How Leff thinks about sustaining corporate culture in a virtual world

How do companies sustain a corporate culture in an era of remote or hybrid work? That’s the leading remote-work challenge, according to a September 2021 survey of CEOs and CHROs by the Society for Human Resources Management.

Leff is one of many enterprises wrestling with this issue. The firm has more than doubled in employee size since the beginning of the pandemic more than two years ago. Most of those new staff members were hired and onboarded virtually. More and more are living far from Leff’s home base in Chicago. Prepandemic, most of the staff came to the office five days a week. Today, even as the pandemic threat subsides, most local colleagues choose to work from home most of the week. It appears there’s no going back. Companies are going to have to answer the question of how to sustain their culture.

But what is corporate culture? Here’s one attempt to define it from a 2018 Harvard Business Review article: “Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.”

For me, the Leff corporate culture comes down to “I have your back, and you have mine.” That means when colleagues run into tough times—and we all do at one point or another—there’s someone to cover for you and to support you. A recent study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review offers empirical backing for this workplace ethos. “Our results showed that colleague support when working from home was the strongest predictor of job satisfaction, followed by colleague support in the office, with manager support when in the office or at home the least important predictor, again controlling for contextual factors.” As important, Leff follows the no asshole rule.

So how does Leff try to sustain its corporate culture in a remote world? We can’t claim to have all the answers; in truth, nobody does. An article from Quartz at Work nicely synthesizes what we’re trying to do:

“Companies can still build culture that fosters loyalty in the distributed work era. What motivates employees just won’t necessarily be ties to their coworkers. Rather, it may be the knowledge that they’re getting paid well and receiving generous vacation and parental leave policies, or that their company’s mission aligns with their own values.

“Companies can also communicate culture and values by investing in antiracist practices and offering flexible work schedules, by setting the expectation that colleagues communicate with one honestly and respectfully, and by offering employees plenty of recognition and positive feedback.”

As for this last point, in spring 2020, after the pandemic began, we added a final agenda item to our weekly virtual staff meeting called “put-ups.” It’s an idea pinched from the Swarthmore College men’s basketball team. Individuals take a moment to thank colleagues (give them a put-up) for something special that they did the previous week—for example, responding quickly to an ambitious client request or successfully completing a giant, difficult project. It’s a colleague-to-colleague (not just manager-to-employee) way of regularly acknowledging all the hard work that goes into running a successful business.

More recently, we added an agenda item to the weekly meeting called “winning off the field.” We adapted this idea from a sports-talk radio program in the Washington, DC, area. Once a week, the show hosts ask listeners (for example, at minute 39:00) to call in and briefly describe something good that happened to them that day. (The expression “winning off the field” comes from a maladroit comment made by the former general manager of the then Washington Redskins football team.) At Leff, colleagues can take a moment to celebrate a special event in their lives, such as a child being admitted to a college or getting their first car, a toddler’s first swim lesson, or even getting to see live music after months of isolation. The goal is to bring colleagues into one another’s lives and to show each other’s personal, nonwork selves. In an office setting, this might happen by itself in the course of a day; in the remote world, it might never happen unless you make a point of it.

These two approaches may seem marginal, but they’re both part of the larger effort to sustain in the remote world what we think makes Leff a special place to work.

How is your company maintaining corporate culture in these virtual times? We’d love to hear from you.

Allan R. Gold

Before joining Leff as a senior adviser, Allan was a longtime executive editor at McKinsey & Company, collaborating on content with every function and sector practice, with a concentration on emerging markets. Over the years he also served on the board of editors and as editor-in-chief of the McKinsey Quarterly. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and an MSJ and BA from Northwestern University.

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