As a factor in (sales, service, software and technology adoption, costs, collaboration, innovation etc)

The issue: What you don’t know CAN hurt you.

Cultural Blinders

We all wear blinkers (“blinders” in US English). These are hard-wired, in the sense that we can’t see what we don’t have the “wiring” or neural connections to see what we don’t know, and growing the wiring is slow.

The fish is unaware of the water it swims in. It is simply the water that is everywhere. “How’s the water, Mr. Fish?” is therefore not a meaningful question.

Culture is the water we swim in. Culture can be national/ethnic, regional, rural/urban, corporate, occupational etc.

Culture is our worldview, our assumptions, what we talk about (or don’t talk about), the words we use, and how we do business. And it is largely invisible to us as we go about our day-to-day lives.

Naturally “our” culture is generally perceived as somehow better or more desirable or more correct than other cultures.  Most people are politically correct enough to assert that cultures are not right or wrong, simply different, until they compare geek culture to the Strawberry Festival, or start mocking NASCAR and frat boys after a few beers. Then it turns out that there are only some cultures that are different and some that are really considered ”better” or “worse.”

“Us” and “Them” is very deep in our xenophobically bred, stranger-danger-trained human nature. We know that Us is better anyway, so understanding Them is at best unnecessary, and at worst, demeaning.  Besides, it’s not as if They understand Us, or try to….

“Us” and “Them”: IT and Business

Subcultures tend to form around any type of differentiation. You will get an East and a West Coast subculture in a large US corporation, or a subculture amongst the people who serve a specific market, if there are enough people involved and they work closely enough together.

And we might be the worst.

IT is particularly prone to this. While geek culture has become more mainstream, the growing complexity of technology still keeps the “real IT” people ahead of the general population, and there will always be specialized (and ever-more intimidatingly-advanced) communication sites and options to keep the IT community connected. This identity has often appeared stronger than many other bonds, and may even transcend things like national identity.

In addition, marketing, sales (golfers!), admin, and finance (bean counters), production and operations, etc., depend on IT, and IT has enormous power over these divisions, but IT is often a corporate cultural outsider, and may not even have a major seat at the boardroom table.

Outsiders

Nerds often grow up being outsiders, if you were a Star Wars-loving, Weird Al-listening Computer-programming dork in high school, you probably were used to the Peter Parker effect; people don’t understand how much better I am than them… so we stick together. Comic book shops and the Internet are places where our kind is king! Taken into the corporate world, we’re now on in some very important ways. In the current business climate, IT has control over who lives and dies; those bean counters and golfers can’t even make a tee time or record a transaction if their systems aren’t working. But still, there is that clear outsider feel, often.

It may not get the respect it wants elsewhere, either. For example, IT security and corporate security are somehow “different.” While staff cooperate with general security (lock the doors, etc.), they are often seen as ignoring or breaching digital security protocols wherever they can. (No, you can’t download that program! Why? Because it’s dumb. We’ll download it when he’s gone.)

The Result? Nick Burns...

The result?

So this leads to large groups of smart, closely connected computer geeks feeling like it’s high school again, only this time we can make them pay if they cross us. That Saturday Night Live character, Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy. The effect is “MOVE” idiot, and then we go back to our cave and complain about how stupid everyone in the organization is.

Don’t worry though, there is something we can all do about it!

That’s about all I’ve got in me for now. Next time I’ll talk about some of the problems and costs that this cultural divide can actually cause.

This is Part 1 of a three part series, and you can find the others here in Part 2 and Part 3.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Keeping Culture Alive During Covidland

It’s been almost a year now since we closed our office and sent everyone home. The first few months were filled with uncertainty, change, and a fair dose of anxiety, but we got through it. It made us a stronger and a closer group of people in many ways. But working together is not just about doing the day-to-day tasks and surviving the occasional pandemic challenge. There are a million little things that we miss when we are not physically in the same space.

One of the most interesting lessons from the past year has been learning what we take for granted when working in an office. I personally miss lunches with a table full of smart, funny, interesting people. I miss the group dynamics around a physical whiteboard where the ideas are coming faster than we can write them down. But what I miss most are those tiny interactions; the conversations in hallways, doorways, and around the fish tank (we don’t really have a water cooler).

These small moments are what elevate work relationships into friendships. They are where we humanize our coworkers, build empathy, and learn that they are full 3D people with 3D lives and 3D dreams. You walk out of a conference room with someone talking about their kids. You don’t just hang up your Zoom call with them and go back to your email.

I think that these moments, as small as they may seem, are extremely important in a workplace. My work is not just a job, and my coworkers are not just some random group of people with whom I accomplish tasks. To me, work is about creating shared meaning and sharing a mission. While you can work cooperatively with a group of strangers to achieve a goal, it will not be as fulfilling as working with a group of friends to completely blow a goal out of the water. I wake up every day partly for the work, but mainly for the people.

So if these small moments in-between “work” are so important in strengthening the bonds between colleagues, how do we make sure they are not entirely lost during long periods of remote work?

The truth is that I don’t really know, but I can tell you what we have tried. I think that Sourcetoad has one of the best company cultures I’ve ever seen, and so it’s worth sharing some of the successful changes we’ve made.

Weekly All-Hands

The first change that we implemented was moving to a weekly all-hands meeting. In the before times, Sourcetoad had a monthly “Sandwich Day,” which was an hour and a half, fully-catered company extravaganza with animated slides, company updates, silly jokes, educational segments, and trivia games with prizes.

We still hold these longer form all-hands meetings once a month, but we discovered that we needed something shorter between Sandwich Days to stay in touch with each other. I actually started out with a weekly company-wide email, but it was too impersonal and never really worked.

We now have a weekly, 30-minute meeting with a few quick updates and a little extra silliness. We try and dedicate about a third of the time to an open Q&A session and address any questions raised in a dedicated Slack channel throughout the week.

Fika

Many American workplaces have adopted the Swedish idea of fika — a simple daily (or twice daily) coffee or tea break with the purpose of slowing down and taking a real intermission from work, even if just for a few minutes. At Sourcetoad, we have started two different fikas (or is it fiki?).

  1. A weekly, optional fika for anyone in the company to drop in on and chat.
  2. A rotating fika for new hires to slowly work their way through the entire organization. These are small fika groups where new team members meet with groups of two or three employees to have a 20 minutes coffee break and get to know each other.

Work From Home Challenges

One of our most successful initiatives has been our #WFH-challenge Slack channel. Many companies have been doing these, but we took to it like a fish to water. The challenges were almost daily at first: take a photo of your work area, list your top ten favorite movies, show us something in your house with green thread, etc. They kept everyone engaged but also allowed us a view into each other’s personal spaces and lives.

The number of challenges per week we are doing has decreased as time has gone on. We have gotten more and more used to working remotely. Sometimes we’ve even missed weeks. But they are one of my favorite additions to our work culture. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Guess who is in these childhood photos.
  • Post the oldest photo or selfie you have on your phone.
  • Tell us what has been the most surprising distraction while working from home?
  • Wear a crazy hat competition.
  • Draw your own island using this tool.
  • Post your favorite COVID meme.
  • Find something within arms reach, take a photo, and tell us something about it (why you have it, where you got it, etc.)
  • Post a link to a website, blog, or subreddit that you’ve spent a lot of time on during quarantine. (Safe for work only!)
  • Wear formal clothes to the all-hands.
  • Describe the show you’re binge-watching in the most boring way possible.
  • Post a photo of your favorite spot to take a walk.
  • Change your Zoom background in our all-hands meeting to your ideal fantasy world.
  • Tell us what is your favorite play/musical, and why? Bonus points if you sing/act out the play.
  • Post your favorite recipe that you’ve discovered during lock-down.
  • Caption this photo competitions, the most popular being:

Movie Night

Sourcetoad has always hosted movie nights, so moving them online was important to keep our culture alive. Our team went through dozens of solutions for everyone to watch movies together. From home-built Plex servers to experimental chat systems, they tried it all. In the end, we settled on two solutions:

  1. Youtube movies and the Youtube Party browser extension.
  2. Netflix movies and the Teleparty browser extension.

Combine these with headphones and an open Zoom call, and you have something approximating an in-person movie night!

Game Night and Happy Hour

Game Night and Happy Hour used to be another Sourcetoad ritual. Every Friday night, as developers started logging, product managers sent their last status report, and the marketing team finished doing whatever it is they do — we would kick off an informal party. Generally, this involved opening a beer and one of the drawers in the office that holds one of thirty classic game consoles. We would then argue about IPAs over lager and Atari over NES.

Thus, the sacred tradition of Game Night had to also move online. However, our team has adapted extremely well (as us nerds could be expected to). The most popular method has been to connect a Jackbox account as a Zoom participant and have everyone join via their phones.

The other games that have gone down the best have been:

  • Codenames – A game where you try and get your team to guess the right words.
  • Skribbl.io – An online Pictionary-style free-for-all.
  • JigsawPuzzle.io – As the name implies, online group jigsaw puzzles.
  • Jackbox – I’ll add it again here because it’s so good!

Conclusion

Hopefully, this list of ideas and thoughts gives you some hope for the future of work and some ideas to implement today in the remote world. I’m personally looking forward to those small interactions in the hallways between meetings again. Still, at least for now, I’m able to enjoy a cocktail and a terrible Nicolas Cage movie with some of my favorite people online.