An overnight transition to remote work called for quick adjustments to our culture. We’re sharing how we rose to the challenge, and our takeaways that can be adapted for your team.
Like many teams, Donut used to work from an office. We worked, ate, and celebrated together, mostly in person, and while many of our customers were partially or fully remote, we were a co-located team. Until a global pandemic hit, and literally overnight we shifted to working from home.
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It’s no surprise that as our way of working changed, everything about our culture shifted, too. Zoom and Slack became our primary modes of communication, while we felt a social vacuum from the sudden lack of spontaneous dumpling-gathering missions or run-ins while grabbing a spa water refill. It became clear that we were going to need to craft new policies and ways of working together quickly.
Donut’s mission is to create human connection that leads to camaraderie, collaboration, and community—and while we were new to the full-time remote work rodeo ourselves, we did have the distinct advantage of spending years partnering with companies that are leaders in the remote work space, like Zapier, Buffer, and Automattic. Understanding that the need for policies and structures tends to emerge earlier on partially or fully remote teams, we decided to start building a new and durable remote-first reality for our team, and we’d love to share our experience with you. Here’s how we tackled the transition (and what we learned along the way).
The first step? Starting with clear intentions, which meant setting goals for what good looks like and aligning on priorities. While setting goals for revenue, product development, and hiring is a standard best practice for us, we didn’t have a framework for culture accountability. We knew that we needed to define and measure what remote culture success looked like for our team. Here are the principles we followed:
Bottoms-up, open-minded ideation leads to better inputs. We made it clear from the beginning that while leadership was ultimately accountable for distilling and sharing the goals and roadmap, its creation should be as collaborative as possible. We solicited ideas and feedback from the entire team, starting with a team-wide Zoom brainstorm, coupled with small discussion groups to reflect on what we like, wish, and wonder about our existing culture. We compiled the ideas in a shared Google Doc; importantly, all ideas were captured, and nothing too big or too small (or too outlandish) was off the table, which created a safe environment for openness and creativity.
Categorization helps with prioritization. After the meeting, our CEO Dan Manian looked through the brainstorm items and sorted them into two categories: higher-level culture goals versus policies or initiatives that would help us achieve those goals. Each policy or initiative was bucketed under a related goal to make it easy to digest the range of possible priorities and tactics that we could use to make headway.
A transparent feedback loop drives authentic outputs. Once the goals and supporting policies and initiatives were identified, the team was invited to review and vote on top-priorities—a remote-friendly twist on our usual whiteboarding sessions. Sharing the results of the voting led to further feedback and refinement, and a truly bottoms-up record of what mattered most to the team. This prioritized list would create the foundation for our roadmap.
The most important part of any culture evaluation and goal-setting process is in the follow-through, so we knew that keeping momentum through the rest of the year (and beyond!) would require a clear, intentional, and achievable roadmap. We looked at the rest of the year and paced out roughly one new culture initiative per month to ensure that we were keeping up momentum without creating too much chaos or work for any one individual or team. We also broke the roadmap down into multiple categories: goals, policies, and team-led initiatives.
Goals should be high-level aspirations for the culture within a practicable timeframe. For example, the rapid shift to working from home during the pandemic led to an increased focus on wellbeing, so we articulated one goal to address progressive work-life balance policies. The groundswell of activism and anti-racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder highlighted the urgency of equity and inclusion work at the company; we included another goal to build a work environment that attracts and enables people from all backgrounds to be successful at Donut.
Policies are guidelines, best practices, or rules that can be enacted immediately. We wanted to be able to identify areas that we could act decisively, without research or implementation needed. When the ideation phase uncovered that people felt that they needed more time to monotask and complete work without the interruption of Zoom calls, we instituted “no meeting Wednesdays.” When people shared that they weren’t sure how to make time for themselves or ask for time off in the time of shelter-in-place, we codified a minimum paid vacation expectation for the year and enabled tracking, as well as Flex Fridays, periodic days off that supplanted the former tradition of “Office Optional Friday.”
Team-led culture initiatives require more legwork and should be spread out beyond the “usual suspects.” Looking back to our collaboration goal, we felt it was important to evenly distribute the “glue work” involved so that everyone participated and the lion’s share of the effort didn’t fall on a small group of people. Beyond spreading out the work, this further underlines that culture is everyone’s responsibility, and gives the whole team ownership over it. Teams of two throughout the year are co-leading culture initiatives identified through the original ideation process; for example: - Identifying and implementing a remote wellness perk - Helping everyone learn how to more effectively lend our privilege - Developing and distributing “user manuals” for teammates - Determining a longer-term solution for distributing “glue work,” like celebrating birthdays and anniversaries
What We Learned
As with all new processes, we learned a lot from creating our first-ever culture roadmap, and here are our most important takeaways.
The team’s input was crucial. The team was excited to contribute to intentional culture building, and getting everyone’s input made both the process and outcome of setting culture goals and creating a roadmap demonstrably better.
Listening to (and really hearing) others’ experience matters. It had a huge impact on what we perceived collectively as priorities, and if we hadn’t made the time or space to listen, our roadmap would have looked very different.
Spreading “glue work” works. Giving teammates the chance to co-captain various culture initiatives is effective. It gives people a voice, a sense of ownership, and the ability to make a difference, while simultaneously shifting the burden of execution from a small subset of people onto the group at large. Not only are the results better, but it’s possible to tackle more things—even with a very lean team.
Dan Manian, Cofounder & CEO of Donut
After spending years working in product at fast-growing startups, Dan cofounded Donut to help teams foster cultures of connectivity and collaboration. When he’s not working on Donut, you can find him playing music for business with his band, Mobile Steam Unit and teaching a lean startup course at Brown University.
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.