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Can Culture Survive Without an Office?

Preserve Culture and Embrace Team Rituals, Near + Far

From Tangram's Second Safest Webinar Series

After gaining a diverse set of valuable insight from several roundtable discussions with industry giants and innovative clients, we launched the Second SafestWorkplace webinar series beginning in June. We continued the series with CanCulture Survive Without an Office? as Sean Kelly, SnackNation CEO; LynnJohnson, J2 Global Senior Human Resources Director; Yester Sabondzhyan, Hulu Manager, Workplace Insights and Development, shared a conversation on how they’ve promoted company culture while working from home – and how they intend to carry new culture-boosting methods into the future office.

Do you believe that positive experiences in the virtual world are sustainable or are they based on initial novelty?

Sean Kelly: The answer is yes. There’s a lot of goodness to it. That being said, some of the novelty wears off. Just like a relationship, there are things that you need to consistently work on to ensure that goodness is retained. I think we’re entering the second phase of working from home where if we continue doing what we’re doing, it’s going to feel a bit stale.

Vulnerability and shared personal connection are absolutely an essential part of Phase 2.

Yester Sabondzhyan: Our team went above and beyond to maintain connection remotely. Hulu has international employees so it’s been a lifelong struggle to maintain connection digitally—we’ve been challenged to think outside of the box to maintain culture.

Lynn Johnson: As we started to work from home, we all thought it was going to be temporary. 14 days became a month became 4 months.

The temporary measures that we put in place aren’t meant to be sustainable. We have to rethink and ensure it’s an iterative process.

What can we put in place to not burnout and make sure that we have the pace for an ultramarathon and not a short sprint?

As return to office (RTO) possibilities become more real, how do you intend to protect and involve culture in a mixed-presence environment? What resources will you need to build culture? 

Johnson: We’re going to make sure that we’re communicating more, and that the message is a message we want to be sharing. How do we acknowledge those at home? We want to make sure that our employees don’t feel shame or left out for staying at home (for necessary reasons). As we go back, there will be no more group lunches, no huddling over a computer, so we have to communicate, set expectations and understand what our employee concerns are. Why aren’t they comfortable coming back? Let’s listen so when we communicate, we are empathetic to their concerns and can properly address them. 


I’ve always seen the office as an equalizer because no matter the role, everyone has the same resources.

In the workplace, you’re less distracted. When you go into this mixed environment, it’s important to be aware, be mindful and keep an open line of communication.

Kelly: The book Get Together gives the #1 rule for building authentic community:

You don’t build a community for people. You build a community with people.

We built SnackNation’s office together, taking the diverse range of views and interests into consideration. We hold that desire for our workplace moving forward into this new mixed-presence environment.

How much do you presume you will you have to engineer culture/encounters versus organic connection?

Kelly: I think of it like date night. Why would you have to engineer dates? Shouldn’t it happen organically if you love them? But being intentional with scheduling dates is a good thing.

Cultures aren’t created, they’re discovered.

Once you discover it, building parameters based on the present environment is okay—I even recommend it.

One of our core values is spreading and optimizing joy. We believe recognition and making people feel like the work they do matters is important. We do a 'crush it call' where everyone takes the time to recognize someone else and state what they’re grateful for. We believe if we 'force' recognition and gratitude, it will ultimately be good for our culture.

Johnson: I would change 'engineer' to 'discipline.' Disciplined to put emphasis on relationships that matter. We need to be intentional with our message, our communication and be consistent.

It’s great that we do it, but when it gets hard, will we continue doing it? That’s where culture builds, where there’s intentionality and consistency.

Sabondzhyan: It seems engineered until it doesn’t—like any habit.

Physical workspace has historically been a host for culture-building events. What are your thoughts on the role of physical space in nurturing culture?

Sabondzhyan: Workplace is a huge contributing factor to any company’s culture because workplace design is (hopefully) intentional and allows for a sense of autonomy in how and when people work. When employees start to work from home, they go from an office that supports various modes of working to one space in their home. Their environment doesn’t allow them to think big, so some culture is lost when stripping away the workplace.

Johnson: We were in our new DTLA office for 6.5 weeks before everything happened and we needed to vacate. That being said, we were able to create a new work experience for that short time with various new tools to embrace. We want to use our physical workplaces to be a message to our employees—this space communicated to our employees that they matter. How do we move that sense of importance to home? How do we let them know that they still matter for creating quality, purposeful work?

Kelly: A unique trend I’m seeing is personalization, but it hasn’t been a significant focus in the office. I think you can be highly personalized and also have a solid community. So I think the office of the future will suit each person and allow them to become their best selves.

 Additionally, I think the office is becoming a perk—an essential perk. Is our office awesome? If it doesn’t serve our people, they’re not going to come in.

If your office doesn’t kick ass when it comes to connection, collaboration and better work, people aren’t going to want it. It’s up to us to design that amazing space.


How do you address cultural impacts based on wellbeing challenges faced by teams?


We need to address that it’s hard and celebrate our employees for doing something unimaginable.

We’ve pivoted from working in office to working at home, some in not ideal conditions. We have to embrace that it’s hard and we have to tell our employees thank you. We’re in crisis fatigue and we’re burnt out. Ask your team what’s been hard, what they’re experiencing?

How can we be a representation for what our employees are experiencing overall?


How do you perceive the result of fatigue on culture?

Johnson: When you’re fatigued, you get to the point where you just don’t care. We have a global crisis and a call to justice happening and we’re asking our employees to stay engaged amidst it all. Working from home forces us to constantly deal with what’s going on in our world.

There are going to be days that are harder than others, but we have to have days where we choose to lean in.

And we have to be intentional with what’s going on with our employees.


How has working from home affected work rituals? How will you promote new rituals in the mixed-presence workplace?


During these difficult times, rituals are more important than ever.

We’ve maintained every ritual, they just look different. For example, every time upper management comes to forum, we do a check-in with where you and your headspace are at. Then we encompass all of the feelings into one word. It’s a small ritual to say that no matter what’s going on with us in the outside world, we’re going to be present with each other for this allotted amount of time.

We’ve doubled down on existing rituals, but now is the time to start new rituals as well. Just be honest—we’re building a plane while flying it and some rituals might not stick.

Sabondzhya: Hulupalooza is an annual event where we pick community organizations and the entire company goes out to serve and give back to the community. We haven’t let go of any of them, we’ve just made them virtual.  

Johnson: When we go back to the office, it’s going to be messy. What worked virtually? How can we marry the best of what we were to what we’ve done in an interim basis to who we are moving forward?


Since behavior overtime fuels culture, how will these experiences affect personal interaction and mentorship/leadership/coaching?


To assume that a virtual world would negatively impact the growth of young and unexperienced employees is to assume that communication stops in this virtual world. And that’s not the case.

We can model boss/mentor behavior virtually. Hulu offers Huluverse, a learning portal that offers seminars and sessions on topics like EQ EU learning, delivering feedback, dealing with change, how to manage stress, etc. We’ve leaned in hard to learning and I now have more exposure to my leaders at Hulu and Disney than ever before with regular coffee chats. I think we currently have the upper hand.  

Johnson: I believe our executives are much more available to our employees in ways they haven’t been before. Video town halls, virtual visits—endless opportunities to have more exposure. It’s a great equalizer with everyone at home, and certainly more personalized.

Kelly: The removal of status is great because once that status goes away, it’s easier to connect because there’s no intimidation. People who don’t normally speak up are speaking up because the pressure to stand up is removed.

The best coaches see their people and let them know they’ve been seen. You have to see your people and you need to see them in an authentic way.


How do you ensure employees stay loyal and engaged?


If you are there for your employees, if you’re seeing them, hearing them, loyalty will remain high and turnover will remain low for the same reasons in the office.

If you are proactively engaging with your team, that loyalty won’t be affected.

Johnson: A lot of it is communication and recognition. We need to give feedback and continue todo so on a consistent basis. How do we ensure we’re treating people the same in a virtual environment as we are in a physical environment? Be consistent, be intentional, be focused.


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