How to Build a People-First Hybrid Culture

Building company culture can be a daunting task at any organization. Developing an inclusive culture on a hybrid team requires intentionality and commitment, but the benefits far outweigh any challenges along the way.

We spoke with Beth Miller, Client Success Manager for the Madison-based startup Campus Sonar to learn how she puts people first to build lasting relationships across her hybrid team.

Campus Sonar’s commitment to hybrid pays off

Campus Sonar is an ed-tech startup that uses social listening to help colleges and universities increase engagement and develop data-informed strategies. The team is consistently growing, with half the team based in Madison and the other half distributed across the country. Beth says early on, company leadership made a commitment to building a successful hybrid team — she’s a team lead and works from home herself.

“I would not have this job if our CEO had not decided that we would hire remote employees and that we would put in the work to find the right people regardless of where they were living,” Beth explained. “Early on she made a commitment to making a hybrid model work because the benefits that it brings to our clients far exceeds any challenges from an operational perspective.”

Not only has hiring remote employees improved the quality of work for clients, Beth says it makes the team much stronger, too.

“When you build a hybrid team, people are able to live where they’re happy, where their friends and family are, and fit their work and their life together.”

However, Beth stresses that creating a sustainable and supportive hybrid culture takes intentional work and an organization wide dedication to making it successful. At Campus Sonar, this looks like creating structure for relationships to bloom at key moments in the employee experience, plus recognizing what’s unique about your team culture and fostering it.

Create space and light structure for relationship building

When half of your team is distributed, it’s very rare everyone will be in the same place at once. Beth recognizes that since you’re not going to casually bump into someone who lives 600+ miles away, it’s on the team to be intentional about creating space to stay connected socially, learn about each other, and support one another.

“Any group of people that spends a lot of time together or works closely is going to develop a shorthand or inside jokes...but it is harder if you’re only ever seeing each other for meeting purposes,” she says. “There are a lot of things you can do to connect you to the humans you work with; the non-work side of people.”

Beth recommends creating light structure to foster connection between teammates, regardless of where they work from:

Onboarding is better when shared

When it comes to onboarding new remote team members, Beth says it’s important to lead with empathy for the new hire’s experience — it can be overwhelming.

Beth suggests building a clear agenda to set expectations that can help ground new hires during the first couple of days. Campus Sonar also makes sure to spread onboarding duties across a diverse group of teammates to make room for relationships beyond the one they’ll form with their manager.

Lastly, Beth says it’s important for new hires to get to know the team in a social setting before their first work-focused interaction. To do this, she likes to set aside two 30-minute open coffee mornings for the full team and encourages everyone to attend at least one. This gives new hires a chance to meet their fellow team members outside of a work context, share about themselves, and start to get a feel for team dynamics and company culture. She recommends starting the conversation with a handful of personal facts about the new hire to set the mood for human connection, rather than work talk.

“Weekly 1:1s are sacred”

At Campus Sonar, the weekly 1:1 between teammates and their managers are sacred. No matter what’s going on in a week, Beth always makes sure they happen—even when she and her teammates don’t have an hour’s worth of work to discuss. This dedicated time between managers and their reports helps to foster more genuine relationships and is a great opportunity to learn more about individuals’ personalities, interests, and daily lives.

Extended time to gather together

Outside of the pandemic, the Campus Sonar team gathers for twice annual in-person retreats. These help provide space for remote teammates to bond with their in-office counterparts, and ensure the team is able to connect personally. 

Become the caretakers of culture: nurture what naturally occurs

Although it may seem most effective to instill top-down mandatory practices when building company culture, Beth says employees can smell “forced fun” from miles away and won’t always engage with it. She sees the role of management less as those who create practices from scratch, but rather as the “caretakers of culture” or those who identify what’s occurring naturally within the team, nurture these ideas, and level up what’s working throughout the organization.

“If you're doing it sort of from a management level down, people are not going to be interested. Culture has to grow more organically than that,” Beth explained. “And so as a manager I think what you can do is model behavior that shows your employees that it is safe to share your full self at work. You have to start by doing that yourself; being a whole human who shows up to work with whatever that entails, and say ‘this kind of stuff is okay at this company’.”

Some examples of what’s working well at Campus Sonar:

Give shoutouts a platform

What started as a teammate creating a Slack channel to publicly shoutout a colleague for a job well done has now worked its way throughout the entire company. Leadership took the idea and ran with it, carving out space for shoutouts in various forums, including making them a centerpiece of each All-Hands meeting. Employees are encouraged to highlight their teammates at the start of meetings, in emails, and throughout the day in a shared online channel. This allows the whole organization to celebrate little wins during the day and at group gatherings.

“When you see something, like shoutouts, that is working and that makes people feel good and that resonates, it’s important to find spaces to more fully incorporate it into the way that you do things daily,” Beth says. “I think it shows that all of those different viewpoints and contributions are really valued and appreciated.”

Turn fun ideas into team rituals

One of Beth’s favorite weekly rituals is the Friday Quiz where each team member takes the same Buzzfeed-style pop culture quiz and shares the results for all to enjoy and laugh about. Ever wonder which Friends character your manager is? Beth and her team can let you know!

Another easy ritual that the Campus Sonar team loves is sending each other postcards. What started as a spontaneous way to say hello turned into a way for teammates to consistently connect outside of a call on their monitor.

No matter what ends up sticking for your team, it takes intention to cultivate a supportive and connected hybrid culture. Modeling the kind of behavior you want to see, making space for non-work connection, and fostering what your team naturally gravitates towards are key for building hybrid culture no matter your company size.

If you'd like to invest in your hybrid culture, check out Remotion — a virtual office that helps you make room for more than work and build lightweight rituals with your team.