Can culture survive or even thrive in a lockdown?

Sharing is caring. For those of you who are beginning to think about reframing your culture for the new normal, hopefully, this story helps!

Having joined Threads Styling in late August, in the brief reprieve between London lockdowns, I had the opportunity to meet only 5 of the 200 strong community I was about to support in person. It was a daunting prospect to go into a business as the VP of People without actually being able to meet those people in conventional ways. No “hopping on a plane” to the US to meet the team, or popping out to grab impromptu Cay Tre with lift buddies in old street. My wallet and the environment may have been happier, but getting settled was tough. It turns out remembering everyone’s names becomes even more challenging when you have no location to place them in other than their “inspo wall” on zoom.

More daunting was the prerequisite that the values needed refreshing in my first three months. The definition of done was group-wide participation and something that could be felt in every aspect of the ways of working. As the second (of what feels like infinite) lockdown hit, and society experienced the acceleration of the BLM movement, the challenge of engaging 200 people spread across the world in a virtual environment to align community values felt pretty big for a probation period. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I did grab the opportunity with both hands.

Context is King

A growing business that had been 40 people less than two years ago and now tipped the scale at 200, spread across multiple continents (both officially and unofficially with many returning home amidst the pandemic), Threads community is a 75% female blend of the glamorous bits of bricks and mortar retail, technical product teams and Gen Z chat commerce. What ties the (sometimes polarising) views of individuals together is the sense of purpose we have, and our shared values. With some awe-inspiring leaders (Sophie Hill, Samina Virk, Sabrina Cannon, Michal Karnibad, Sophie Quy, Frank Qiu & Tom Spurgeon) there were a lot of opportunities to realise, and this was the time to make it fasHUN.

Leveraging an organisational development lens, and applying some consumer psychology to the outcome we settled on two tools.

More importantly, both had to be created by the people, and it was the process, not the artefact that was going to make this resonate. So I hacked a bit of design thinking methodology and created a 5 step process we called a values sprint.

If you’re trying to figure out how to pivot your culture during the lockdown, community values & a culture code may be for you.

What are community values?

In a community, values and culture are nurtured from the individual beliefs, experiences and attitudes of those who make up that community. At Threads, our community encompasses everyone who creates the Threads’ experience and those who experience it. This means our values must represent what we believe is needed to drive the Threads’ mission, and guide our decision making on a daily basis.

Are values forever?

Values will change over time. Values are representative of a collective experience, they evolve over time as people join the community, in response to the changing environment and as Threads progresses. Often companies misstep here and forget to reset their values as their business and environment evolve. Just like tweets from 2011 did not age well, neither have your values.

How can values help you in decision making?

We work quickly at Threads, and this requires a lot of autonomy and trust on us to make the decisions that are best for our community. If you know the core values of the community, it will make decision making easier, as you would aim to align your options with the values.

How do we bring values to life?

Our behaviours are the outcome of values, which are inspired by who we are as people. Once the core values are agreed, there is further work done on creating principles, rituals and routines which then bring those values into real-life scenarios. Eventually, they become embedded in our ways of working, and our culture.

Bringing the outside, in.

Employee experience should be synonymous with your client experience. In a company like Threads, that meant recreating that magical unboxing moment and creating a connection. 50% of the team had been with the company less than a year, and most of that year was spent in lockdown. Connection to each other was central to the experience. (and central to our sanity during the lockdown!)

We designed our own set of 144 values cards based on Peter Gerrickens cards, using recycled materials. The cards were designed as a keepsake and can be used for personal reflection. As values should be reset every 12–18 months, it felt like a meaningful and useful gift to send to our community.

Learning in the flow

Organizing mass zoom calls to complete values ideation felt ineffective. We wanted to combine authenticity with connection, so we started with self-reflection, followed by a pairing with someone they wouldn’t normally work with to discuss their most important values. Threads have a very diverse set of functions so we tried to pair up individuals from across the departments so people could get to know each other at the same time. We know adults remember how a situation made them feel, rather than the situation itself, so we wanted people to feel the connection across the miles and discuss their stories.

Our immense Miro board

We also wanted to help our community upskill in the digital tools that are going to be part of our future, so we took this opportunity to get all 200 people to use Miro for the refinement phase of the process, meaning they were learning these tools in the flow of their work. Future-proofing ACHIEVED.

Culture Code

Once we'd completed the values sprint, we began working on the culture code. The 5 top-ranked values by the business really resonated with the founder and executive team, which gave us confidence in our people and our process of refinement. Using the competing values framework, alongside the origin story of Threads, the culture code was created through a number of virtual workshops with the business leaders. Once we’d agreed on our first iteration, it went through a series of tests with managers and then to individual team sessions.

Living it

The final piece to the puzzle was making it the teams’ own code. Every team had a session to go through the code and agree their own rituals, routines and traditions that would help them embed the behaviours. Stories were told about why we have certain events (Threadsmas, charity give back, sports day) and stories about role models who live and breathe intrapreneurship were highlighted (Threads Buy & Maelle Swann we’re looking at you!).

We’re not done yet, the code has a long way to go this year, but going through the 5 step process and linking the employee experience of creating our code with that of our luxury client experience has been a powerful moment for everyone at Threads.

Being authentic

How your culture is perceived lies in the perception of your actions, not the actions themselves, especially as the business grows (look up organisational justice). Culture also needs to be translatable to future talent. At Threads, for example, it is next level fast-paced. We are an investment-backed scale up, so we don’t have spare people. Every second you have is a second we need. We hired you because of everything you bring, and if you aren’t up for giving it your all, it’s not going to be a place for you. Come here for opportunity and to feel part of something groundbreaking, but don’t come here if you want to spend the day on ASOS, because you will be disappointed (not to be confused with scouring the internet for Chanel Grandads which is legit encouraged). We have forgotten to say that to people before and it’s been disruptive for them as new joiners, so we owe it to our community to be candid with the code. We still care deeply about every single person, we just do it with authenticity, and we signpost clearly what we value. Show up for us, and we’ll show up for you.

Summary

Can culture thrive in a lockdown environment? Yes if you nurture it in a way that stays true to who you are, and acknowledges that things are different now. Don’t be sucked in by thinking culture is the weekly yoga session or the set of values that live in your handbook. Culture is who you are, who you hire, the stories you celebrate and the traditions you create. It is architected from every action, meeting, policy you have.

Communication is key now, more than ever. Especially in a virtual world, the message is often more important than the action itself in setting the tone for the culture, and for your people.

VP of People for Threads Styling, public speaker and Lead Trainer for the AgileHR Community. Putting the human back in to HR!