Building an intentional workplace community is one of the best tools that we have found to support our people in feeling connected to something that is even greater than the work we do together.
Last year, our wonderful co-CEO Hawk was the keynote speaker at CMX Summit 2023 Shine. She gave an in depth talk on how to build a culture of inclusivity including how we do it here at Discourse. In her talk, Building Bridges, Not Walls: Leveraging Community to Build A Culture of Inclusivity in Remote Workplaces, Hawk details the work required to create a workplace culture that makes employees feel safe and included.
We are very proud of the workplace culture we have here at Discourse. You can see her keynote speech here and read the transcript we’ve included below.
Keynote Speech at CMX Summit 2023:
Building Bridges, Not Walls: Leveraging Community to Build A Culture of Inclusivity in Remote Workplaces
It’s been 5 years since I last stood on the CMX stage in real life and holy shit has a lot happened in the world during that time. A global pandemic. Certainly not something I ever saw coming, that’s for sure. And to be fair, it’s probably something we’d prefer to put behind us, but bear with me for a few moments and dial back the clock to 2020.
We found ourselves suddenly forced into a situation where we were all working from home, whether we were set up for it or not. Some organisations adjusted to this new construct well, while others really struggled. Remote work was thrust into the spotlight, sparking heated debate and that debate continues today as businesses grapple with what the future looks like for them.
Many of the loudest proponents of the “back to the office” argument are in my opinion missing a fundamental truth. And that truth is that a remote construct can and does work if you have proper systems in place to support it. And as these smart people point out, one of those systems is a properly managed internal online community.
So that is what I’m going to talk about today: Internal community building and the role it plays in supporting remote work. And more importantly, how to build and nurture them with intent so that they become a safe and rewarding place that everyone who works with you chooses to participate in.
And to be fair, anyone can google this stuff, but the value that I hope to bring today lies in sharing my personal experiences and those of my teammates.
This is not my first remote rodeo – I’ve held several remote roles over the past 15 years, but none of the places I have worked use the power of internal community in the way that we do at Discourse.
For context, we are a fully remote, globally distributed organisation of 90 people and growing. In my capacity as CEO I spend a lot of time thinking about how we maintain a safe, inclusive, productive and fun space for our people to get their work done.
We did not set out 10 years ago to build an “internal community” for the reasons that we all know them to be valuable today. We simply began by dogfooding our own product as we built it. As we grew and evolved, we built in more and more tooling to support the work that we do and the way that we do it and what we inadvertently found ourselves with is a complete business source of truth. A literal written history of every decision that we have ever made. The outcome is a truly glass walled virtual office that had surprising consequences. People felt included. People felt empowered. People felt valued.
Giving everyone access to all discussions and decisions at all levels of the business and inviting them to openly participate means that everyone shares the journey in a way that makes us all feel equally invested in the outcomes.
Online communities are a great leveller – they break down silos and encourage collaboration. If you apply that to the remote working construct you get those benefits across your entire organisation.
I was employee number 14 when I joined Discourse, and what works for a company of 14 is very different to what works for a company of 100 or more. As you grow and diversify, new considerations come into play and it can be difficult to spot those while you’re in the weeds. Scaling your internal community can be challenging.
But this talk isn’t about diversity – remote workplaces by their nature encourage diversity. You can hire indiscriminately from around the world and the flexibility of working from anywhere makes it possible for people with a raft of different challenges to work in a place that is physically and emotionally safe for them.
This talk is about inclusivity. How do we make the place where people virtually work just as safe?
And that’s where community comes into play. Workplace community building is intrinsically linked to inclusion and it allows us to leverage the beautiful uniqueness of every individual to create a powerful unified force. But it doesn’t just happen – as your team grows and changes, everyone has to understand the role that they play in building your culture in a way that is truly inclusive.
You have to make the intent clear from the moment someone joins.
Workplace community building isn’t just about team building. It’s not just about having a repository for policies and procedures. And it’s not just a place where people can collaborate and communicate. At its heart, workplace community-building is about creating a space where your team of smart and diverse individuals want to spend time working towards your shared goals.
It’s no secret that connection can be a big challenge in remote workplaces. Building an intentional workplace community is one of the best tools that we have found to support our people in feeling connected to something that is even greater than the work we do together. If you get it right, people look forward to starting their work day because they get to connect with people that they have built truly authentic relationships with. Having those meaningful connections and a shared sense of purpose are also foundational enablers of inclusive behaviour.
When people are encouraged to learn to understand and adjust to each other’s differences, the result is a beautiful thing to behold. One of the things that I am the most proud of is the part that I play in building and supporting the amazing culture that we have created at Discourse. It’s about more than the product that we build, it’s about getting up every morning with absolute confidence that every person that works with us feels passionate and excited about being part of our mission.
But internal communities are more than just a place to build and nurture relationships, they can also act as a powerful vehicle for cultural change within your organisation because when you create a safe space that people choose to be deeply involved in, you provide the opportunity for everyone to have a seat at the table.
Imagine a workplace where major decisions are made openly and collaboratively. No closed door meetings. No surprise announcements, unrealistic targets or unexpected change. But this reality can only exist if every individual feels truly encouraged, appreciated and empowered to make their voice heard. Sitting at the table isn’t worth much if you’re just there to listen.
So let’s talk a bit about how you create this kind of inclusive culture.
It starts with belonging
There is a lot of talk about belonging being a motivating factor for joining a community, but as our friend David Spinks explains:
Belonging is an outcome of participating in a community, not a cause.
And I couldn’t agree more. People don’t typically join communities to “find somewhere to belong” but they’re much more likely to stay if they do find it. Belonging in this context is the feeling of security and support that comes when there is a sense of acceptance and inclusion. It’s what drives us to form positive relationships with others. At work, these relationships extend to the organisation, its values and even to the work itself.
And that makes the job of a workplace community builder extremely important. You can’t afford for people not to feel as if they belong when the community is the place they have to visit every day in order to do their work. Not participating isn’t really an option.
So let’s look at the role of belonging in remote workplaces and then we’ll dig into how you can leverage your workplace community to make sure it happens.
There are a tonne of studies into the effects of loneliness in a remote workplace and pretty much every one of them warns of the dangers of disengagement, which is widely recognised as a major contributing factor to poor performance.
Having a central community which acts as the main hub of your workplace opens up a world of opportunity. You have a place that people have to visit daily in order to work tactically with their teammates, and if you extrapolate that out into a vehicle for interacting in deeper ways and learning to understand each other on a personal level, you can start to break down those barriers which contribute to loneliness.
When that happens, your people start to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. Now they’re not “just a software engineer” or employee number 85 – they’re part of your collective mission.
This means they’re much more likely to achieve better results because they have a higher sense of purpose. They feel more comfortable sharing their ideas and contributing to decision making. All of a sudden you have a much more diverse source of ideas to inform your product or service.
A few years back, HR company CultureAmp conducted a study into diversity and inclusion in tech companies. They surveyed 7k people and found a single metric that was consistently and universally tied to a person’s workplace commitment, motivation and pride — and that metric was a sense of belonging.
They also discovered that much of the anecdotal evidence surrounding diversity and inclusion to be true – namely that people from different backgrounds and demographics experience the workplace differently. That has certainly been our experience at Discourse, and it has informed the way that we use our internal community to build the kinds of bonds that underpin how connected our people feel to our collective mission.
I love this sentiment from a team member who had only been with us for a couple of weeks when she wrote it. Although she is referring to an in-person event that she attended, the deep bonds she talks about were forged solely from interactions that took place in our internal community.
Interestingly, the same CultureAmp study recognised that the correlation between belonging and engagement was strongest in historically underrepresented groups. They conclude that while diversity and inclusion are important metrics in their own right, there is evidence to suggest that a focus on belonging can most helpfully frame inclusion initiatives in the workplace.
So now we’re making some progress… focusing on belonging helps inform a more inclusive remote workplace. So what else contributes?
Values vs culture and how that plays into inclusivity
We hear a lot of talk about culture fit when what we’re actually looking for is a values fit. Ultimately, your culture reflects your values. When we hire at Discourse, our first interview is vital – we listen for values, we gauge transparency and vulnerability, and we establish how we communicate. A team that shares the same inherent values will work together effortlessly to incorporate their belief system into your culture.
Establishing clear values and expectations prior to hiring has served us well. We’ve learned that if we begin by defining and communicating those values when we are interviewing, we set the stage for the level of inclusivity that we expect going forward.
And then we hammer it home by talking regularly about goals and values right from the onboarding stage, so that there is a cohesion of language and intent. This topic was written by a new joiner within his first month or so. The fact that he was comfortable contributing this so early in his Discourse journey and that he got it so right is evidence that the processes are working.
The upshot of this type of transparent communication is a culture of immediate welcoming reciprocity when someone new joins. This is their first introduction to the reality of living with the values that so far we have only spoken about, and it is our first introduction to their unique thoughts, values and belief systems. It sets the scene for all future interactions and gives us the opportunity to help to guide them towards “their people”. Because inclusivity isn’t about all being the same, it’s about acknowledging and accepting the differences.
To do that you need to encourage micro-cultures within your workplace and celebrate them. Make it easy for new people to find their inner circle when they can’t see who’s in the room. We all want to find our happy place when things are new and confusing, but not everyone’s happy place is the same. Sometimes people with new and different ideas join and we have to remind ourselves that while those differences can sometimes be confronting to us as individuals, there may be a whole raft of others who have been waiting for those new, different ideas to float up. Being open to that is a fundamental part of inclusivity.
So let’s call the owners of those new, different ideas under-represented minorities. These people are your canary in the coal mine – they are your best leading indicator of company culture. If you make things magic for your minoritised groups, you almost always also make it better for everyone. But the key here is making sure you take care not to make it an emotional effort for people to acclimatise and feel comfortable.
Stop and consider for a second how much more of a cognitive load is carried by people who are reading everything you write in their second language. Or how difficult it is for people that come from countries that don’t encourage challenging authority to have a voice. So let’s talk about how to communicate.
Talk about “how” to communicate
It takes intentionality to build a culture of inclusive transparency in a remote environment. There is no water cooler or lunch room that people can hang around to pick up on social cues. Instead, culture is written down. And you have to be as explicit and purposeful about informal communication as you are about work-related communication.
At Discourse we combat miscommunication or misunderstanding by encouraging long form, overcommunication. Storytelling works really well in this context and is a great medium for creating an environment where people feel they belong. They get to go on your journey with you and take you on theirs.
We talk frequently about how we communicate, steering people away from using bullet points in favour of paragraphs, clarifying their colloquialisms and encouraging prolific questions. Establishing a convention of asking questions not only helps new joiners to feel comfortable doing so, it also builds up our internal knowledge base and makes things easier for the next new person.
But none of this will happen if you don’t work hard at it. You won’t empower everyone to freely express themselves unless you create a safe space in which it can happen. So let’s talk about that.
Creating a psychologically safe space
Psychological safety is the belief that anyone can share their opinion without fearing repercussions.
In order to create a non-judgemental environment where this can happen, everyone has to be able to fully trust the spoken and unspoken rules. At Discourse that means full trust, full accountability. We want to ensure that every single person feels safe enough to speak up, to readily own their mistakes, and to challenge one another in a productive, healthy way. These are values that have to be instilled immediately, from the leadership level down. Model the behaviour you want to see. Stamp out any that you don’t immediately.
Gruenert and Whitaker made a very astute assertion when they said that “The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” I would extrapolate that out to say that the culture of your organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the collective whole is willing to tolerate.
Gitlab does a great job of defining guidelines for creating a psychologically safe space for remote work in their open source manifesto. These are the ones that we champion at Discourse. As well as supporting better cross-functional collaboration, these guidelines afford all team members the power to be heard, resulting in greater diversity of ideas within our organisation.
But it doesn’t just happen. Having a diverse team means there are lots of different perspectives and understanding those requires a high level of empathy and intentionality.
I learned a valuable lesson last year when a teammate had the courage to voice this very valid concern.
As one of the loud voices I had to dig deep to understand the effect it can have on those that aren't. What I learned was fascinating. People who are outside of this dominant coalition need to be acknowledged so that they can feel like part of the team without sacrificing the things that are important to them, or having to change how they feel comfortable behaving. They need to be invited in.
In the same way that there are unconscious biases in the structure of face to face work, they also exist in a culture of written communication. Consider people that are nervous about spelling or grammar, people that aren’t writing in their first language, or people who come from cultures where speaking up isn’t encouraged.
This led me to learn more about what is known as the high-low-context culture balance, which is really interesting.
High-context cultures tend to exhibit less-direct communication, reading more meaning into these less-direct messages. Low-context cultures do the opposite; and need very direct communication, which those from high-context cultures sometimes view as blunt or rude. Understanding that concept has been a game changer for me. I read with a lot less bias now, which is huge after all these years of working in this way!
And then you have to dig down further into personality types. While extroverted team members might be comfortable speaking up about things that make them uncomfortable, introverted people may be less so. In a remote context it’s not always immediately obvious where people fall on that spectrum. Supporting everyone’s ability to contribute by asking what other people need and observing what makes them comfortable, especially if it’s different from what makes you comfortable, can help you to build a culture of sharing that isn’t skewed by always having the same voices in the room.
And to achieve this you need to be mindful of a few important things. The first is embracing transparency.
Embrace transparency in all interactions
I think this is probably my no 1 piece of advice.
Emphasising open and transparent communication from every single individual is in my opinion the only way to foster a truly inclusive culture. Active listening, valuing diverse perspectives, demonstrating vulnerability at all levels, and being mindful of microaggressions and unconscious biases are key.
People sometimes resist engaging in very personal conversations when they join a new team, but that’s a vital part of the equation. Modelling vulnerability acts as the kind of social proof that some people need to feel comfortable opening up.
But you also need to be aware that when people do share with true vulnerability, it can be uncomfortable at times. It has the potential to open the door to insensitivity or conflict. Part of embracing inclusivity is a willingness to confront those uncomfortable conversations and situations. We need to challenge our ideas about things we don’t understand in order to broaden our thinking and behave with compassion.
And then there are power balances to consider.
Eliminate hierarchies unless they are absolutely necessary
The effects of communicating as a “flat organisation” are valuable. By eliminating the concept of hierarchy between leadership and employees, you make communication easier and more comfortable for everyone.
Anyone in my team will tell you that I bang on and on about the fact that being the boss doesn’t make my opinion any more valuable than anyone else’s. Just like everyone in the team, I am just a person doing my job. The fact that that job happens to be managing everyone else doesn’t make it any more important. Good CEOs recognise that they know the least about everything that’s going on in the organisation, which is why you hire specialists. And it’s those specialists that we need to empower to share their important opinions. I encourage everyone to challenge my ideas, to have an opinion and to speak up when they have something to share. I do the same with radical candour.
I asked one of our team members what she thinks the key drivers behind our positive culture of sharing are and this was her response:
That makes my heart sing.
Hearing honest, unguarded stories from all levels can powerfully influence people’s feelings of inclusion. Understanding another person’s story – the good and the bad – can break down interpersonal barriers. Sharing the things that are taking your energy away from work or the things that are making you feel distracted might be the key to unlocking someone else’s reticence about sharing their own struggles. Recognizing that everyone is on a personal journey and that there are lots of similarities can dispel the limitations that people often impose on themselves. And more than that, it’s rewarding to do it.
If you lead with empathy and compassion you’ll forge stronger relationships and others will follow suit. Being self-aware, being open about your struggles and listening without judgement are all vital behaviours to model. Evidence shows that team members who have a trusting relationship with their manager are better able to take advantage of critical feedback and other opportunities to learn.
But even with the best behaviour modelling, it can still be a daunting experience to join a new team and share difficult things openly, especially when they relate to your own skills or the work that you are doing.
(Jeff’s postcard) One of the most important things we have learned to do is share the other parts of ourselves that influence how we show up at work. By doing this we learn and grow together in a way that supports us to bring our whole selves to work and it helps set up the framework that can support more difficult communication. Being open about personal circumstances or unexpected situations encourages a culture of sharing that connects us more deeply.
We embrace the opportunity to share more about ourselves. Many of our team include a “what’s going on at home” section in their weekly check-ins. Others share about their pets or kids or gardens or hobbies. These aren’t topics that a handful of people choose to make, we have created a culture where everyone feels comfortable doing so, and I think that’s magic.
But to be fair, I look for magic everywhere. We all should.
And now I’m running out of time so let’s wrap up with some key takeaways.
How we make it work so well: My top tips
Build your community where you do your work. Store all work related documentation in the same place that you have your non-work related discussions. If people have to visit a separate space to interact you run the risk of creating cohorts.
Help people find their tribe. Create a welcoming place that makes people feel like they’ve come home. Satisfy their primordial desire to belong somewhere. As one of my colleagues likes to say, around the cosy campfire it’s easy to open up and share intimate stories.
Promote cross cultural awareness and education. Celebrate the diversity of your team. Talk about food and traditions and holidays and wildlife. The more you know about the people you work with, the more you understand them and enjoy your interactions.
Make space for people to celebrate what is important to them. In a diverse workplace, shutting down over Christmas doesn’t really make sense. Allow your team to take the holidays that are meaningful to them. Check out this list of celebratory days from our staff leave calendar.
Don’t dictate strict rules around engagement. Allow people to try new ways of connecting. Structure and quality of interactions is more important than format or frequency. You need to create flexibility for people to do what works for them. It’s fine to have baselines for minimal interactions, but don’t just celebrate the loud voices.
Champion a culture of collaboration. An inclusive workplace culture values people’s abilities instead of focusing on their limitations. Talk about things like imposter syndrome openly and empower people to contribute their own original thinking. Successful teams have a balanced mix of personalities, skills and ideas.
Build a strong culture of recognition. Acknowledging success and celebrating achievements is fundamental. Call wonderful things out when they happen, don’t wait for performance review time. Encourage people to be proud of sharing their success and publicly recognize inclusive behaviour.
Seek feedback and be prepared to make changes. Actively seeking feedback helps to understand the different experiences and perspectives of your team. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that will stimulate discussion. Treat the feedback as a gift and leverage it to make healthy changes to your processes, especially the ones that have been around for a long time.
Have space for fun. In real life, workplaces come with the benefits of shared lunches, Friday drinks and end of year parties. You have to work a bit harder to achieve that level of camaraderie in remote workplaces so lean heavily on your internal community. As professional community builders we all know that before asking members to make large commitments to your community, you need to ask them to make micro-commitments. Have lots of opportunities for people to interact in ways that aren’t highly taxing.
Go all in. Most of us spend more time working than doing anything else so throw your whole self into it. Be the champion of the change you want to see.
I’m going to close with a beautiful proverb from my own people, the Maori people of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.