Before the pandemic, Zia would round up whoever was in the office and stroll down to the coffee shop for Fika, a tradition borrowed from Sweden. Weekly, gamers would gather in a conference room for Thursday Geek Night to play games and eat snacks hours after everyone else went home. From volunteering opportunities to potlucks scheduled around some lesser-known holidays like Robert Burns Day, Zia had a robust company culture. Now, we have a fully remote company.
As the novelty of Zoom happy hours quickly wore off, many of us still wanted to be together, apart. “Much of the culture we instill at Zia was in person and via impromptu conversations. Without that, we feared we would become distanced and culture would slowly dissolve depending on the duration of the pandemic,” Zia Co-founder and culture czar Pat Myers said.
Zia established Culture Club, a mix of leaders from every department. Together with the executive team, we’ve rolled out several new ways to virtually connect with one another while we await the cue that it’s safe to return to the office and dust off the ping pong table.
Zia Town Halls
Early on, CEO Mike Mahon decided to host fully remote, company-wide meetings to talk about COVID-related business impacts. Lasting about an hour, the meetings take place on Zoom. “People will make up their mind about what’s going on. This is a time of more communication, not less. I prefer to lead from behind in good times and from the front in times of crisis,” Mr. Mahon said. “People do better with frequent truth.” The meetings always include time for Q&A. “Having the ability to talk through these things is equally critical.”
Beginning with an email prompt from Mr. Mahon to share what would make a perfect day, this initiative resulted in gifts for employees. We compiled each employee’s perfect day story and assigned a member of the executive team to send them a small gift that would help them achieve that experience. For example, if an employee said their perfect day including a camping trip, they were sent a camp stove coffee set. If their perfect day included time with their family doing a fun activity, they were sent a gift card to an escape room. “When we’re all together, it’s easy to physically show people how much you care about them. The thinking behind this was taking this back to Caring and Compassion,” he said.
While we don’t gather in the conference rooms and eat pizza together anymore for Lightning Talks, the event is one of the only things that translated well on Zoom. Employees take turns presenting on a topic of their choice for five minutes or less. “While most of that is work-related, we encourage anything that can be shared to let people know current interests and hobbies,” Mr. Myers said.
An obvious option to maintain connection and culture was to set up a book club. “The monthly book club was one of the first ideas to come from the Zia Culture Club. When a Zia team travels to client sites, you’ll see most of them nose in book (or Kindle) on the plane. Interests are wide, including sci-fi, historical fiction, crime/mystery, history, and non-fiction current events,” Senior Project Manager Anita Freely said. We suggested titles that didn’t feel work-related, and are fiction. Our first title was a post-apocalyptic tale called The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, and our second title was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline in preparation for the forthcoming sequel.
Stress relief workshop
We’re fortunate that our business is staying afloat during this time of economic uncertainty. We’ve also been incredibly busy with the usual work demands (or, for some teams, much higher demands), on top of the added pandemic stress. We’re all feeling stressed. We’ve hosted a one-hour virtual stress relief workshop, free to all our employees. We learned the fundamentals of mindfulness, a new topic for some and a welcome reminder for others. Many of us changed our perspective on stress, recognizing that stress is biological, and without it, we wouldn’t survive.
Through a program called Community Table Kitchen, Zia staff periodically volunteered time to help provide access to nutritious meals to hungry, low-income individuals and families at the Bridge House. Since the pandemic, serving in that manner has had its challenges, yet the needs of the community have increased. Recently, we reached out to the Bridge House to see how Zia could stay engaged and provide resources, and we’ve found new ways to contribute. The Bridge House has a Ready to Work program that provides adults experiencing homelessness a unique opportunity to rebuild their lives through work.
Zia had many ways to help with donations and supplies for that program. With a list of needed supplies in hand, one of our Zia teammates quickly created an Amazon wish list of items. Within minutes, the Zia team had full-filled a shopping list of supplies for the Ready to Work program, with just a few clicks of online shopping. While we couldn’t be at the Bridge House serving meals over the last few months, this was an opportunity to give back to the community in this time of need.
When it comes to shaping the fully remote company culture during the COVID-19 pandemic, our top priority is safety. Following safety, productivity and honesty are high on the list. “Idle hands do the devil’s work, and people will not be at their best during times of crisis,” Mr. Mahon said. “We’re focused on being connected, innovating, and growing. While we face the uncertainty that Zia might shut down, we remain hopeful. Hope drives action, and doing what we can for each other is more critical than ever.”