VSA Apart

April 24, 2020

Creating virtual culture in a virtual world

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Culture is the glue that binds us. As people, as ethnicities, as companies.

So naturally every company tries to “create” a culture that is (circle one or more): innovative / agile / compelling / inspirational / progressive…you get the idea. You’ve done it before. A common set of values, beliefs and behaviors that define a “way of being,” help drive a business forward and motivate people.

But honestly, how are you supposed to maintain a company’s culture when the very essence of culture that we have relied on over the past 2,000+ years — personal connection — has been taken away?

At the center of culture is people. So what happens when we’re no longer together, when we’re working alone, from home, connecting to each other through a screen that allows for limited, artificial moments of interaction? When we can’t show up and lead by physical example? When actions are not overt and can’t be shared and seen?

When digital communications that were meant to be a substitute for the real thing are the ONLY thing?

When we do Culture Transformation work we tell our clients “Culture is a process. It’s not an event or a moment in time.” Not a list of words on a page. Ok yes it has to be words on a page somewhere, but it only comes alive and resonates if realized consistently and credibly, every day, in every action. Either as deliberate acts that help nurture it or as spontaneous gestures of meaning and support. It’s a system and as such it has to be treated in a systematic way.

However given today’s circumstances you need to simplify. We’ve been focusing on three core pillars to maintain our culture:

Trust, shared rituals and meaningful connectivity.

Reshuffling What Matters: Really Put People First

Trust is the mother of all cultural glue. You can’t “offer it or promise it,” it can only be earned through transparency, respect and backing up your words with actions. It’s the pillar to all other aspirations of creating culture. In a time of unprecedented uncertainty, it’s your duty to offer a clear representation of reality — of the company’s views, actions and decisions, of even your personal fears. And more importantly, it’s your duty to put the interests of the people first. It’s hard to earn trust if people don’t feel you have their back.

Rituals and moments of surprise and delight create shared experiences and nurture a sense of belonging. At VSA we’ve done it in an amplified way to counter the physical absence. Everything from virtual bingo to talent contests to dress up day to sending someone who needed extra care a bottle of wine. It hasn’t been scripted or forced — we just became even more sensitive to when it was needed. This requires you to be really tuned in to your teams. Sometimes you need to bring joy and levity to the group, other times support and empathy, other times clarity and leadership.

Meaningful connections, both big and small, are at the center of managing culture in absentia. And we’re being purposeful here about the word “meaningful.” This is about making a gigantic space, literally time on your calendar, to allow you to reach out to people. To ensure you know what’s going on with their families, to give someone some free time if you think they need a break, or to celebrate their achievements. But you have to mean it.

And here’s a little hint. Omissions count as much. If you forget to congratulate someone who aced a presentation or forget to check in if you heard their kids are sick, that leaves a hole. It just does. And it’s very hard to fill back. Times are sensitive. Today, hyper-sensitive might not be a strong enough way to describe how people feel. To describe all of us.

During these past weeks, when so much has been at stake, those are the few things that have truly mattered, that have kept us sane as a team and actually brought us even closer together and allowed us to continue to do great work in the process.

It’s the art of marrying people’s dreams and beliefs with your company’s and finding a way to dance together through this difficult time. And when it’s over we’ll all be that much stronger. Together.

Be well.

Ariadna Navarro

Partner, Head of Strategy

Ariadna helps clients identify growth potential by identifying the intersection between brand and business strategy, human needs and customer experience. She oversees a team of 18 strategists at VSA, and uses analytics, experience design, innovation and brand and business strategy to find unique opportunities for clients from IBM to AT&T. Ariadna is relentlessly curious, whether it’s figuring out the future of Quantum computing or deeply understanding how a new acquisition fits within a company’s portfolio. While solving problems is what drives her, she is particularly passionate about portfolio strategy, brand strategy and unearthing powerful human insights. Ariadna joined VSA after heading up strategy at Interbrand. She is originally from Venezuela, but has called New York home for a very long time.

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