Designing Culture Bicoastally

As Culture Designer at Cooper, I am responsible for planning internal events and building culture for the company. Being effective at my job requires significant personal interaction and relationship-building. Many think that being a successful culture-builder also requires a bottomless well of creative ideas, and an engaging personality. However, I’ve learned that more than those attributes, creating an atmosphere of fun and cohesion is about following rather than leading. Here are a few tactics that have worked for me: 

  • First, I solicit and collect suggestions for culture-building activities from individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives, including colleagues in the marketing, design and finance departments.
  • I seek out help quietly, and allow room for ideas to blossom, grow (and occasionally die) organically.
  • I provide ownership and support to idea owners and those who demonstrate enthusiasm for ideas. This allows me to share successes…and work!  

In September, I inherited a new, formidable culture-building challenge. Cooper merged with Catalyst, a leading design firm in New York, and I was tasked with building a bi-coastal community. I was initially intimidated by the idea of remote collaboration; it was a new concept to me. However, after four months, I feel we have been remarkably successful in building a unified and strong culture. Here are a three examples of activities that helped us build our bi-coastal Cooper culture: 

Whale Rat

Cooper’s San Francisco and New York offices each offered distinct weekly informative speaker series for knowledge-sharing and inspiration. In SF, we called them “Practice Lunches,” and in NY they called them “Whale Rats” (this colorful name came from an interesting encounter with a NY inhabitant of the rat variety). We decided to combine them into one bi-coastal series, and name them “Whale Rats.” Speakers now alternate between offices, and participate from both offices via web conferencing. We’ve had our fair share of impressive speakers, including an installation artist, and a scientist who studies the power of compassion. 

The Hootenanny

At Cooper, we now have colleagues in California, New York, Michigan, and Oregon. At the beginning of the merger, it was difficult to feel connected to individuals we hadn’t met in person. As we expanded, we decided it was important to convene the group in one location. We created a two-day event called “The Hootenanny,” which incorporated cultural, social, and intellectual components. Day One of the event was held at Cooper’s San Francisco office, and Alan Cooper gave the opening keynote address, we held a culture workshop, and later a burrito crawl. Day Two was off-site, at Alan and Sue Cooper’s Monkey Ranch, which included breakout workshops, strategically blended team-building activities, including a marshmallow catapulting competition, and a large campfire. The company’s investment in this event more than paid off. After we returned to our respective offices, it changed the nature of our meetings with our colleagues across the country, and set the stage for more trusting and effective bi-coastal collaborations.

Video by Chris Noessel

The Holidays

Building off the success of the Hootenanny was a tall order. In November, I convened a cross-functional, bi-coastal team and we designed a month-long holiday celebration. The group brainstormed a number of unique activities. Some were cross-country, including a Secret Santa mug exchange, digital pen-pals, NY and SF-themed communal gift boxes, and hot chocolate hours, where we live web-chatted with colleagues in NY.

We also held location-specific events, including a Shuffleboard outing, an office-based party where we invited former Cooper employees, and a community service activity at the SF Food Bank. To execute the program, we created an Advent Calendar spreadsheet, and a planning group in Slack. As part of the brainstorming, we decided it was important to appoint a culture-building leader in NY, and Jen Zhao bravely assumed the challenge. She and I met regularly, and built a very strong working relationship. The month was a rousing success and fortified the community we built through the Hootenanny. 

Of course, building a bi-coastal community presented a few hiccups:

Good people, energy, and intentions go a long way, but sometimes the hardware simply doesn’t cooperate. To meet, we initially used Google Hangouts, which sometimes has a spotty connection. When that malfunctioned, we created a hierarchy of other communications options, including polycom, and mobile phones as a last resort. When we endure communication foibles, we all make a concerted effort to be patient, flexible, resolute, and, most importantly, to have a sense of humor.

All in all, I am proud of and excited for the bi-coastal Cooper culture we have designed. It is ever-evolving and something we need to think about and nurture ongoingly. Please share your stories and ideas for how to build a cohesive culture with colleagues in different locations.

Iris Latour

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