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Hip to be square: why we still believe in office culture

6 September 2021
Benjamin Humphrey

With leading organizations like Twitter, Dropbox, Atlassian, Stripe, and more moving to a remote-first employee experience, I’d like to chime in on the discussion with a counterpoint: a world-class in-person office culture is still the best way for high performing, creative teams.

Working from home or living at work?

Recently I came out in support of our strong in-person culture at Dovetail in a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. Partly because it’s a differentiator for us to recruit top talent—many of whom are driven away from employers who have become remote-first—and partly because my Co-founder Brad and I truly believe in the benefits of an in-person culture.

While the advantages of remote working are certainly worth noting—reduced commute times, greater flexibility in how employees organize their days, and reduced reliance on living close to an office—the advantages of a designed, curated office environment for collaboration and creativity are hard to overlook.

Dedicated spaces for collaborating are one of the the best ways for high-performing, creative teams to succeed.
Dedicated spaces for collaborating are one of the the best ways for high-performing, creative teams to succeed.

Offices enable physical boundaries between work and life. These physical distinctions help our brain compartmentalize, improving our ability to place work and home matters in separate emotional or mental boxes. While this problem is more acute for people who have problems switching off (or “Happy Workaholics” as my executive coach Ed Batista would say), as remote work becomes a long-term reality, I’d be surprised if more people don’t start to feel the same. Too often, working from home starts to feel like living at work.

While a customizable home office space is touted by advocates of remote working, creating something that is equal to or better than the ergonomics at work can be difficult given the constraints of small apartments—noisy family, flatmates, or neighbors, and limited individual resources. There’s been considerable research into what makes a healthy workplace. Ergonomics goes beyond chairs and desks, through to lighting, minimized distraction, temperature, humidity, and connectivity, the entirety of which can be difficult to achieve in the home.

A shared office space enables proximity and spontaneous interactions that establish strong relationships, builds camaraderie (even eating together helps create better teams), and caters to social needs through events, activities, games, and more. I’m a strong believer in relationships and trust over process and tools. As cliche as the table tennis table is, it does serve a purpose in breaking up the workday and providing an opportunity for team members to interact in a casual social setting to build better personal relationships.

Breaking up the day with social activities is a necessary part of forming friendships and bonds that go beyond the professional.
Breaking up the day with social activities is a necessary part of forming friendships and bonds that go beyond the professional.

I want to note that we’re an office-first company, not an office-only company. Does everyone have to be in the office all the time to be successful at Dovetail? By no means. We encourage flexibility and our team has the freedom to work the way that suits them best. Some people—especially individual contributors doing deep work who are in a state of flow—benefit greatly from being able to work at home, in a park, or in a cafe. However, we maintain that working from home should be an option but not a requirement. At Dovetail, the center of our culture and work life will always be our office.

The main driver of a healthy in-person culture is investing in an office experience that brings value to our team. It shouldn’t be a place we’re forced to turn up to every day. It shouldn’t be a dreary set of cubicles. We believe our team should want to come to the office for what it can offer them. From dedicated spaces for brainstorming and collaborating, to healthy lunch options or beers on tap—our whole team has been involved in curating everything in our office to make it more than just a place for work.

Then the pandemic happened

Maintaining an in-person culture has been difficult lately due to the recent coronavirus outbreaks in Australia’s major cities that have seen us go back under strict lockdown. Plus, Dovetail is currently in a huge growth period, hiring around one person on average a week (check out our jobs board!), compounding this issue further. The good news is lockdowns are temporary, and we hope to get back to our office as more people are vaccinated.

I’ve been reaching out to people in our team to see how they have been coping with lockdown, both personally, and through a wider team survey. The results weren’t great—people are struggling. More than I realized. Slow internet connectivity, less-than-ideal home office setups, a lack of social interaction, and complications from living with others came up a lot as challenges and reasons why people miss our office.

Ergonomics goes beyond chairs and desks. Lighting, temperature, humidity, and a whole host of other factors contribute to a healthy workspace.
Ergonomics goes beyond chairs and desks. Lighting, temperature, humidity, and a whole host of other factors contribute to a healthy workspace.

I’ve been a bit rundown too. For the first six weeks of lockdown, I felt great, but recently I’ve felt unhealthy. Usually, I’m a motivated person, but I’m less willing to log on in the morning. I get out of bed later and later. On weekends, I struggle to get off the sofa and leave the house. My neck is crunchy and sore and my IT band is playing up again. I’m constantly looking at screens: when I was in the office, screen time would be broken up by ad-hoc chats, face-to-face meetings, walks around the block, games of pool. Now it’s just laptop, phone, television, repeat.

With news of an even longer lockdown in Sydney, I discussed these feelings with my executive coach, Ed. We discussed how I could improve my situation and the situation for our team. As we launch new initiatives for keeping our team connected and healthy during this difficult time, we thought it would be a good idea to share what we’re doing. If other founders understand our passion for office culture, perhaps they might find inspiration and direction in these ideas.

With that in mind, here are a few things we’ve introduced to help us get through the rest of lockdown, whether it’s another eight weeks or longer.

$500 each for work or health

We’re giving everyone in our team up to $500 for better home office ergonomics, improvements to their video call experience, or improvements to their health (exercise, fitness, sports equipment, clothing, etc.). Working from home setups are often less than optimal. We want to help improve this and encourage our people to get out and about as often as they can.

$100 a month for upgraded internet

In a fast-growing company, communication is important at the best of times. even more so when we can’t meet face-to-face. Poor internet is a big frustration that came out in our recent survey. There aren’t many problems in life you can throw money at to fix but making sure everyone is on the fastest internet available is one of them. For the rest of lockdown, Dovetail will contribute $100 / month to help our employees upgrade plans.

KitKat afternoon every Friday

KitKat days (company-wide days off where we all “take a break”) are a longstanding Dovetail employee benefit. We usually have five or six a year, but under lockdown, we’re implementing KitKat Fridays, where we wrap up at 3 pm to give us all an opportunity to disconnect and get the most from the weekend.

No meetings between 12 pm and 2 pm every day

When we’re working in the office, we typically fall into a healthy routine. Commuting and shared lunch breaks helps with this. However, when we’re at home, this routine often disappears. It’s actually even more important that we establish routines when we don’t have physical boundaries, otherwise work and life start to blur together into an unhealthy mix. I think everyone should feel like they have time to get out of the house each day for a walk or eat lunch away from a screen.

25- and 50-minute meetings

We all know back-to-back meetings suck when you’re working from home. I’ve often had multiple meetings where I haven’t been able to get up and stretch my legs, grab a snack, or hit the loo. In Google Calendar, a setting called speedy meetings allows for a small break at the end of each session. We’ve all enabled this option to give us more breathing time between catch-ups.

Culture built like a pyramid—from the ground up

We created our values and culture from the ground up, so it’s no surprise initiatives to keep us connected during this period aren’t only coming from the top. Tactical things like playing online games (we’re big fans of GeoGuessr), regular wellness check-ins, “Donut Dates” that provide an intentional time for our team to connect, virtual yoga classes, and an incredible digital replica of our office created by our Vibe Manager on kumospace where you can play different games or just chat to break up the monotony of video calls.

As for me? I’m also making a few small changes. I’m going to block out 4 pm for a run three days a week, try to play tennis once a week, look into setting up a second workstation downstairs, so I’m not on the kitchen counter 50 percent of the time, and hang up some artwork in our study. If you’re looking for ideas on how to get the most out of remote working, Ed has two great articles. If you live on your own, check out Working from Home...Alone, and if you live with someone else, check out Working from Home...Together.

The Dovetail team at the office. We’re now more than double this number and counting. Check out our hiring page!
The Dovetail team at the office. We’re now more than double this number and counting. Check out our hiring page!

Lastly, we emphasize the importance of reaching out to each other one-to-one. Especially those who are living alone or with children. Donut Dates are a great way to make this intentional, but even a quick “Hey, how are you feeling?” Slack DM can go a long way.

Setting up a strong support system from the top down is vital to getting through the isolation of remote working. I hope other founders who’ve found themselves and their team in a similar spot can get through this tough period. I know we’re looking forward to getting back into the office and finally see the end of this pandemic. In the meantime, one of our major strengths is our culture of strong relationships, open communication, and supportiveness—and we need to continue to invest in this now more than ever.

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