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Creating and Nurturing an Intentional Remote Culture

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Company culture isn’t built in the short term, nor can it be imposed. It’s deeply rooted in the founders’ ideologies and behaviours around work. From there, it grows and evolves organically as the company hires individuals who embrace these values, and who also bring their own identity into the mix.

Laïla von Alvensleben, head of culture & collaboration at MURAL, will talk about remote cultures at the Remote Forever Summit 2020. The summit will be held online from November 10-17.

If there isn’t a willingness to identify what the culture stands for, it’s easy for it to be "watered down" and lose its power to bring people together, especially in times of crisis, von Alvensleben believes.

Being intentional about culture can be done in different ways, as von Alvensleben explains:

Some companies may have a person or team of advocates dedicated to fostering culture, while others may have the founders more involved. Regardless of which way they go about it, the aim is to create an environment in which employees are motivated to work together with their teams and commit to the company’s mission.

According to von Alvensleben, fostering culture is not the responsibility of a single person or group of people—it’s a continuous process and a company-wide endeavor:

There are rituals and practices that can be put into place to connect more with our teammates and put our beliefs into action. For example, regular social events between teams or the entire organisation help to bring our culture to life. They don’t all have to be for entertainment purposes; they can also include workshops and Town Hall meetings.

InfoQ interviewed Laïla von Alvensleben about how we can create and nurture an intentional remote culture.

InfoQ: Why should we be intentional about culture? Why does it matter?

Laïla von Alvensleben: Culture impacts employees’ relationships with each other, their work and their personal wellbeing. In difficult times like we are in now, in which companies are forced to adapt to external circumstances beyond their control, being intentional about culture is more important than ever. A strong work culture ensures employees feel safe and looked after to continue doing their best work despite external pressures. This is why it’s equally important to celebrate and give recognition to the milestones achieved together.

InfoQ: What does the culture look at MURAL look like?

von Alvensleben: Work isn’t a place; it’s what a team accomplishes together. At MURAL, we have a very supportive culture, both internally and with our customers. Our core principles guide us every day to keep learning, improving and celebrating how we work. We strongly believe we can all "Make others successful" and ultimately this shows up as people taking the time to help others (we admittedly lifted this value from IDEO after our founders joined their Startup-in-Residency Program!) Not surprisingly, this people-centric approach stems from MURAL’s history in design thinking, which has also shaped our ceaseless creativity. We’re constantly prototyping and iterating to come up with innovative features, services, and better ways of working. At MURAL, we believe that we are all imagination workers—people who thrive on collaborating with others from different backgrounds and disciplines to solve problems together.

InfoQ: In your talk at Remote Forever Summit 2020 you will show how you organized a virtual retreat for 250+ employees. Can you elaborate on how that went?

von Alvensleben: This year was the first (and probably not the last) time we organised a virtual retreat. It was obviously very different from last year’s in-person retreat where we gathered 120+ MURAListas in Argentina to get to know each other through workshops, team building activities, and celebrations for an entire week.

Once we knew travel restrictions were here to stay, we decided to launch a three-hour online event for over 250 employees to meet people outside our usual teams, have some laughs and bond over shared experiences. We wanted to make this a special occasion so we invited everyone onboard a MURAL World Tour. Even if we cannot physically travel, we were going to make it happen virtually! The journey began with a boarding pass invitation to meet at a virtual departure gate in Zoom. Before the retreat, we delivered a collection of props to each employee on four continents which included sleeping masks, lip balm, sunscreen, a portable fan, snacks, and party lights or wearables. We asked everyone to open their packages and have them ready for the online event so we could use them during different parts of the world tour. Everyone also received a collection of custom Zoom backgrounds they were encouraged to upload and switch depending on our virtual destination.

Thanks to a stellar team of volunteers who acted as an air crew, we played out an entire trip from snowy mountains to breezy beaches and went all the way to outer space, complete with pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control as well as in-flight snacks and entertainment. On arrival at each destination, we had activities such as virtual "speed dating", escape rooms (in MURAL, of course) and even a Foo Fighters cover performance by our new MURAL Band.

InfoQ: What benefits did this virtual retreat bring?

von Alvensleben: We proved to ourselves that virtual retreats are a thing and can be highly engaging if they’re done with a lot of thought and preparation. It definitely achieved its goal of bringing people together who don’t usually interact day-to-day and set the bar high for a unique online adventure that most people had never thought of before, let alone experienced! After so many challenging months and a very long lockdown (especially for our teammates based in Argentina), it helped boost morale for people to connect with light and entertaining team building activities. The escape rooms in MURAL were a uniquely creative display of how our product and features can be used in new ways and the virtual concert brought back the kind of social experience we’ve been craving since restrictions were put into place. Unexpectedly, we also discovered some impressive acting talents from all the volunteers role playing and we created a music band that is now releasing a new cover song each month for our employee newsletter! We’ve sure learned a lot from it and are already thinking about how we can improve for a future virtual offsite.

InfoQ: What can be done to foster the remote working culture?

von Alvensleben: We like to say that we "drink our own champagne" at MURAL. That is, remote work is part of our DNA, not just something our product enables, and is unto itself part of our mission and values. We employ over 250 team members throughout 17 countries around the world. We utilize a number of collaboration tools to bring everyone together, including MURAL, Dropbox, Zoom, and Slack. Whether it’s a five-person meeting or a company-wide 250+ person all-hands, we make sure everyone has a voice as if we’re all in the same room.

Company-wide communication also plays an important part in conveying culture, both in writing and in live conversations. It starts with hiring. The people we hire and the behaviours they bring will impact culture, and that’s why fast-growing companies like MURAL have to pay even more attention to how their culture is evolving as they expand both in headcount and geographically. We screen especially hard for a combination of kindness, conscientiousness and collaboration to build diverse teams with a naturally high level of ambient trust. Ultimately, no tool or hack can replace good old fashioned commitment and passion to do good work. Skills can be learned; being the right human cannot. Our reactions during the inevitable difficult moments of a company will define our culture too, so it’s important to keep that in mind when hard decisions are being made.

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