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Keeping the connection

Published: August 17, 2020


This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

Whether by design or not, every company has a culture: a shared set of values and practices that define the organization. While individual companies place different emphasis on nurturing and cultivating their cultures, the benefits of a strong culture often define success.

This is true no matter how large or small your organization is and it’s especially true during a crisis, such as a global pandemic.

Complicating an already complex process

At Back Market, we exert a lot of effort in actively shaping our corporate ethos, which has become increasingly important to us as we’ve grown.

Our company operates an e-commerce platform dedicated to refurbished electronics, connecting buyers with professional sellers that have undergone our vetting process. Five years ago, the business launched with three employees located in Paris. Today we have almost 300 staffers spread across three offices (Bordeaux, France and New York, in addition to the Paris headquarters) to manage a platform that is live in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Maintaining a consistent company culture amid rapid growth across continents is a challenge in and of itself. Throw in the coronavirus, and suddenly all hell breaks loose.

That’s because company culture is so much more than just a mission statement or employee perks; it permeates everything that a company does. It is the underlying heartbeat of an organization, the reason each person comes to work every day.

In the end, it’s the people working together – not the open-plan office or ping-pong table – that make the culture. And yet, physical components and other tangible tools for connection do play a big part in nudging the team in the right direction, which is why it was pretty complicated when our business had to turn completely virtual as the COVID-19 crisis took hold.

When we sent all our employees home to work and had to re-engineer our operations, keeping our culture alive and vibrant was one of our top concerns. We recognized that culture would be key to keeping our team engaged and productive in the new “socially distant” mode of work, and so we set out to retool a number of key activities and add new ones.

Online onboarding

We decided not to put hiring on hold during the pandemic, but that made welcoming newcomers into the fold complicated.

Our in-person onboarding process is designed to allow new hires to integrate with their team seamlessly. Our new online onboarding process is meant to do the same thing but has required more customization. Because of the situation, it was important to make sure we accommodated the needs of each new Back Maker (that’s what Back Market employees are called).

Onboarding during this period now looks like this:

HR gives a call to see if the new hire prefers to push back their start date or begin right away. Also, if they have kids, they might need flexible working days/hours.

A week before the hire’s start date, we email their Day 1 schedule with all the Zoom links needed and emergency phone numbers in case they run into any trouble. Their whole week is pre-organized by their manager, and it’s full of one-on-one and group meetings with the people they will be working with (including social events, but more on that later). Day 1 always falls on a Monday.

On the first day, the hire gathers with the rest of the staff to listen to the weekly “Monday brief,” usually led by our CEO, Thibaud Hug de Laurauz. This includes updates on what happened the week before and projects that are coming up. After, new hires are personally welcomed by Thibaud and given a quick introduction to Back Market. The rest of the day is spent getting set up on IT, having virtual lunch with their team, meeting HR, and meeting the company’s culture manager as well as their assigned “people partner” (someone from our team who checks up on how people are doing).

Their “people partner” meets with them at the end of their first week to see how they’re doing, gets feedback from them and sees if they have any questions.

Breakfast online

As we adjusted to the realities of working amid a pandemic, we initially wanted to create a virtual office, where everyone could log on to a big video conference. People would not necessarily be speaking; they would all just be working at the same time.

We hoped this would create the friendly but busy atmosphere we have at the office, but in the end, it didn’t work and we had to accept that working at home is just different.

An offshoot came out of that first idea that has worked much better: the team breakfast. It’s a way for teams within the company to meet casually instead of just at meetings, and it simulates the kind of camaraderie we like to encourage at the office. It also starts around 9:30 a.m., helping prepare people mentally to start their work day (instead of lounging in bed and starting work later in the day).

Coffee breaks using Donut

As Back Market grows, it becomes easier for individuals to stay insulated in little bubbles revolving around their team and the teams that happen to have tables next to them. To try to get a little more circulation around the office we’ve been using Donut, an app that works with the Slack connectivity platform to pair people together randomly for coffee or lunch dates.

Now that we’ve moved to remote work, the concept still works. We just bring people together for 15 minute coffee breaks that take place online instead of in person.

Daily group exercise

Every day, we ask a Back Maker to lead a group exercise session. Doing something physical as a team helps bond people together, and making group exercise available in the middle of the day is a great way to keep people healthy, especially for those that might not be motivated to make time to work out otherwise.

With COVID-19 keeping people locked up at home, it’s been more important than ever to encourage our team to exercise and to give them an outlet to release their anxiety and stress.

The sessions take place over video, and since the workout is led by a staffer, people are more likely to log in and support their teammate.

Creating points of conversation

Casual conversation within the team is important to us at Back Market because we like to think of ourselves as a family. That family spirit just isn’t possible unless people relate to each other personally and take an interest in one another as human beings.

Since we can’t get people together for happy hour or table tennis anymore, we’ve come up with different points of conversation – things to talk about when they’re paired for a Donut coffee, for instance.

One strategy to foster this sense of friendly interaction is “the brigade,” through which we feature one recipe from a Back Maker every week. With people forced to cook their own meals, it’s a great way to get employees talking and learning more about each other (you are what you eat, after all!).

Another tactic is something we call “memory challenge.” Using a dedicated Slack channel, Back Makers are encouraged to share memories and random thoughts that have come out of all the free time during the lockdown. It’s kind of like reddit’s r/showerthoughts.

Finally, there’s our culture hour. At 11:30 a.m. every day, the Culture Team suggests a documentary to watch, a museum to (virtually) visit or some other enriching activity to help Back Makers stay cultured. It also gives the staff things that they’ve seen in common and can talk about.

The power of shared vision

Ultimately, our goal in all this was to create an “office away from the office.” So how have we done?

The truth is that when the pandemic forced us to close our doors, the million and one little things that we used to think defined our culture were no longer at our disposal: the impromptu conversations in the hallways, the spur of the moment ping-pong game that sparks ideas, and the energy generated from bringing different people together physically.

We tried a lot of initiatives to replicate this, but to be honest, we found that none of them really worked perfectly. There is no way to fully replicate a good old face-to-face and all the “traditional” ways we mix and mingle to integrate ideas and people. That is not to say that we shouldn’t have tried and that there were no benefits to the small efforts we made.

Our pivot to virtual work and experimentation with different ways of cultivating culture taught us a valuable lesson: There is no substitute for company vision. If our team continues to work hard and cheer each other on, it is not because we organized 15-minute coffee breaks on Zoom. It’s because we have a shared vision that brings us together and motivates us.

Our culture is born out of our core value: “Sabotage!” And this isn’t as shady as it sounds.

From the start, Back Market’s objective has been to ignite the circular economy, eliminate e-waste and make buying refurbished electronics cool. With this vision, our company’s modus operandi is to sabotage the status quo, that is, the unholy reign of new devices and the overproduction that comes with it.

Working in and toward this goal, we have the advantage of positioning ourselves as a tightknit and cheerful band of saboteurs (like Robin Hood and his Merry Men). This is what really unites all of us, whether we’re at the office or at home behind a screen. It’s our mission and the identity that it gives us that drives the team forward while also pushing us to try new and strange things to continue connecting with one another.

Vianney Vaute is the co-founder and chief creative officer at Back Market. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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