Company culture changes as the people who make up an organization change. Add some, lose some, and the culture shifts. As it should.
Part of my job is to lace my company's culture with prompts that remain constant as the people change. As companies grow beyond their initially intimate size, when everyone knows everyone's kids' names, a culture becomes more difficult to get your arms around. At Basecamp, we're remote--about 50 people spread across 30 cities around the world--which means creating a sense of shared experience is even more critical and difficult.
Over the past few years, I've been tinkering with ways to inject culture-building moments into Basecamp. For example, every Monday morning, Basecamp (the product) automatically asks everyone in the company, "What did you do this weekend?" People share pictures of home renovations they're working on, or a hayride with their family over Halloween, or a visit to their 92-year-old grandmother's house for dinner. It's a chance for everyone to open up a little bit about themselves on a regular basis. It helps frame everyone as people, not just as co-workers.
Another prompt that's become popular is Basecamp's monthly question: "What books are you reading?" Again, it might seem random or irrelevant, but the answers reveal our employees' interests on a deeper level. People across the company who may not seem to have much in common or who don't interact that frequently may find themselves enjoying the same book, author, poet, or subject matter. (For the record, the last book I read was Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, which I highly recommend.)
One less conventional thing we started doing is what we call the "5x12." Once a month--usually on the first Wednesday--five random people from across the company are chosen to participate in an impromptu one-hour video hangout with me and David Heinemeier Hansson, my co-founder. Andrea LaRowe, our office manager, also sits in to transcribe the conversation.
Here's how it works: A few minutes before it's go time, you get a ping in Basecamp 3 with a link to a Google Hangout. You don't know who else will be on the call until you click the link and show up.
The rules are simple: No work talk. Anything else goes. This is all about creating a social situation that likely wouldn't happen otherwise. Five people--some new to the company, some vets, all from different departments--get to gab. An hour to see one another's faces and workspaces (in the background) and shoot the breeze.
Topics are varied and often surprising. During the past few 5x12s, we've discussed wind farms, if Fiji water is on tap in Fiji, $1,000 Japanese toilets (totally worth it), some guy who hooked 54 drones to a lawn chair so he could hover around his yard, tractor restoration, tiny planes, if water is what really makes New York bagels taste so good, how great bread is deceptively hard to make, and the odds of whether paying parking tickets is less expensive than always paying the meter.
By the end of a call, we all know one another a little better. People who never work together suddenly have a shared moment. When the call is over, the transcript is posted in Basecamp for everyone to see. Even if you weren't on the call, you can read Andrea's colorful write-up and feel like you were there. It may not be the same as happy hour at the local watering hole, but all of these little moments do add up to something bigger--our culture.