Virtual, hybrid, in-person. Your company can do it all. Here’s how.
When office work went virtual, it happened all at once. There wasn’t much time to prepare, and the main concern was figuring out how to stay afloat and keep things running. Culture took a backseat. As Alex Schrecengost, founder and CEO of Virtual With Us put it, “At the beginning, there were people that said, ‘Not everyone can work from home.’” But they quickly realized “well, business has to run, you have to figure it out.”
As we started to adjust to our newfound situation, companies hit some bumps in the road but figured out how to reinvent the ways they operate. A lot of people got used to working remotely and discovered they love it. Others would prefer to be in an office. Still others want a hybrid – a version of the two – to be in the office sometimes. Just when we got used to everything virtual, things started changing again. Now, companies have to figure out how to accommodate these different types of work and make each employee feel included.
Schrecengost has some ideas on how to keep connected without losing the essence of your company’s culture or the cohesion of dispersed teams. “It’s a whole new world of employment,” she told BOSS, and if companies don’t adjust they’ll miss out on great talent.
Keep Mission in Mind
Schrecengost knows a thing or two about adjustment. A wine communications executive by trade and WSET level 3 wine expert, she got the idea for Virtual With Us in April 2020 when her husband, who works in sales, asked, “What can I do to engage my clients and prospects? Do you know any sommeliers who would do a wine tasting?” She did. Now, she’s putting on virtual events for global companies such as Johnson & Johnson.
Her biggest piece of advice for firms wondering how to retain their identities in this changed environment is to go back to their foundations. “Go back to your mission statement,” she said. “Your identity falls within that. If you really, truly are about inclusivity and diversity and bringing in the best talent and you truly are behind your mission, Virtual With Us and Culture With Us can make this work with different programs to ensure that everyone feels included and teams are really collaborating.”
The mission statement is about what you want to accomplish. There’s nothing in there about everyone in the company working in the same place. It’s about working toward the same goal and being part of something larger than themselves. In many ways, with large companies spreading their operations all over the world, the incorporation of virtual work has brought teams closer. Colleagues from Rome, Abu Dhabi, Toronto, and cities on both U.S. coasts got together during a recent Virtual With Us event. As they shared what was going on in their areas with lockdowns and reopenings they got a sense of what life has been like in the rest of the world, something that’s been hard to keep up with international borders closed for so long.
“The virtual concept really supports a lot of global organizations when it comes to connectivity and inclusion,” Schrecengost said. “Global teams were only seeing colleagues once or twice a year. Through these touchpoints that are virtual and interpersonal, not just another meeting, they’re able to connect with their colleagues, really brainstorm with them, and figure out some best practices for their offices and things they could implement.”
The Perfect Blend
The events Virtual With Us puts on are a far cry from just another Zoom meeting. They bring back the camaraderie and relationship-building aspects being physically together in an office provides.
“We created more hospitality-driven interactive fun experiences for folks so that they could have those one-on-one experiences, more intimate events, and virtual dinners during the height of the pandemic,” Schrecengost said.
From that evolved Culture With Us, which includes curated, bespoke hospitality experiences as well as care packages and appreciation gifts that encourage physical, mental, and emotional wellness for employees continuing to work remotely, doing a hybrid model, or going back to the office full-time. They’ve perfected the art of blending in-person and virtual experiences to include everyone.
“We have multiple hosts so that from an entertainment perspective there is no lull in conversation and there’s no point where people feel like, ‘Hey, I’m on the screen and I’m all on my own in a silo,’ and, ‘I’m here in person and I’m on my own,’” she said. “For example, we did a wine tasting where we had two sommeliers and we did a challenge. One sommelier was in person with the executive management team. The other sommelier was virtual with the larger team. We scripted it so it wasn’t awkward. There were icebreakers and the people in person — it was a group of 20 — and the group of 250 were able to interact and engage.”
Culture With Us has conducted trivia, wine tastings, cocktail/mocktail demos, and cooking demonstrations.
“We’re doing a pizza making class with Google – and separately, supporting the team at Nestle onboard new team members around the world via a wine and cheese tasting. That’s one way to bridge that gap between being at home and being in the office. They get to interact with their employees, their co-workers, but they also have their family there cooking along with them.”
Strategic use of breakout rooms allows Culture With Us to welcome the whole group then create a more interactive and intimate atmosphere. It’s great for onboarding new employees who can’t get to know co-workers at the water cooler. They can learn about company culture and do the traditional HR presentation then see it for themselves in breakout rooms doing group activities.
For client events they ensure the same professional approach you’d expect when taking clients out to a fine-dining restaurant in the before times. “We maintain that same respectability within our virtual events,” Schrecengost said. “The renowned experts that I have were sommeliers, chefs, cicerones, and mixologists. They all work/worked in restaurants around the country and globally.”
Culture of Flexibility
To maintain morale, attract and retain talent, and generally be a company people want to work for, you have to be nimble and flexible going forward, Schrecengost said.
“Being inclusive means so many things. It doesn’t only mean the color of your skin, your background, or the way that you think. It’s also how you work and how you support others in their working styles to ensure a safe and welcoming environment across the board.”
She’s helping companies not only give new hires virtual office tours but setting up meet and greets at clubs, private spaces, co-working spaces, and even parks — complete with a screen set up to beam in those who aren’t attending in person, because of distance, safety concerns, or simply because they aren’t yet sure how to interact as they’re reintroduced to society.
“You have to give people the option,” she said. “Coming at them where it’s, ‘I’m going to force you to do this,’” won’t work. “There are a lot of other companies that are willing to be more open and flexible.”
Job-seekers want flexibility, and they’re going to find it. If your company isn’t willing to offer that balance and support, they’ll go elsewhere. But just as your company figured out how to work through the pandemic, you can find a way to make this work too, Schrecengost said. Culture is the cornerstone of that.
“It’s about making sure whether you’re remote, you’re hybrid, or you’re in person that you feel like you’re a part of the company and the team – like you’re part of something.”
Schrecengost is ready to put her money where her mouth is. “This company was (created) to really help organizations and professionals with the transition. I’m really excited to see what it’s become and I’m excited to see it evolve through the next year because it’s such a moving target. It’s been cool to challenge and redefine corporate culture. … I’m excited to see where professional life goes from here.”