By: 2018 Fellow, Kiron Chandy, CEO & Co-Founder of Consult Your Community
“You know how culture at a firm is defined with some bland adjectives but in actuality is shaped by every single person at that firm? You feel it most in your immediate team.” That was one of the text responses I got back from Anne Chen, a volunteer leader on our Chapter Operations Team, when I posed the question “How do you think we best create culture in our virtual context?” Admittedly, I have a pesky habit of texting philosophical questions to my team at any hour that may otherwise be reserved for chit chat by the water cooler—that is, if we had one. A collective 600-word response trickled in from 5 members within 2 days of shooting that text out into the ether. It is incredible that my team continues to indulge this bad habit of mine.
At Consult Your Community (CYC), we empower women and minority-led businesses to solve their biggest strategic challenges by connecting them with a volunteer workforce of savvy students and young professionals. While the core part of our service model involves in-person engagement, our national team heavily participates in remote work. Comprised of nearly 15 volunteers strewn across 5 states, the national team balances full-time jobs while also contributing to CYC through their work in leadership coaching, operations, marketing, grant writing and growth. In turn, they support 20+ university chapters who then support nearly 100 small businesses through ~2,000 hours per week of pro bono counsel.
Everyone from donors to friends ask us how we manage this level of scope, so I will attempt to distill what my team and I have learned over the past 6 years of running this organization.
Reject the 9 to 5 paradigm of the work week and the need for constant face time.
Based on external literature review (Choudhury et al.) and personal experience, there is a slightly positive to nearly neutral impact of remote work on productivity and team outcomes. Yes, meeting in person is nice, but nowadays presentations can be discussed virtually, and content creation happens offline, anyway. Plus, you can tap into a broader talent network. For example, a volunteer on my team designed a digital marketing campaign for Dolce & Gabana and is now helping us create a brand bible. I am so grateful to have a team of volunteers who care about our vision and ultimately getting great work done. The scope of our work may be vast, but it all comes down to having those you can trust. There are folks on my team who work 60+ hour weeks and still make weekly team calls on Sunday afternoon. They review needed deliverables at home, on trains, and even on planes! Remote work is a great filter for identifying who is truly intrinsically motivated.
I am so proud of all the incredible work the national team and our volunteer corps has achieved in the last year. After 3 years of dreaming and with support from the Global Good Fund and Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, the CYC team galvanized 146 attendees, 17 university chapters, and 7 sponsors for our first national conference in Raleigh, North Carolina at NC State University. What’s incredible is that it was the first time half the national team had met each other in person. They made it happen by being masters of collaboration.
Personalize at scale.
Use technology to personalize your interactions. Our team uses text, Google Drive, and Asana (a task-management platform) to brainstorm, collaborate, and keep each other individually accountable. For awhile, we used UberConference, a conference line which gave us cool summary stats on how much time each person on the team was speaking. I am still learning and trying to optimize for the time the team debates each other rather than just with me. While shared responsibility has been most critical for creating a culture across teams, communication style is equally important. Sharing personal experiences via 1:1s, texts, and on conference calls is important for levity and preventing work from becoming depersonalized. For example, had I only talked to Artin Perse, a marketing strategist on my team, about CYC-related matters, I would have never discovered that he was sending me an update while vetting manufacturing facilities in Vietnam for his startup.
Empower others to show up with outputs.
My team once shared that the best meetings we have on the weekends tend to be those where a few participants take ownership as discussion leaders who send out material for review in advance of our calls. The outputs do not need to be pitch decks, but merely bullets in a calendar invite or document to which the team can visually respond.
To summarize, the art of building an organization’s virtual culture comes down to treating people’s time with care. In that way, this intention is the core part of building any culture.
Bonus Tips from My Team & Additional Reading:
“Find ways for people to meet up locally across hotspot locations. Another way to build culture is to provide the space to not just talk strategy but also personal accomplishments so find a way to get people to share at a national level what they’re working on in their professional or personal lives and celebrate that virtually” – Imani Darden, Small Business Development Strategist, NY
“The way we create culture is through shaping and reinforcing the CYC-wide brand. Logistically, how does the national team form and manage the culture of their team and CYC as a whole? In my opinion, it’s 1) frequent communication, 2) small sub-groups, 3) each member in the national team contributes something distinct but equally vital to the team. That allows for malleability (which is necessary in an organization as spread out as ours) but at the same time it helps with focus as well, which is ultimately what we need to have a culture in the first place.” – Anne Chen, Chapter Operations Lead, CA
“The National Task Force brings students from chapters across the US work together virtually. Also, another way to build culture is by being accessible via social media and email (we have a flat hierarchy that leads to a culture of transparency and access to leadership)” – Natalie Lewis, Strategy & Impact, GA
“I think we are able to maintain a culture of excellence and alignment on mission through virtual forums of communication and conferences” – Michael Barth, Chapter Operations Lead, NY