People Abroad, People Connected

BrainstormMedia has been my home-at-home for the past six months. After joining last July (‘13), I quickly assimilated to the rhythm of this very confident team of WordPress professionals and my daily routine fell into place. I get up, drive the girls to school, stop at the gas station for a cup of coffee (this is not as lame as it sounds — my gas station has a legit coffee bar!), get home, log into to HipChat.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of The Water Cooler

Our company water cooler room in HipChat is, hands down, my favorite part of work-life. Others who work in distributed companies have expressed similar affection for the quintessential water cooler. Work-life is more than work flow and task lists and client acquisition; it’s about building relationships, cultivating company culture, and strengthening the team. If you succeed here, you have succeeded already.

Having a safe place to vent, to laugh, to relax, to breathe…to just be…is such an important part of life — including at work. Often people think they have to be 100% professional all the time while the clock is running — but that actually results in frustrated, unhappy and unproductive employees. Make the choice to create an environment where employees transform from new hires to deeply integral parts of a collective organization.

  • Hit a wall? — water cooler. Someone will help.
  • Burned out? — water cooler. Someone will understand.
  • Frustrated? — water cooler. Someone will bring clarity.
  • Confused? — water cooler. Someone will have an answer. Or help you find it.
  • Exhausted? — water cooler. Someone will pick up the slack.
  • Falling behind? — water cooler. Someone will help get things back on track.
  • New baby driving you crazy? — water cooler. Someone has survived this.
  • Spouse or Partner not understanding your insane working at home job? — water cooler. Someone will remind you why you must disconnect and go reconnect where it matters most.
  • Need help picking out a new computer? — water cooler. EVERYONE has opinions.
  • And the list goes on.

At Brainstorm, we have the freedom to do all of this. Transparency within the team is what made us so strong. We have a wide range of experience, culture, collective wisdom, creativity, and flat out brilliance on our team. But not one of us is 100% all these things (aside from brilliant.) And that’s what makes the water cooler such an important part of our company culture. We are people abroad, but we are people very much connected.

Distributed Company Water Cooler Culture

This morning Taylor shared a picture of his sunrise.

Phoenix, AZ
Taylor Aldridge

Naturally, this immediately turned into a photo sharing session and within a few minutes we had photos of the sky around the world!

Outside Mike’s office window, on a bleak late Germany afternoon:

Schriesheim, Germany
Mike Jordan

Paris, in the afternoon, from Karine:

Paris, France
Karine Do

A dreary Texas morning, where I am barely surviving the Polar Vortex (aka winter):

Morgan’s Point Resort, TX
Sarah Pressler

A sunny San Diego, where Paul is at today:

San Diego, CA
Paul Clark

Which is a lot different than the view he’s grown accustomed to while visiting Nepal for the first two weeks of January:

Nepal by Paul

Paul usually has the lovely Alaska landscape to gaze at while moving through his day. It’s hard to not be insanely jealous of his *normal* daily view:

Anchorage, AK
Paul Clark

In spite of Paul’s awesome collection of morning scenery, Taylor won this impromptu contest. The prize? A hipchat emoticon of course.

  • Silly? — Yes
  • Necessary — No
  • Fun? — Yes
  • Creating memorable moments with your team? — Yes
  • Requiring them to give up any REAL “free” time? — No*
    (This is a source of annoyance among many corporate employees.)

This is a super simplified example of what it looks like to nurture company culture. Why did anyone get up from their chairs and take a picture of their sky just because I asked them to? Because, why not?! I’ve not asked them to give up a Saturday afternoon for a “corporate party.” I’ve just expressed a simple, and genuine, interest in what their sky looks like. I work with people all over the globe — why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?!? (Note: that sounds totally selfish. Please keep it in context!)

Creating Culture isn’t Rocket Science

You don’t need a professional degree in organizational theory to be able to cultivate and nurture the kind of culture you want for your company. It’s not about performance metrics, sales quotas or project deliverables. That’s company tasks. This is about fostering your team in a way that makes leveraging that team as an asset as natural for your company as booting up a computer. This is about leadership.

Does it take management? Yes. If things are a little, too colorful, simply say, “Not appropriate.” Set a standard. Remind your coworkers of that standard. And move on. Team members really interfering with the ability to pace yourself through the morning/afternoon/evening? Simply exit the water cooler. Feelings are never hurt when someone says, “I really have to get this or that done.” In fact, sometimes it turns out that a team mates or two have extra time and can hop in and help finish off to do items!

The intrinsic value to a positive, affirming and supportive company culture may not be something you can see — but it is a very important element of any team. Especially when working remotely.