The company culture conversation isn’t anything new, but as employment rates stay low and the remote versus in-office debate volleys back and forth, it’s a discussion here to stay.
Intentionality is at the core of building company culture; sometimes, the strongest advocates for culture come from inside the building. Often, the best response leadership can give its employees is to listen and empower employees to suggest and implement plans. This approach isn’t just about the warm fuzzies; Gallup reports an eighty-five percent net profit increase over five years within companies that build a strong culture.
So, what does this look like in a real-time, tangible way? With offices and time zones spread across the country, The Alexander Group, like many other professional services firms, asked the same question, with leadership actively listening and welcoming ideas.
Well, for one, you will find most of us gathered or in front of our computers the third Thursday of every month for happy hour, a 60-minute opportunity to chat, laugh and discover new things about each other. The Alexander Group’s Anthony Ott spearheads the monthly event, drawing from experiences at a former employer.
“We have our heads down, working so hard that it’s nice to take a breath and get to know each other better,” associate Anthony Ott said. “We talk about non-work things and that helps build camaraderie, empowerment and trust.”
Ott uses an app that randomly selects the various groups each month, making sure at least one member of leadership is included, supplying the teams with ice breakers, trivia, quizzes and other conversation starters should they be needed. The Alexander Group is a gregarious bunch, so while the trivia has largely gone untouched, the spirit behind happy hour is thriving. The four to six people per group allows for conversation in a small setting, which is also by design.
“Having a small group is more conducive to really talking with each other. It allows us to see another side of a co-worker they may not normally see because we’re in a work mindset,” Ott said. “We all have a common denominator, and this gives a chance to expand culture and team building.”
Sociologist Tracy Brower studies work-life happiness and fulfillment and calls this “Social Capital,” the ability to form fulfilling relationships, generate new ideas and ask advice for how to get things done within the organization.
“Strong cultures also have intricate webbing of social capital—the networks of people across the organization. To maintain positive cultures in hybrid/remote working situations, leaders need to be intentional about encouraging people to build their networks,” Brower said. “They can do this by connecting people across departments, providing for cross-functional learning opportunities and creating time for people to have virtual coffee or networking discussions with colleagues across the company.”
The happy hours are in addition to monthly catered lunches where staff is encouraged to catch up over a meal, group outings to play darts or Top Golf and annual company retreats. Many of The Alexander Group team members, including managing director John Lamar, are based in California, so the West Coast contingent makes it a priority to gather in person a few times a year.
“It’s so much fun to meet in person, give them a hug and spend that time together,” Ott said.
A by-product of leadership-supported gatherings is the framework of a safe space to exchange ideas and encourage mentorship. Employees who know they are seen and heard feel valued, and that means greater staff retention.
McKinsey & Company study authors Terra Allas and Brooke Weddle say connection building helps meet the psychological and emotional needs of employees. They suggest setting up regular/daily meetings at the beginning of each day, allowing time for socializing and creating regular events to build social connections. McKinsey research shows society is a key source of meaning for employees, along with company, customer, team, and individual.
Indeed, that is what Pax8 CEO John Street finds with his employees. Street prioritizes inclusivity within his company, connecting every day with someone on his staff in a meaningful way.
“Creating a feeling of belonging locally, regionally and globally is priceless, and sustaining that feeling requires an inclusive approach and active commitment from leaders. For example, I make it a practice to call one employee each day and ask, “What’s going on in your world? What are you thinking about?” These discussions help me signal to every employee that they belong and are valued,” Street said in a January 2023 Forbes Magazine article. “Embedding inclusion and belonging is a core tenet of employee recruitment and retention.”
Indeed, Ott, knowing he was heard and supported by leadership, was motivated to expand the social capital plans at The Alexander Group. Next steps include one-on-one exchanges where team members can dedicate time for business development, marketing and organizational ideas and a quarterly exchange of constructive firm-wide suggestions.
“Empowered employees feel like they have a voice. We all come from different places and have different ideas. We all have something to offer,” Ott said.
Street has also found an energized employee base by listening to his staff. They feel encouraged and see themselves rising within Street’s IT company.
“When employees know their voices are being heard, they not only feel engaged but are actually engaged. Innovations rise to the top, and the individuals who bring great ideas to the table often become future leaders in the organization. Because they deeply understand the importance of being heard, these new leaders will then continue to prioritize listening to team members. Leaders can encourage employees to speak up in a variety of ways, like physical or virtual suggestion boxes, surveys or simply asking them directly,” Street said.
Every company is different, so if happy hour and axe throwing aren’t exactly the social experiences your team would appreciate, human resources expert Renee Cocchi says what’s most important is choosing activities that will help teams get closer to each other, be happier and more comfortable in the workplace so they can produce their best work. Planning to get social? Cocchi offers these tips when adding events to the culture-building event calendar: