Lessons Learned in Creating a Remote Company Culture

A healthy company culture is one of those things that every organization strives to achieve and every employee has come to expect. And for good reason. When it’s right, it’s magic: people feel better at work, they achieve more, and enjoy spending time with their colleagues. This helps the company reach their goals, innovate, recruit and retain more employees, and gain a competitive advantage. It’s a win-win.

Like most companies, we have had our ups and downs with finding (and holding on to) a thriving company culture. Over the 10 years the Iasi branch of Centric has been active, we have dealt with stressors that have tested the strength of our company culture: move to a new headquarters, changes in leadership, the growing pains of adding two new floors and reaching a 300-employee milestone, among other things. But nothing has tested our company culture quite like COVID.

Since the majority of our colleagues have been working remotely for almost a year now, we have had to adapt quickly in order to make sure we continue to support our colleagues in the best way possible, so that they can help create the best products possible for our customers. This has meant changes in how we communicate, how we engage in team activities, how we hold events, and how we learn and grow - basically, we have had to rethink how we all engage with our culture. This process has been a struggle at times, but it has given us the opportunity to dig deep, be creative, innovate, and come out stronger in the end.

Lesson 1: Leaving the office does not mean leaving behind your core values.

For 10 years, we have been building and adapting our culture – all with office life in mind. Transitioning to an almost fully remote workforce has given us the opportunity to take a closer look at our core values and to make sure that we are still sharing and living by them. This has been a test, to see if we have values that live in our people, not just in our office.

Putting people first, creating stability, and focusing on growth have always been at the heart of our culture and we have worked hard to provide the same feeling during this challenging time. For us, this has meant making sure we show trust and respect: trusting that our colleagues will adapt to remote work and deliver, and respecting people’s work styles and time schedules.

We have to say, we have been pretty luck through all this. One of our biggest business areas, Public Sector Solutions for Dutch municipalities, has really grown since COVID has shown the need for e-services and better online apps. This has allowed us to remain more stable, meaning we did not have to layoff anyone during this time. It also means that Centric has continued to grow throughout this period and that our colleagues continue to learn and develop through new challenges.

Lesson 2: Growth and development never stop.

At the start of working from home, we wanted to make sure we gave people the same learning and development opportunities they had in the office. We had e-learning platforms like Pluralsight and Udemy, but we knew we wanted to offer more. Luckily, our colleagues rose to the challenge and adapted their courses to be able to hold them online. An unexpected benefit of this was that we were able to start collaborating more with our colleagues in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Lithuania. We are lucky to have so many colleagues who have been open to and interested in online learning. They have created opportunities for online mentorship, knowledge-sharing sessions, lightning talks, competence centers, university partnership courses, and conferences.

We also recently held two online events with Richard Bradshaw and Sam Newman. It would have been great if they could have visited us in Iași, but having them online allowed us to offer spaces to members of the IT community outside of Iasi and to our international colleagues.

Even though, in some ways, we would like to go back to the “old way” of doing things, this has really given us the opportunity to work differently and connect with more people.

Lesson 3: Engagement is (still) everything.

Transitioning from office to remote work has brought on a lot of challenges, but one has maybe been the biggest: how to keep engagement up when people only see each other through screens. Everyone has their own personality – some are more extroverted, some more introverted – so we have had to keep people’s individual styles even more in mind when trying to engage remotely.

One of the biggest things we have implemented is starting a weekly online anonymous feedback survey to make sure people are able to tell us how they feel. Not having face time really limits how well we can get a feel for how our teams are doing. So, this helps us take the pulse of how everything is going.

And one of the biggest programs we have is our wellbeing program, Centric Energize. We used to have presentations and workshops in the office, but now we have moved everything online. Many of our presenters have been creative in helping us learn about mindfulness, vocal training, wine tasting, burger making, fitness, journaling, and more – right from the comfort of our homes. These have been nice opportunities to get to know colleagues from other teams and to have a relaxing break with each other.

Lesson 4: There’s no such thing as oversharing.

Sometimes, even on a good day in the office, it could be difficult to make sure your message got to everyone. Even with email, Microsoft Teams, social media, posters, internal TVs, word-of-mouth, intranet, wikispaces, billboards, and a website, things get lost.

One of the biggest struggles was that without being in the office, some of our traditional ways of communication could no longer be used. We had to re-evaluate how we were communicating without the in-person way of communicating we could rely on in the office. We asked ourselves: Are we communicating enough? Are we using the right channels? Are we being accessible, open, and transparent enough? Are we saying the right things in the right way?

We found that, especially now, there’s no such thing as oversharing. It’s better to communicate the same message on multiple channels, in more than one way, and across many days so that people can find the message when they need it.

Lesson 5: Celebrate everything – even the small stuff.

Just like communication, celebration is a social part of office life that can be difficult to recreate remotely. In person, it can happen spontaneously or with planned team lunches, outings, birthdays, and other celebrations. But with remote work, we have had to create new traditions. Now, it has to be adjusted a bit, to make sure everyone can join a call at the same time and to see if everyone is comfortable joining with their camera on. Gift giving has also become a bit more difficult, with having to figure out how to send gifts and where people might be working from.

But we have found other ways to make sure we celebrate people. We have our monthly workaversary movies that we place on our communication channels. And we also put up a Kudos billboard in the city to publicly thank all our Centricians. And lastly, we used to send Kudos cards through an internal mailbox, but with working from home, that was no longer possible. One of our colleagues created an app that helps with that. Now, all our Kudos cards can be sent to email inboxes.

Lesson 6: The party’s not over, it’s just a little different - and online.

Our annual parties and holiday celebrations were some of the things we had the most fun planning, as well as participating in. Sadly, we have had to press pause on a lot of those things. Even though the parties had to stop, we still wanted to make sure we created a similar atmosphere at the “office”. Part of the challenge was creating positive vibes, without actually having a party, so we held a Centric jingle writing contest for our teams, a Halloween costume challenge, online treasure hunts, “new office” tours, and other activities where colleagues could take few minutes to get creative and share a laugh.

Lesson 7: Get creative with CSR.

As part of a multinational IT company, we feel lucky to have the funds to afford a nice office in Palas and to offer our colleagues a good salary and benefits package. We know that not everyone in and around Iasi has those same opportunities though. Every year, we set aside a part of the budget for CSR. In the past, we would have worked together in person to complete different projects. But this year, we have worked to engage our colleagues in CSR in different ways. We meet with students online as part of our university programs, like Centric Express and Summer Practice, and the Centric Scholarship Fund. And we devote more time to get our colleagues involved in fundraising and donations of funds and resources. Although, we would like to go back to some of the “old ways” of doing CSR, our colleagues have really risen to the challenge of helping those most in need.

We’ve had our struggles navigating this new normal, but we have tried our best to adapt our company culture to make it more remote-friendly. As a company, we will keep learning and growing through this process, but we could not have progressed this far without our colleagues and partners. All these lessons learned were only possible with their flexibility, creativity, and understanding. So, Kudos to all Centricians and to the IT community of Iasi.

Originally published in PIN Magazine Nr. 14 December 2020 - January 2021