How do you gather the reins when managing culture in an organization, particularly one that is mostly remote? I recently spoke with a culture-building expert who is currently tackling this issue head-on.
In a recent edition of “Faces of HR,” I spoke with Jill Felska, Director of People and Culture at Limelight Health, about an experience she had that got her into HR in the first place. Our conversation covered much more than the scope of that story, and we wanted to share her insights concerning handling culture with a largely remote workforce.
I understand that your company is 70% remote. I’m sure that offers unique challenges.
“It definitely does. I’ve been with the company for only about 2-and-a-half months, so I’m still learning the culture myself and putting my feet underneath me. I have some insight into remote culture because I’ve worked remotely in a lot of different positions and opportunities over the years. I think the biggest barriers are communication and relationship-building. I think you have to be a little more direct with what it is that you’re expecting from people. I mean that in terms of having conversations beyond just deadlines and work and creating spaces for different types of interactions.”
Do you have clusters of remote people who are located in the same area?
“We do. Our headquarters is in San Francisco, and then we have another small office in Redding, California, which is actually where the founders are from. Then, we have a very small team in Des Moines, Iowa, who actually work out of a coworking space there. They are close to one of our biggest clients. And then probably the newest collection of people is actually here in San Diego. We’ve got seven or eight of us now. The ongoing joke is that everyone signed up to work remotely. We are looking into a coworking space. For now, we’re all just working from our individual homes.”
How are the coworking spaces working out?
“I’ve coworked for probably 8 or 10 years now from a variety of different spaces. I think some of our key members take advantage of that and want to be out and around people, even if they’re not working on the same thing as their neighbor. And others are happy to work from home.”
Where were you before you came over to this company?
“I was doing some consulting. I had a company called Walk to Work there for the last 3 years. And my whole focus was working with organizations that wanted to really intentionally build culture and think about what the different behaviors are and pieces that go into being thoughtful about that aspect of growing companies.”
What does HR mean to you?
“Since the beginning of my career in marketing, I became very interested in the culture side of HR. In the time that I’ve spent in that HR space, there seems to be a shift away from HR just being seen as compliance, process, and regulation. I see it shifting more toward an additional focus on employee engagement and culture, thinking about retention, and making sure that team members are getting the support that they need. That’s really what drew me to this space.
“I was very interested in what makes a company a great place to work because I think that’s a term that gets used quite frequently as either listings of companies or just a buzzword. I think there are a lot of HR professionals who are starting to think about, quantifiably, what that actually means in the company. They are thinking about how to push and pull some of those levers to make sure that the experience that’s happening at your organization is actually what you’re aiming for and is authentic.”
Do you believe that company culture can be quantified?
“I think culture became kind of a buzzword in the last 10 years for sure and maybe over the last 15 or 20. Now, people talk about it all the time. They say, ‘We want to have a good culture; we want to be a great place to work.’
“Oftentimes, because we’re human, we want to quantify things. At first, people quantified the perk of culture. Whether that was a Ping-Pong table, a keg, or throwing great parties. All of these sorts of perks can be important and part of your organization but aren’t really culture. To me, culture is how things get done.
“Culture has more to do with behaviors and values and the brands that cause people to show up and work the way they work. Having a Ping-Pong table in your office is a perk. It can be seen as a good, creative break or a complete distraction and a way for people to slack off. If they use the Ping-Pong table, that’s the culture piece of it. That’s the behavior and the sentiment that go along with that piece. To me, quantifiably, it’s more about behaviors and really looking at some of the smaller day-to-day interactions because that is ultimately what makes up culture.”
It seems to me that no one method of creating a successful culture would work for everyone.
“Yes, this is true. I like to tell people everybody has a culture. Culture, in its essence, is how things get done. Whether your culture is ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ everybody has one. There are so many pieces in the day-to-day interactions that go into actually defining it or moving it or changing it. Culture is so dynamic that it’s really hard to pinpoint and say, ‘This is our culture, and it’s good or bad,’ because what’s good for one person may be really bad for another person. It’s a really hard thing to quantify, and I know a lot of people want to.”
What do you think about an “off the shelf” solution for “fixing” culture?
“You can say it’s like dieting or like marriage in that there’s no one cure-all solution for culture because if there were, everyone would do that, and it would be great. I took this role because I wanted to feel part of the team again and really have some ownership—not just coming in and making recommendations and supporting different clients but also actually being able to get my hands dirty. One of the biggest pieces for me is remembering just how hard it is to get out of the day-to-day when you’re in HR. There are so many different pieces that go along with that. Remember to get time to step back and think about strategy.
That can happen when you have the right consultants who drive conversations and force you to pause and think through some of these bigger, more strategic choices or even pausing and thinking through ‘How does our team work on a daily basis? What are the common things that we consider normal in our day-to-day team environment? Is that lead by on call? Are assignments given a week in advance, or is it the night before?’ There are all these little daily interactions that I think it’s sometimes hard for any of us to step back and take a look at them. I think that’s especially true with HR, and I’m guessing anyone who’s in an HR position would probably agree to some extent. It’s hard to get above the day-to-day stuff because there are so many moving pieces, and you never know what employee issue or concern or need is going to come up on any given day.”
What’s something you believe is unique that you bring to your HR approach?
“One of the things that I think I never expected could be a benefit I learned during my time as a business owner and as a consultant. I got really good at sharing and telling leadership about things that they maybe didn’t want to hear and doing it in a way that was very thoughtful and conversational. I have seen the value in challenging CEO and leadership thinking. When it’s done correctly or in a way that allows them space for reflection and maybe some vulnerability and trust, they actually really appreciate it. Oftentimes, it’s really easy to get insular when you’re a CEO.
Part of the reason I was excited to work with this company is that the CEO and the leadership team were very open to that and open to being challenged on the way that they had been doing things.”