. Not every plant in the same species needs the same thing, and the same goes for people; in fact, companies can ensure inclusive teams by celebrating individual differences. Are employees in your workplace valued as complex individuals with a unique story?
  • Wellness. My plant responded well to customized fertilizer. Does every individual in an organization have their whole-person healthcare needs met?
  • Protection. Bugs tried taking up residence in my plant’s soil, until I purchased miniature sticky traps and planted them in the pot. For some, remote work may be the safeguard they need. “People of Color and underrepresented communities have benefitted from remote work arrangements. One of the reasons is that many have not had to cope with the prevalence of microaggressions, which are subtle forms of discrimination, in the workplace” What safeguards are in place for employees experiencing harassment, marginalization, or micro-aggressions?
  • Native Environment. I learned house plants thrive when they experience their native environment. Since mine should be in a tropical rainforest, I began misting it with water and occasionally grabbing the tip of one of its leaves and swaying it back-and-forth, as if a breeze were blowing through. At Circles, we’ve been gathering in cross-cultural and functional circles, to learn each others’ stories and deepen our connections. Is there space in your organization to periodically learn, share and understand each other’s backgrounds?

There’s no getting around it: with both plants and people, in times of dramatic change, resilience makes all the difference.

Do you want a workplace filled with resilient employees? Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get it in the dirt. Instead of hiring for, prescribing, or weaponizing resilience, try nurturing the soil of your organization’s garden, so that everyone planted there can flourish.

Rather than making resilience an unmitigated, autonomous expectation, let’s work together to create spaces promoting community resilience for everyone.