Stonehenge, Shoes & Shared Workplace Experiences

where the demons dwell!I recently had the good fortune to geek out on corporate culture with the wonderful people of Zappos (full disclosure, we are 'cousins' within the Amazon ecosystem, though I include my usual 'Not Speaking for AWS' disclaimer here), and while they had a full spectrum of fascinating, positive things about their culture to latch onto, what I was most struck by was the role that shared experiences played in shaping their unique approach to work, and how the thoughtful, intentional creation of shared workplace experiences is often overlooked as a tool to drive a positive corporate culture.

I am certainly not unique in having worked for a variety of companies, large and small, that miss the mark when it comes to helping you learn how to navigate and thrive in their specific cultures. Back in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and bust, I experienced both little startups - I was employee 18 (or so) at a dot-com, pre crash/burn – and I subsequently worked for a few huge, global tech companies. While those organizations were very different from each other in almost every way, they did share a total lack of structure around onboarding. That's expected (though not really excusable) at a startup, but even at Big Tech Company No. 2, no one helped me figure out how to get paid until about 3 months in. There was no training, either formally or informally, on in-house tools, norms or expectations. I don't think I saw a company mission statement or had a specific new hire or role-based orientation program until about a decade into my career.

And then I have experienced the other side of that coin - training and process overkill. Another nameless company I worked for was insistent about transmitting everything to do with its goals, values, compliance, and culture via time-consuming, mandatory e-learning. While there is certainly a time and place for asynchronous training, especially when you have a global workforce, I argue that if you are looking to foster long-term business relationships and a strong, healthy company culture, e-learning and classroom training aren’t magic bullets. Live, shared experiences are the key, and that brings me back to Zappos.

Everyone who joins Zappos, regardless of role or level, joins a cohort of new hires who have four weeks of training - they learn the customer service role inside and out, they work the phones and speak directly to customers in the call center; no one gets to opt out to attend a 'more important' meeting. Their training is capped off by a real-life graduation ceremony, and many of the people I met, in a variety of roles, fondly recalled their training; it gave them a firm grounding not just in the company culture and expectations, and also set them up for success at building relationships across departments and roles. I'm sure those relationships are a major factor in why there were so many long-term Zapponians - people whose tenure often exceeded a decade. From a tech perspective (including my own, which, again, is not unique, where I've seldom been in any one company more than 2-3 years), that's astounding.

This is not to suggest that every company should go out and bolt on a four-week immersion experience to their hiring process; it's certainly not cheap and for a globally-dispersed team, small or large, it's simply not always feasible or even desirable. But even fully-remote companies realize that technology alone can't create and develop culture; Automattic's approach of an annual meetup for the full company and smaller team get-togethers creates regular opportunities for their employees to share experiences. Other companies have town halls or all hands meetings that serve similar functions; the cyclical, almost ritual repetition of these kinds of meetings (and, not infrequently, the trip to the libation chamber bar after) lets employees build organic relationships and memories - 'remember the all-hands where X spoke or Y performed?' That's important.

Shared experiences drive shared purpose.  As humans, we seek out cyclical, seemingly ritual, experiences - is an annual trip to Disneyland substantially different from a theoretical 'pilgrimage' to Avebury or Stonehenge undertaken by their builders (and, quite probably, their plus-ones)? We have good evidence that the 'users' of Stonehenge (to put it in vaguely techie terms) liked a good annual party; the motivations behind it may have not been terribly different than that of a modern company picnic or offsite: do something different from your regular workday, with your colleagues (and possibly your family as well), then consume food and beverages. There would have been other commonalities with our era - everyone would recall the colleague who got horribly drunk one summer, or the time someone's dog tried to attack the fire-eater (you may recognize the voice of experience here). While the terms we use to talk about prehistoric gatherings tend toward the mystical or mysterious, that's largely a function of the paucity of evidence and/or our tendency to want to make something we don't immediately understand more meaningful, but annual or seasonally-occurring events in the distant past may have been quite similar to ours - a working meeting with a party afterward.

In the workplace, we create rituals whether we mean to do so or not. A standing happy hour, a semi-organized run at lunch, a yearly offsite or even our more formal business mechanisms like annual reviews or daily standups drive our culture. How we create and evolve those experiences for employees says a lot about that culture - going back to Zappos, they ensure that everyone has the opportunity to attend their all hands meeting; it's such a priority that the call center is shut down for the occasion, as it is - briefly - for some other seasonal events. Creating an environment in which all employees have consistent, shared experiences builds personal connections and deeper engagement - provided those are good experiences. Yes, it’s hard to do globally, at scale, but it’s worth trying.

A few simple guidelines:

  • Be intentional. What do you want to create, and why? How will you evolve it?
  • Be consistent. Create a regular cadence and stick to it.
  • Be inclusive. If your site or event doesn't welcome everyone (and there may well be certain team- or role-specific events), what are you telling current and prospective employees?
  • Have fun. You may not see a direct ROI on every event, but if your employees want to be there for the long term, you're doing something right by giving them something to remember that that isn't just their meeting schedule.

Finally, think long term. Everything you do is adding to your company’s history, whether that will eventually be long or short – what kind of story do you want your employees to tell their future grandchildren or robot overlords?

This post also appears on Medium.

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