The case for getting physical in a virtual world - Culture Series
Ever since the start of the pandemic, the internet has been abuzz with talk of remote working. I’m constantly trying to calibrate how real the sentiments about remote-working-as-everyone’s-absolute-preference are - they seem to differ vastly depending on whether people are hiding behind a keyboard or sitting across a table (perhaps behind a cup of coffee, or a beer) from you. I personally sit firmly on the in-person side of the spectrum, and people are often shocked when we tell them BluLever is a fully in-person team - especially as a start-up - so in this article, I’ll share the case for getting physical in a virtual world - as we see it.
I’ll start by sharing a bit about the kind of work we do for context. BluLever is an education start-up. We run innovative vocational education programmes. Our apprentices’ learning is relatively high-touch and often physical. Everything is blended, with appies learning in classrooms with facilitators, practically in the workshop, but also online on our LMS in a self-directed manner on their phones. There are elements of our model that cannot be digitised - mainly the workshops where appies go through their practicals, (and yes - we have seen and tried the VR / AR stuff, but we’ve never found a version that can replace the physical workshop) but others which can. We can, and do sometimes take learning online when necessitated - for example during a 2021 COVID lockdown - but it is not our preference and it erodes the quality of the learning experience.
Recently we’ve been on a bit of a hiring drive, which means lots of final interviews, during which we always aim to set expectations thoroughly. We share a bit about how we work and are open about what we expect. It all boils down to a simple concept: we treat people like adults - with their own goals and their own drive to make an impact - and we expect them to behave like adults - making their own decisions, handling their own schedules, and solving their own problems. This doesn’t mean we don’t offer support and scaffolding, but rather that we don’t see a need to be preemptively punitive, or have extensive guardrails in place. We have flexible working hours, people can work from home, we have flexible leave, and we expect a lot from people.
"We focus on output - results and impact - and not on input - nobody is watching your hours or how hard it looks like you are working."
We’re here because we believe in the impact we’re making, and we work hard to get there. All that being said, one thing we always emphasise is that we are not a remote team. We want people to want to be in the office, we want people to spend a lot of time here and we want them to get the most out of that time together.
Here’s how we think about being a physical team in an increasingly virtual world, and the three big reasons this makes sense for us.
1: How we work: collaborative - brainstorming - problem solving - collisions
As a team, we really believe in the power of collisions (and we’re not alone). Being in an open space where you can overhear something, get an idea and dive into a conversation, or have an impromptu problem-solving session in the kitchen has proven to be super important. It is also vital for getting people out of their siloes and encouraging them to get involved in other teams’ work. When you can see people working on something in a meeting room nearby or on a whiteboard, you’re infinitely more able to engage than just reading about it on their slack check-in. We understand that this can feel disruptive sometimes, and try to create space for deeper / focused work (a dedicated quiet working space, pods and an unofficial headphones norm). At the same time, we see the value of physically collaborating again and again. We are big brainstormers, we love using whiteboards, cards, post-its, you name it. We deal with lots of complex, people-related problems, and being able to map them out physically helps a lot (we may have occasionally drawn some toast). We also have a lot of physical representations of the work we do to help keep us on track, including a quarterly dashboard and calendar that we gather around once a week.
2: Culture Building: we thrive on the strength of our relationships - the bonding power of food - seeing impact in person
As a startup, culture is central to everything we do. We try to be very intentional about building our culture and see it as the thing that will allow us to scale successfully. We are intentional about the rhythms and rituals we build, and how we use these to scaffold our work. It’s no accident that the spaces we think of as culture centres are usually times when we gather in person for a length of intensive time (check out our thinking on retreats). As a team, we thrive on the strength of our relationships. The number one piece of advice we give to our new hires is to build strong relationships, as these will enable their success.
"We strongly believe that relationship building, while possible online, is far easier in person, and relationships are deepened by spending time together."
On a collective level, we believe in the bonding power of snacks, and food in general. If you hang around on campus long enough, someone will feed you, whether it is an infamous “prego / pizza party” where team members organise to work late and get pizza or prego rolls for dinner to keep them going, a quarterly potluck, or just someone sharing their lunch. Team members bring snacks for long meetings, and are mildly competitive about which team has the best snacks. Last, but definitely not least, we are an impact-driven organisation, with everyone on the team here because they believe in our mission and want to make an impact. That impact is exponentially more motivating when you see it in person. When you see a student who was once the class clown and didn’t believe in themself gaining confidence and newfound poise. When you spend 3 days hiking with young people who have never hiked, camped or even seen a waterfall before and see the joy on their faces. Culture-building rituals, relationships, food and impact - they all just work better in person.
3: Socialisation and Role Modelling: younger team members - apprentices - learning how to live and get on in a workplace
An often undervalued element of being in the same physical space is the value of socialisation and role modelling. For young team members who are just starting out in their careers, being able to watch how people work - what they do and say, how they relate to each other or deal with disappointment - provides important life lessons. Having role models for your workplace behaviour right in front of you each day helps you build your own patterns of behaviour and responses to challenges, and helps you understand how to work in a way that will make you successful. Another key element of socialisation is being able to get real-time feedback on all of the smaller, softer elements that make up your work. This is true not just for young career-starters, but for team members at every stage of their journey. I’ve had a team member who started out in our daily stand-ups incredibly shy, mumbling and muttering, and, through a combination of feedback and techniques for preparation, entirely shifted and built confidence over a matter of weeks. If we were not in person, it would have been much harder to pick up on that behaviour, give the feedback and ultimately build the confidence. Similarly for our apprentices, being in the same space as the team provides a great opportunity to learn about what being part of the working world looks like. That physical connection is a key part of learning how to live and get on in a workplace - and how to behave in the real world. At the same time, being in a high pressure environment where your decisions impact people’s lives means you will occasionally end up butting heads with a team member. And when times are tough - a bit more of an understanding of your team member as a human, and a bit more grace, go a long way. Again, these are much easier to develop when you physically spend time together and build an understanding not just of Mtho as a Business Development Associate, but as a person who has an unreasonable love for two-minute noodles, and makes a mean trifle.
Collaboration, Culture Building and Socialisation. These are just three of the reasons we believe in an in-person team and culture. Before I go any further, let me respond preemptively to some of the comments I can see already burning a hole through your fingertips. As an organisation we understand that being virtual is possible - and we are well set up to work in this way should we need to (early 2020 was not nearly as traumatic for us as for some companies with regards to the transition online). Similarly, when it comes to our apprentices, we can transition most classes online - but we prefer not to. Essentially, ours is not a case of not being able to work virtually - but choosing not to. We are very much aware that we are a young team (being in your early forties has been called old 🙈), and that with a different set of team members our approach/conditions may change. We also know that for many organisations being virtual is a differentiator - but we haven’t yet felt like we need to actively compete on a “physical vs virtual” basis when it comes to hiring. That being said, as a startup we’re always trying to rethink how we make work a place people want to be, and that extends to making the campus somewhere people are happy to live. It’s very light and open and airy, with lots of plants. We have a popcorn machine and are experimenting with flavoured coffee pods at the moment (vanilla buttercream espresso anyone?). The campus is open 24 / 7 and team members can come and go as they please. There’s a bed in our wellness room and there’s always food around.
Ultimately, our goal as an organisation is to create a space and a way of working that enables our team members to thrive, and to do the best work of their lives. We want people pushed to grow in sometimes uncomfortable ways, and we want them to look back at the end of each year with pride, and great memories. 2020 and the pandemic shifted many things, it changed the way many traditional corporates saw work, and opened them up to the possibility of remote work. For startups like us, who already worked in a digitally enabled manner, and have flexibility built into the core of our ways of working, the shift was different. Rather than opening us up to the possibility of working virtually, it made us reexamine, and intentionally recommit to our decision to continue to get physical in an increasingly virtual world.
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Written by: Jess Roussos
Jess Roussos is one of BluLever's co-founders. She is passionate about human capital development through education and building cultures that grow and strengthen organisations.