5 Ways to Build a Cohesive (Virtual) Culture

If you don’t get this right, then talented individuals will leave, collaboration will suffer, decisions will be made without full information, and your culture will ultimately crumble.

There will always be a tug and pull between people who are co-located and those who are remote.   Companies who take the time to understand the challenges and address them will increase productivity, collaboration, reduce miscommunications, and leverage the talents of all.  Additionally, cultural norms and underlying values are spread by osmosis–as teams become more unified this sense of a collective culture will grow.


Consider the five common challenges that increase the complexity of building a cohesive culture with a distributed workforce, as well as the five corresponding antidotes.

Locations Assume a Virtual Perspective
Communications Use Multiple Platforms
Technology Improve Implementation and Optimization
Learning Languages Post-Learning Languages
Connection Routinize and Personalize Connection


#1 Challenge:  Dispersed Locations Create Frustration “I can’t hear you.”

One day when I walked into my client’s office (let’s call her Linda), she had just come back from one of her monthly companywide meetings and was frustrated.  She led a company of 80 employees with 70% at headquarters and the remaining 30% in regional offices and a handful of remote employees located elsewhere. Linda said the meetings were painful.  She disliked the long silences after asking people on the phone for their opinions.  She was sick of encountering “I can’t hear you,” “Use the microphone,” and “Can you repeat that?”

Antidote:   Assume a Virtual Perspective.

I gave Linda an assignment.  Next month, she and a team from headquarter were to “dial in” rather than attend the meeting in-person. (Afterward, they were to meet and brainstorm ideas about how to make the meetings more effective, connective, and less frustrating.)

Next time I saw her, she and the team had implemented these changes.

  • In the middle of the table by the speaker, sat framed pictures of the staff from each regional office as well as individual pictures of the few employees located elsewhere.
  • When it came time to open the floor for discussion, she asked the people on the phone first. She also learned to count to five because many of the participants were trying to unmute.
  • They role modeled stating their name before making a point and diligently using the microphone. They repeatedly reminded others to do the same.
  • The agenda and materials were sent the day before rather than two hours ahead of time.

Linda shared her experiences and learnings with the company.  She asked if anyone had additional suggestions.

Assuming a virtual perspective is the most important and effective way to understand how to unify your team.  Walk in the shoes of a remote team member. What is your experience?  How are you handicapped?  What are the upsides? Further, ask remote workers what is working and what could work better with regard to workflow, communications, connection, and engagement. By understanding and being empathic about the challenges that remote teams and members encounter, you will be able to better tackle the next four challenges.

 #2 Challenge:  Communication.  “We don’t know what it going on.”

A common mantra I hear from remote offices and team members is that they feel forgotten and out of the communication loop.

 Antidote:  Use multiple platforms to communicate.

  • One of my clients, an entrepreneur of a growing company has half of his team in San Francisco and a half in Los Angeles. To bridge the gap, he records weekly Vlogs highlighting significant accomplishments/events and rotates the spotlight on different team members.
  • Another entrepreneur, after growing his staff to 50 employees, half of them Bulgaria, started sending out a weekly note. Because remote workers don’t have as much of a chance to “run into” the CEO, seeing and hearing him on a regular basis connects them to the larger organization.
  • The CEO of The Cheesecake Factory makes a short video on his way to work about what is on his mind and sends it out every week.
  • Larger companies tend to send out newsletters and take advantage of their intranet to spread the news.

#3 Challenge: Different Learning Languages “I don’t get it.”

Although language can be a true barrier in global organizations, what is often overlooked is differences in how people process and learn.  There are seven learning styles (or languages): visual (seeing), aural (auditory, musical), kinesthetic (using hand, movement), verbal (linguistic, using words), logical (mathematical, using logic, reasoning), social (learn in groups or with others), and solitary (work alone, self-study).  In fact, well-designed learning programs ensure information to appeal to learners of all types.

Let’s use me as an example.  I was struggling to communicate with one particular virtual person. I had sent her documents in advance and used these as our visuals for capturing notes along the way.  Although I tried my best to be explicit about which document we were looking at it, the experience was painful for both of us.  From then on, I used screen sharing technology to focus on exactly what was important. This was me learning her language (solitary learning, visual beyond documents).

Antidote:  Communicate your Learning Languages

Although technologies have come a long way, sometimes people by default only use email (linguistic) or telephone (auditory) which may not be the other’s language.  If everyone knew how individuals best process information and adapt to that, this would improve performance.  For example, I would communicate:

I am a visual and kinesthetic processor and learner.

How I best process complicated information: 

  • Send me thoughts in writing in advance of the meeting so I can think it through (solitary) and print it out so I can write (kinesthetic)
  • Share your screen with me so I can see what you are seeing (visual)
  • When you present ideas or data use a visual (visual)

You will not get the best of me if you use only auditory measures.

#4 Challenge:  Technology:  “Ugh. I don’t know how to make this work.”

There are many social collaboration tools on the market, yet at many companies (and other entities), the adoption rate remains low.  (#Slack may be changing that, especially in technology organizations.)

One medium-sized company in Santa Monica, CA implemented Yammer to increase collaboration.  After the initial spike, after three months only 25% of their employee population used it.

My own experience is with my alumni network. For years, we had a listserv that pushed out individual email messages (or a daily digest).  Nearly 300 were on the list and a solid  50% actively participating, 25% intermittently participating, and 25% lurking and learning.  When the university announced they were changing technologies, an alumni committee surveyed the alumni body to understand needs and desires.   Yammer was chosen because it met most of those needs.  Although there was training, almost immediately the volume of interactions reduced by 50%. Now it is down to a dribble.

Antidote: Improve implementation and optimization of collaboration technologies

  • Pick a program that integrates with other programs. In my example of  adopting Yammer, it became an additional social network to monitor.  I believe the popularity of #slack is that it integrates well with other systems and there is a central hub.
  • Offer ongoing training and have a go-to person people can go to with questions. Because most software has the user interface which is similar to other social media that people are already using, it is assumed that people need limited support. Also, remember there is a digital divide between generations as well as different communication preferences. The organization needs to treat this as an important large enterprise technology implementation (for example, HRIS, Customer management, and SAP).
  • Provide clarity about when to use which tool. For example, Google docs for collaboration on specific projects and for archiving files.  Email for external communication.  Groups in Yammer or channels in Slack for project-based day-to-day work.
  • Finally, realize that sometimes the selected technology is not the right fit. I love the adage, “Build sidewalks where people are already walking.”

* If you are interested in the multiple options on the marketplace this is a good overview. This list is of free collaboration tools.  (Warning – if you are looking to narrow your choices, do not look at the comments!)

#5 Challenge:  Connection.  “I am not included.” 

One of my first clients who worked remotely (let’s call him Mark) had excitedly joined a company and loved the fact that he could work from home 90% of the time.   After six months, he vacillated between loving and hating his job.  He was feeling a deep sense of disconnection from his team and the company. Sure, he was on calls and collaborating on tasks, yet he felt as if he was missing out on the ideation and learning that happens in the hallways.  He also learned he was often misinterpreted and because he wasn’t there in person.

He expressed his need for more connection with the team and they scheduled a standing Monday morning meeting to connect about the weekend and share their upcoming week’s priorities.  Within a month, people in the office felt like this connection was forced and that their  priorities could be shared by email. It was suggested to him if he wanted to connect to call people individually.  This furthered his feeling of isolation because that one Monday meeting made him feel like he was part of the entire team and his needs mattered.

 Antidote: Routinize and Personalize Connection

To increase productivity and well as minimize the potential feeling of isolation, ensure there is communication beyond email/social collaboration tools.

  • Have daily standups and weekly status meetings (both by video).
  • Invite remote team members to regional office gatherings.
  • At least once a year host a company-wide gathering and fly people in. If a smaller, rapid-growth company, I would recommend twice a year.

I encourage my clients to come up with authentic ways to connect with team members.

Rob Dube, CEO of Image One, is constantly looking for new ways to engage his remote team members.  He has found three things successful in strengthening those relationships.

  1. He makes an effort to pick up the phone just to call to say hi.
  2. He sends video messages from his phone wherever he possible.
  3. When in the vicinity, he swings by and takes people to lunch.


Next Step:  Select one antidote you can do to improve connection and communication with distributed teams or remote team members which will help foster a cohesive culture.





Build Collision Courses inside your Company

 How to create collisions to spark ideas and build cohesive cultures

Two days before the deadline, I trudged out to my home office after dinner to slog through an on-line traffic school course. I had taken an illegal left turn, got a ticket and was taking the course to avoid a point on my record.  For inspiration, I built a fire and  logged into Pandora before starting the 11 modules.

As I was going through the various lessons I learned that a white cane can only be legally used by a blind person. For some reason, I found this fact fascinating and thought that this fact might be useful at some point—perhaps in a future novel.  One module covered careless driving, which was described as resulting from “taking something for granted.” It was the next sentence grabbed me.

“Some law enforcement personnel prefer to call accidents collisions to remind people that most of these incidents can be actually prevented.”

Immediately Cross Campus, a hub and co-working space for entrepreneurs came to mind. The owners designed and built the space intentionally so that people would have “creative collisions.”  I spend a quite a bit of time there because I mentor their members on company culture.  The majority of their space is open, with desks positioned as an L of a large room. The rest of the room has clusters of couches, a beverage bar in the middle and a kitchen with communal tables.


Why are collisions important to organizations?  Much has been written about innovation and that spontaneous interaction can result in linking two seemingly different ideas into one that is greater than the individual part.  Additionally, collisions are an important part of building relationships and creating a cohesive culture.

In thinking about my culture work, I changed the traffic school statement to:

“Organizations can design collisions so that they are not accidental.”

To clarify, I am not promoting structured meetings with agendas and brainstorms. I am endorsing creating opportunities for people to informally bump into each other and new idea.


There are three main ways to design collisions and below are examples:

Space Design

  • At Edmunds.com, they have curvy couches with coffee tables in proximity to their large coffee bar to encourage casual conversation.
  • A client of mine intentionally had one official entry and exit to the building. This way people are more likely to bump into one another. (Of course, fire codes were followed.)
  • At Cornerstone on Demand (:58 for office design), there are booths for people to slide into. Who doesn’t covet a booth versus a table at a restaurant? Comfortable couches are scattered throughout the space, and a ping pong table and a large chess game enable people to connect in different ways. Since they have now grown to three floors this becomes even more critical.
  • In 1999, Steve Job’s originally designed Pixar headquarters to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations by building a central atrium housing the only campus’s restrooms.  In Job’s biography he stated, “If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see. The idea was those people who naturally isolate themselves would be forced to have great conversations, even if that took place while washing their hands.”  (Today, they do have more than one restroom.)

Activity Corners

  • Next Space, a co-working space in San Francisco has a white board with rotating questions for members. One day was “What accomplishment are you most proud of this year?” I wrote, “Surpassed my personal best time in a two-mile ocean race.” As I was writing another person came over and asked me about my accomplishment.  This inspired him to also share and he wrote down, “Attended Burning Man for the first time.”  Afterward, he shared some pictures from the event.
  • During the holidays, Team One, an Advertising Agency in Los Angeles had a Peace tree made from strings of lights in their lobby.  Inside the “tree” was a table with colorful pens, cards and a plaque inviting people to write a message and attach to the tree. Next to the table were two benches facing one another where colleagues might collide.
  • Organizations can also take inspiration from museums.  Most museums have some type of interactive exhibit. At the Museum of Tolerance, there was a corner where you were asked, “What will you do to foster more tolerance in the world?  In your world?” You fill out a card and then post it on the main bulletin.

Pop-Up Exchanges

  • I am a big fan of co-working offices because they create spaces for solopreneurs or teams to work independently within the community. To shake things up, I visit different ones from time to time.  One of my favorites is kleverdog in Chinatown in Los Angeles.
  • One day the community manager announced at 30 minute pop-up at 1:00 pm.  People were invited to showcase what they were working on and ask for feedback. Of course, I enjoyed learning things outside of my discipline.  Yet, what I noticed afterward was three independent people—a UX and a developer were conferring with the entrepreneur who presented the demo. If kleverdog hadn’t organized that pop-up, these people might not have ever exchanged ideas. And, it is this exchange that builds connections and community within the co-working space.


A Challenge for your Organization.

Within the next month, design a collision course. It could be re-arranging furniture (or make a current cluster more inviting), installing an activity corner or announcing a pop-up exchange. Or perhaps, there is something else more befitting for your space and/or culture.

If interested, you can read further about a related topic, serendipity.

This was also published on The Good Men Project

What do your Toilet Stalls say about your Company Culture?

Toilet stall doors can provide much more than privacy.

I have a confession.  I am fascinated with toilet stall doors.  I know it’s weird.

Recently, I attended an event on Digital Innovation at General Assembly, which is an educational and co-working space for entrepreneurs. As I sat there, a familiar urge arose and I headed to the restroom.  After situating myself, I found myself looking at a rectangular silver plaque with black embossed letters on the back of the door that read:

“Please refrain from flushing paper products other than toilet paper. There are better ways to dispose of love letters to your ex.”

I grinned, delighting in the injection of humor while participating in a universal banal activity. After washing my hands and checking that no one else was in the room, I opened all the stalls, discovering each had a different message.

Although each plaque had the same first sentence:  “Please refrain from flushing paper products other than toilet paper”, much to my amusement, the second sentences varied.

  • “There are better ways to dispose of unwanted phone numbers from callers.”
  • “There are better ways to dispose of old copies of Vanity Fair.”
  • “There are better ways to dispose of communist propaganda.”

These plaques were clever, unexpected and playful which aligns and reinforces the culture General Assembly strives to create for its members while connecting it to their hip brand personality . Entrepreneurship requires being clever and delivering the unexpected.  Grueling is another word that comes to mind when building a company from scratch.  General Assembly has given an unexpected moment of comic relief to its members and guests. Bravo.


These plaques are what anthropologists call “artifacts.”  Many associate this term with discoveries from archeological digs displayed under glass in museums.  Most common are tools, vases, imprints of cave drawings, jewelry etc.  These serve as cultural clues from a certain time period.

Organizational artifacts  represent any physical object. For example, wall color, what is hung on the wall, how the office is laid out, what the reception desk looks like, the existence of flowers or plants, parking spaces, and  all signs including ones in toilet stalls.  Each artifact and the total collection act as an articulation of a company’s culture and what matters most.  These also represent a company’s identity —both internally (culture) and externally (brand).


Warning, my obsession continues.

Because I suspect you are already thinking about what to put on the back of your toilet stall doors here is another example.

One of my clients in Northern California is in the utility business.  In the restroom I use most, on the back of their stalls is a taped 8 x 11.5-inch piece of paper with a colored oceanic border surrounding the typed colored text.

“Please, Make sure Seat is Clean and Toilet has Actually Flushed before leaving the stall.”

Although I never checked if they had plumbing issues, this message connotes that this is a conventional, rule-based company that values sanitation. And yes, this is aligned with their foundational culture of safety.

Most recently, I noticed on the outside of one of the stall doors there was a black and white typed 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper which read:  

                  “Do Not Use. Out of Order.”

Maybe it’s the former advertising executive in me, yet c’mon people, you can do better.

Imagine how a customer-service orientated company—be it a customer-care center, a restaurant or a hotel would take advantage of a stall that is out of order. This is what I envision:

 “We apologize for the inconvenience, this stall is currently indisposed.  We will resolve this shortly.

Thank you for your patience.”  

And on the inside of the stalls, placards could read:

Smile.  Make someone’s day. Everyone is important. 

These signs directly reinforce the spirit and behaviors the company wants team members to emulate with customers.


Below are four steps to help your company take advantage of signage to reinforce the spirit of your organization and build a cohesive company culture.

  1. Become Aware: Take pictures of existing signs inside and outside your building.
  2. Examine Signage: What do those signs say about your culture and what matters?
  3. Enhance Efforts: How might you take your signs up a notch to infuse your company personality?  (E.g.,  at the coffee station: replace caffeinated and decaffeinated signs with fuel up and fuel down.)
  4. Identify Opportunities: Where are opportunities to place signs or plaques to permeate your company identity, brand, and culture?


An invitation

Please share with the community what you have seen on the back of toilet stalls that made you grin?

This was also published on The Good Men Project


Identity is the Key to your Company Culture

As I was inching alongside other drivers in a typical Los Angeles traffic jam, I spotted a vanity license plate on an older open-top green jeep: “#SURFER”.  A board with a sleek red fire bolt was sticking out a diagonal from the back seat.  The driver had tousled bleach blond hair and bare tan shoulders. The driver claimed his identity as a surfer, embodying every bit of the message stamped on the back of his car.

A vanity plate speaks volumes about a person because there are only 7 letters and characters. It speaks to the essence of your identity or the identity you wish to project.  Which got me thinking…What would be on my vanity plate? What 7 letters and characters would sum up who I am, reflect what I do, and how I move in the world?

Thinking about my client I was about to meet (while feeling anxious for the traffic to dissipate), I wondered: What would their vanity plate read that would express its company identity?

A company’s identity is the sum of their brand, leadership and the collective (everyone in the company).

Company Identity = Brand + Leadership + Collective

When you think of organizations with firm identities such as Southwest, Nike, and Apple these three components are synergistic and reinforcing. It is no coincidence they are also known for their strong, cohesive cultures.


Recently, I settled into my seat in the third row in anticipation of hearing Ari Roisman, Co-Founder and CEO of Glide. Glide, an instant video messaging application was founded in May of 2012 and launched in 2013. Two years later, the app has 20 million users; the company has raised 30 million dollars and employs 65 people.

Glide has a bold brand promise:  Bring the human element into the digital conversation and transcend the boundaries of communication in space and in time.

What was remarkable about this particular evening was literally watching Ari Roisman embody his brand’s highest promise on stage. The format was a fire-side chat with chairs angled toward each other with a host posing questions to the guest. This particular host is known for his incisive questions and irreverent style.

After introductions, without missing a beat, the host launched his first question.  Ari turned his head slightly away from the host, adjusted his posture, surveying and acknowledging the audience in silence.  The host jumped in again.  Ari stopped him and said, “I’d like to take a moment to connect with where I am and who I am with.”  Experiencing a man grounding himself in his own humanity—first with self and then with the audience of 300 entrepreneurs, before engaging in a public conversation was remarkable.  I bet all of this took place under two minutes, yet those two out of ninety minutes still live inside my body.

During the conversation, he said, “Any team is a group of people working together and human communication is the most important thing.”  He defined human as: “being kind, empathic, thoughtful and respectful.”  That answered my question of what motivated him to want to humanize digital communication.

After the official chat, I approached Ari (making sure to center myself first) and asked how he helps infuse being kind, respectful and thoughtful into the company culture.  He replied, “It is really hard. I start with doing my best to embody it and be a role model.”  He said the challenge is that he is based in Palo Alto, CA and their headquarters is in Jerusalem. Although the team uses Glide to connect individually and in groups, it doesn’t take the place of human-to-human connection. He shook his head.  “I am a robot over there.”

Given those challenges, it will be interesting to see how he (and his co-founders) aligns the collective with the brand promise and who he is at his core. I suspect because he is a robot across the world, this will only continue to fuel his ambition to humanize all digital communication across time and space.


How can you discover your company’s identity?  Start by considering these questions.


  • What is the highest promise your brand makes?
  • Look at a different industry. What brand within that industry do you most and least represent?


  • How do you choose to allocate your time? Your money?
  • What do you value most in yourself and other people?


  • What are the traits of your highest performers?
  • What do your team members expect from each other?


The danger of not having a clear company identity, especially during rapid growth, is that you are at risk of diffusing your brand, being reactive as a leader and hiring the wrong type of people.

When your company identity is firm, it provides predictability that builds trust with your customers and internal team.  Alignment and trust is the foundation of building a cohesive culture.

What would you imprint on your company license plate?  You only get seven letters, so make each one count.

This was published on The Good Men Project











What do your Rituals say about your Company Culture?

Rituals are experiential reminders of what is most valued and are a vital component to creating a cohesive company culture.

As I biked with my husband through a village in northern Bali with verdant rice paddies as the backdrop, we saw several women walking one after another on the road toward the temple. They were wearing brightly colored sarongs with yellow sashes and their necks were erect as they carried several offerings on their heads.

Our guide explained that they were preparing for a special ceremony at the village temple. He also told us that every day the Balinese make offerings within their homes and temples. The offering is a carefully folded leaf containing a bit of rice and pink, yellow and orange flowers arranged just so. The ritual is not long, it is the intention of holding the energy of the blessing and connecting to the source that is important. We witnessed this rite at our hotels, the restaurants where we had meals, the store and the spas we visited.

This tradition represents deeply ingrained values of the Balinese—humility and gratitude. While preparing or placing the offering, individuals are connected to source and experience being humbled and grateful. During all our interactions with the Balinese, we experienced these values in action.  Waiters bowed their heads and thanked us for dining in their restaurant. Shopkeepers did the same even if we did not make a purchase.  It became obvious to us why everyone who returns from Bali says the best thing about their trip was “the people.”

Religions are well known for having a variety of rituals whether it is to commemorate significant occasions or monthly, weekly or daily practices that serve to unite their community and fortify core beliefs.


Smart companies understand the power and purpose of rituals. They serve to provide a shared identity, foster social bonds, pass on history, reinforce what matters and explain the why behind “this is how we do things around here.”  When a collection of people (which is really what a company is) has a shared experience as such, this is an effective way to build a cohesive culture. Culture has been shown to be a company’s competitive asset because it can serve as a talent magnet and cannot be replicated whereas capabilities and products can.

Below are examples of company rituals that continually emphasize their purpose and a specific value.

  • Mindfulness: A digital meditation company has daily “take tens” for people to collectively meditate for 10 minutes (voluntary).
  • Success: Every Monday a bank has a 10-minute call (which is recorded) to update the whole company of the successes from the previous week.
  • Fun: A hula hoop company takes daily “hoop breaks”.
  • Innovation: An emerging technology company holds monthly half-day Hackathons involving all team members in order to solve an internal or customer challenge.


When a new team member joins your company, this is a precious opportunity for them to experience your values in action. Below are some rituals or practices that my clients have implemented consistently.

  • A service company has each new team member take a pledge to uphold the company values.
    • Experience: “As a team member, I have a responsibility to live these. I don’t want to let them down.”
  • A glass factory in Mexico invites the team member’s family on his first day, including them on the tour and lunch.
    • Family experience, “I am proud of him and this company values our family.”
    • Team member experience: “I am proud to show my family where I work and grateful to the company for including them.”
  • A research company places flowers or balloons on each new team member’s desk on their first day.
    • Experience: “I am welcomed. I am a valued new team member.”


Company rituals are an indispensable way to build a cohesive, effective culture which has been linked to organizational performance.[i]  By carefully crafting them, you have an opportunity to bring team members together in ways that will solidify collective commitment.

Next Steps: 

Brainstorm what shared experiences you can habitually create to foster a collective identity and emphasize what is most valued in your company.

  1. When new people join the company, what consistent practices might you implement? Is it a checklist or an experience?
  2. When people are promoted, do you have a ritual? If it is an announcement by email, how might you turn it into an experience?
  3. What about when people leave? Especially consider when it is an involuntary exit. How does their experience encompass your values?
  4. What values are core to your company ethos and what shared experiences can you concoct around those? (E.g. civic-mindedness: company-wide volunteer projects.)
  5. How can you best include remote team members? When crafting rituals and habitual practices, keep this utmost in your mind, because this is often an oversight which imparts that remote workers are not as important.


If you have a minute, please let me know some of your favorite company rituals.


[i] Research by Kotter and Heskett, in their book Corporate Culture and Performance (2008), demonstrates that an effective culture can account for up to half of the difference in performance between organizations in the same business. Money Magazine, by studying the best-performing stocks between 1972 and 2002 (e.g., Southwest Airlines, Walmart, and Comcast), also concluded that culture drove financial performance and found that these companies outperformed their competition by an average of 23% annual return.

This was also published on  The Good Men Project