Want to Improve Your Organizational Culture? Imaginative Ways to Connect!
By Jim Grout
Flashback 13 weeks ago, I was putting the finishing touches on a blog that started like this… “Schools succeed, nonprofits thrive, sports teams win, and businesses profit when the culture of the organization is positive. At High 5, we spend a lot of time developing our culture. In fact, I’d say that after 20 years the very essence of who we are as an organization is the culture and chemistry of our staff. The importance of it is in our collective DNA. While there are countless ways in which we develop our team there is one annual event that is a critical part of the formula: A 3-day staff retreat!”
With enthusiasm, I started to craft this new blog by delving into the various ways in which we develop and fine-tune our High 5 culture by strengthening our team during our time away. Who could have imagined that in 13 short weeks, the very idea of gathering people together in any form, let alone a full-blown residential retreat, would be both impossible and prohibited? It is indeed a whole new world that has changed in so many ways.
The Challenge of Staying Connected in Virtual Environments
Fortunately, a few things remain the same. One of them is the overwhelming need for people to connect with others and the creativity with which that has happened these past months has been astounding. As our staff of 22 began (and still continue) their work at home, we began to challenge ourselves to “stay connected and feed our culture.” We started by examining a list created at a past retreat that outlined all the ways in which we intentionally strengthen our culture at High 5. The list had 51 items. Of those 51 items, 32 could be accomplished even as we all worked remotely and another 7 could happen with creative modifications. One of my favorite new additions is Coffee Time. Once a week each staff member is assigned a partner. Their task is simply to connect via whatever method works best to share a few moments of conversation. In days filled with Zoom meetings ad nauseam, this one-to-one exchange is invigorating, informative and the highlight of my week; one person, one conversation, no distractions! The random generator we use to match Coffee Time partners is so efficient and easy. In case you are looking for tips on how to connect before you dive into content at your next virtual meeting, you can get some ideas from two High 5 Trainers who participated in a recent Webinar: 10 Tips and Activities to Drive Engagement Online
Forming Connections Has a High Return On Investment… No Matter How You Do It!
In the past 20 years, High 5 has quadrupled its staff, increased those we serve from hundreds to thousands, and grown its budget from $400K to $2.8 million. Each and every stage of development has required that our staff be more connected, more trusting, and more confident in one another to take on the growing challenges that organizational growth presents. While our annual staff retreat is on a bit of a hiatus (but optimistically on the books for December 2020), we constantly seek to discover new ways that will help us recharge our batteries and help us head into a new year with common purpose and traction. In addition to creating stronger personal ties and sharing experiences that turn into indelible memories, we often create artifacts from our retreats and bring them back to the office. One such artifact captures our values and norms and hangs intentionally under a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that states “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” Daily, we are figuring out new and playful ways to cultivate connections and empower our staff to stay focused, upbeat, and creative in a time of massive change. It helps to have these guideposts from past retreats to reflect upon.
Build Bonds Through Common Daily Practices
The components needed for a high functioning team don’t just happen. They all require training and practice. It takes work to build a team that bonds, focuses on a shared mission, and gets results. While our staff retreat has always helped to accomplish this is a big way, the countless small things that we do regularly (remember the list of 51 mentioned above) serve this purpose. Making them happen virtually is more time consuming, challenging, and exhausting but we have no choice, our future success depends upon it. There is, however, one practice that has not been replicated and won’t be for some time and that is our daily luncheon. It’s not a mandated practice but it simply emerged from the early days and has been part of our culture ever since. It’s a spirited time with multiple conversations taking place at the same time but regardless of the topic, connections are formed and working relationships are furthered. While eating together may seem like a small thing, ponder for a moment the example below:
In 2016, Democratic Senator Tom Daschle and Republican Senator Trent Lott wrote the book “Crisis Point”, outlining the polarization between the parties in Washington that was making governing all but impossible. They both felt that when the Senate Dining Room was done away with that it had a significant impact on the culture of the Senate. For it had been a place where Senators could gather, share a meal and a conversation, across the aisle of ideological differences, and form relationships that could carry back into the Senate Chamber.
The “lost” traditions of the Senate Dining room remind me of the importance of connecting and the value of pausing and connecting with colleagues on an interpersonal level regardless of the medium.
Whether you are running a country, a school, a business, a sports team or a non-profit organization the remedy for team dysfunction, lack of communication and lack of productivity has been and always will be forming and maintaining a team that connects with one another, empowers one another and leads the organization to new heights. While I long for the day when we will once again be able to share a meal or a retreat together, I know at High 5 that we will do whatever it takes to “make that happen.” I encourage you, now more than ever to take the time to do it… you can’t afford not to. The days ahead are an unknown for all of us, but one thing I am certain of is that whatever that future holds it will require human connections of every kind to assure success individually and collectively.