What is a culture committee?
It's 4 PM and time for another Zoom meeting. Everyone looks exhausted, but somehow get through the work objectives in record time. 15 minutes later, the call's over and they're back to their own work.
That was a great call. The meeting finished ahead of schedule, solved the pressing problems, and had clear follow-up action items. Yet, there was something also wrong with the call. It wasn't fun.
With the rise of remote work, companies have become more and more focused on functional work, deliverables that can be measured. Every Zoom meeting or Slack message has a distinct work goal - efficient but exhausting over the long run.
This comes at the cost of soft work. Remote companies don't have serendipity, things like grabbing a coffee with a coworker, going to lunch with the team, or joining impromptu brainstorming sessions. These small interactions, combined, make work fun.
So with remote work leaning towards function work, companies need to be intentional about soft work. That's where a culture committee comes in.
A culture committee is a space for various parts of the company to come together and form organic connections. In other words, a time dedicated to non-functional work where teams can plan activities, practices, or initiatives that promote soft work.
Most often, the committee is composed of cross-functional members with various levels of seniority. Alternatively, some committees are isolated to non-manager members. Either format works as long as multiple parts of the company are engaged.
Implemented correctly, a culture committee results in -
- More engagement. Employees actively participate in the company culture and form stronger bonds with each other. Everyone dreads the random happy hour that a senior exec placed on their calendar - it occurred without their input and cuts into their free time / functional work time. Culture committees give ownership back to teams, allowing them to plan initiatives that they enjoy.
- Deeper connections. Teams have a specific time for non-functional work to connect with each other on a personal basis. A remote company can easily evolve into siloed fiefdoms from the emphasis on functional work. Culture committees give team members the time to actually interact with their counterparts across the company.
- Better collaboration. Executives often toss around words like synergy or teamwork. The reality is that collaboration can't be forced. Culture committees give members a non-forced space to develop empathy and understand how their work contributes to the company.
Culture committees can be difficult and confusing to implement. In this article, we'll explore how to design, organize, and track the success of a culture committee.
The foundation of a culture committee
At a high level, companies thrive when their employees are happy and engaged with their work. That's the goal of the culture committee.
In fact, most distributed companies already have some version of a culture committee. These might be HR forums or culture clubs or social committees where members plan activities, promote diversity, or even propose new company benefits. While helpful, these meetings face a distinct challenge in translating their agendas to real culture results.
To solve this, a culture committee needs three main pillars -
- A mission statement. Each member will likely have different standards or expectations around their work environment. That's okay. The goal of the mission statement is to find a set of values that can serve as the baseline for future discussions.
- A positive environment. Because of how obvious this pillar is, most committees don't pay explicit attention to this. As a result, some committees end up meeting in a specific geographical location or have a top-down structure where one or two members drive most of the discussion. A great committee ensures that each member's opinion is heard and they feel ownership in implementing the group's consensus within their respective functions.
- Documentation around priorities. Different teams will have different standards or expectations for their work. For example, engineering teams might want more uninterrupted deep work time, while recruiting teams require more flexibility from other teams to plan around a candidate's schedule. In documenting the status and challenge of each function, the members can naturally find better ways to collaborate with each other.
These make the foundation of a successful culture committee.
From these pillars, we work towards more tactical culture elements, such as how the company's values are integrated into each team or planning activities that promote the company's culture.
How to organize the committee (members and agenda)
1) Finding the right members
Members can come from any part of the organization. A great starting point is to ask the leader or manager of each function (engineering, marketing, sales, finance, product, design) for their suggestion - who on their team best embodies the company culture.
Broadly, every member on the committee should represent a group of 10 to 15 people. If the engineering organization is 30 people, it makes sense to invite two or three individuals to join the committee. The culture committee should also be around 5-8 people. If the company's larger than 120 people, it might be time to organize multiple committees.
As mentioned above, these members can be of varying levels of seniority. The only caveat is to not have any one member be significantly more senior than everyone else.
2) Setting a schedule / cadence
Depending on the company, the cadence of culture committee meeting should be either biweekly (once every two weeks) or monthly. Our suggestion is to start with a biweekly schedule.
The idea is to ensure that meetings aren't spaced too far apart and everyone can talk about what's on their mind rather than saving it for later. The meetings should also be somewhere around 30-45 minutes. Setting a committee meeting for longer than an hour starts to veer into functional work territory - the culture committee should feel more like volunteer work than job description work.
3) Organize an agenda for each meeting
Loosely, the committee should be a time for communication rather than the group working through a series of checkboxes. With that said, the meetings should steer towards the company's values.
- Culture / values of the company - were the week's interactions consistent with the company's culture or values?
- Celebrations of accomplishments - what happened, who deserves the acclaim, and what outcomes did they lead to?
- Suggestions for future improvement - what can the committee do to bring the company closer to its ideal workplace culture?
4) Implement suggestions
For a culture committee to have an impact on the company as a whole, it needs to plan and execute new social events, celebrations, practices, or initiatives. These start as suggestions, voiced by various members of the committee.
Once a suggestion is brought to the group, the first step is to understand the surrounding context. What is the suggestion trying to achieve? Is the suggestion the best way of accomplishing that goal? Are there any previous lessons that can be incorporated into the suggestion?
Once that's done, it's time for planning. More specifically, it's time to find an individual to lead implementation. The volunteer is then responsible for the actual planning, communication with the right stakeholders, and leading implementation. And with the whole committee having context, the volunteer can ask committee members for help.
Let's look at what this process might look like for the suggestion of monthly random 1 on 1s.
We first need to understand the context and goal around the 1 on 1s. Is the suggestion meant to promote collaboration between different teams? Help coworkers feel more connected to the company? Or, to build new social circles?
More importantly, we have to work backwards from the company's values. Let's say we work at a company with a core value of “work is meant to be fun”. Then, the 1 on 1s might take a more casual tone, such as a coffee and Zoom chat or a gaming hour.
On the other hand, if the core values of the company included teamwork, we could design the 1 on 1s to be more focused on career advice and work buddies. Instead of random pairings, we'd set up two coworkers at roughly equal stages in their career and they can use the time to share advice with each other.
The other point to keep in mind is around participation. Since these meetings can take up quite a bit of time, we want to design them as opt-in. The worst thing for a culture committee is to force its activities on unwilling coworkers.
Now that we've thought through the context around 1 on 1s, the next step is to find a specific person to lead implementation. In this case, the person who proposed monthly 1 on 1s is a natural fit. However, it could also make sense to assign this to someone who's on the People team or a cross-functional member of the company.
It's important to incorporate evaluation to the culture committee. If team members don't see or feel the impacts of their suggestions / discussions, the committee starts to spiral in a lower engagement loop.
Ways to track success include:
- Interviews with non-committee coworkers. Our suggestion is to interview coworkers before each committee meeting and hear their opinions. This gives both a qualitative and quantitative result to each initiative. Then, during the committee, the interviewer relays the answers (anonymized) to the rest of the group.
- Company or team-wide surveys. While easy to implement, the tradeoff here is that surveys are often a low priority for most employees and don't capture the full context around how they feel.
- Measure company changes. Going back to our example of 1 on 1s with a focus on career development, we can measure its impact by talking with managers of different functions to see if they noticed a difference. Or, if our goal is around introducing fun to the office, we might expect better collaboration. The best measure of that might be how often projects are shipped before the deadline. Unfortunately, these measurements are also quite noisy with other factors that could influence the results.
- Leadership evaluation. Specifically, asking the leader of each function on how they feel about their team / how the changes have impacted their team. This is a great way to get leadership buy-in on the culture committee. The downside here that some leaders in larger organizations might not have a great grasp on how lower-level reports are feeling.
Culture and soft work are some of the most important factors in the success of a remote company. Yet, it's easy to get lost in the daily grind of meetings, tasks, and messages. Companies need to be intentional about initiatives that promote soft work.
The best way to do that is to establish a culture committee. Done well, the committee leads to more engagement, better collaboration, deeper connections, strong company culture, and ultimately, success for the company.