In the Trenches: Building a Corporate Culture over Email

It’s hard enough to build a strong, positive culture in any company, but it gets really hard when everyone works remotely. And at a company where there isn’t even a home office, like mine, that makes culture a very slippery thing.

In the past, I’ve contracted with concierges in Atlanta, Florida, and even Alaska. The time zone spread is important for our business, and at some point, we’ll start looking internationally as well. But this is a small business, and it’s hard to justify flying someone in to Southern California for an interview for what ultimately is an independent contractor role with wildly varying hours. I’ve had concierges work with us for over a year without ever meeting them. Most of our interaction is email-based, so we rarely even have that phone conversation to be able to connect. It has made building a culture a difficult thing.

The natural solution is, of course, to hire locally. I do have one local concierge on the roster, and that makes things easier. For example, we’re meeting up with an airline-loving client this week at the In-N-Out Burger at LAX to meet, spot airplanes, and relax while the client is on his layover. That kind of interaction is excellent, but even that is an infrequent event. Without an office to come to every day, there just simply won’t be the same kind of interaction. And there’s no way I would only look for local concierges anyway. It just doesn’t make sense for the business.

I try to set a good tone up front with the training process, and that’s important. But what how do I keep that up over time? Regular interaction, even if remote, and inclusion in our successes along with the minutiae of daily operations is important, but I don’t feel like that’s enough. There has to be more that I can do, but when I’m the hub of the culture and I find myself too busy even to sleep, it ends up putting things like culture-building on the back burner. That’s something that concerns me.

About Brett Snyder

Brett is the Founder and President of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance. He also writes the consumer air travel blog, The Cranky Flier.
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2 comments
Patrick
Patrick

I'd recommend the use of Skype to put faces in peoples' minds. Humans are visual creatures and react differently to people when they're more than a voice or a written line.Have some non-work-related chat. Again, you can't build rapport when every interaction is transactional.Establish an internal mailing list or chat group and post jokes or articles that reflect your culture. Not ones that spell-out your culture--culture can't be dictated--but ones that bring up points or resonate with your values.Be careful of showing the local concierge too much attention. If it becomes clear that one person is more involved simply because of proximity, it can cause resentment amongst the rest of the staff. (This is similar to the resentment toward smokers that always get the bosses ear out at the smoking post.)Communicate more than you think you need, and realize that it's very difficult to convey friendliness, concern, humor, and understanding through email. You usually need to be more solicitous than normal, since lots of the tone normally conveyed by facial expression, body language, and vocal tone is lost.

Ed Kelty
Ed Kelty

It might make sense to have a local concierge in a few weather zones around the country where they know the local weather patterns. In the Washington, DC area we are on the border between the northern and southern jet streams. Lately, in the winter the snow can be to the south instead of to the north. Our former local, small travel agent (Sea & Ski of Bethesda, MD) handled these problems for us. When there was the old 21 day advance purchase rule, our daughter decided to visit two friends in Brazil one day in advance of the fare limit. His experienced assistant told her to change planes in Toronto instead of JFK or MIA. It's only about an hour away, a non-stop flight, and saved her hundreds of dollars. That's the kind of experienced personnel you need. They should be available from former small travel agencies replaced by computer booking.

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