What we’ve learned about our office culture after two years out of the office

Once upon a time, it was a beautiful thing to wake up early in the morning, get bundled up in warm clothes and commute to work. That may sound like sarcasm. How could anyone enjoy waking up early in the morning and heading to the office in the dead of Montreal's winter? But, it's the truth. That’s just how great our office culture was.

Once upon a time, it was a beautiful thing to wake up early in the morning, get bundled up in warm clothes and commute to work. That may sound like sarcasm. How could anyone enjoy waking up early in the morning and heading to the office in the dead of Montreal's winter? But, it's the truth. That’s just how great our office culture was. 

When candidates came to interview at Jonar’s office, the energy was palpable. They could see and feel how much our team loved working here, and they wanted to be a part of it. It wasn’t by coincidence or dumb luck that Jonar was named a great place to work. We painstakingly shaped our office culture. We swore to stick to our values, hire outside the box, and treat humans like humans, not resources. Thoughtful interview questions, countless team-building activities, and hundreds of bagels on Tuesdays brought us here. Building Jonar's exceptional office culture was a labor of love. And it took years to cultivate!

Then on March 13th, 2020, our office, along with almost everything else, shut down. We were told two weeks, and then two months, and now we are staring down the barrel at two years. So much of our office culture was suddenly gone. In the beginning, we operated under the belief that being away from the office was temporary. We could put bandaids on it and make quick fixes, but investing time into Jonar's remote culture wasn't worth it because we were headed back to the office. 

But sometime in the last year, we realized this was no longer the case. Instead, we would need to find a permanent solution for maintaining our culture and values, no matter our future. So it's time for us to carve out a new flexible culture, even if that means letting go of some old traditions. But what exactly will this look like? What mentality shifts need to happen? By reflecting on what we have lost and gained during these strange times, we may be able to find the answers.

Going virtual meant losing a lot. 

You've heard this story a thousand times by now; the transition to remote work was weird. Playing with Zoom backgrounds and getting interrupted by kids and pets was fun for a week or two, but the novelty wore off quickly. After that, we were left with the daunting reality of everything we had lost. For Jonar, it was a total culture shock. How could we treat humans like humans when they were behind a screen? You can't have spontaneous lunchroom conversations when eating alone at home. How could we show off our office culture to prospective candidates? Instead of palpable energy, they got awkward virtual back and forths. 

This isn't just about missing all the fun we had in the office (not that it isn't important for a workplace). Daily socialization is revealing. It's easy for miscommunications to happen without it. The transition online meant leaders lost their "sixth managerial sense." When you see colleagues day in and day out, you can tell how fulfilled they are. You see their performance and mood; you naturally understand how they feel. The loss of this sixth sense meant we were out of the loop, and as a consequence, we had some surprising changes in staffing. Managers and team members alike are now under immense pressure to ensure they maintain the same level of connection as they did in office. Not just on projects and deadlines, but also on employee satisfaction and mental health. 

Remote work also turned collaboration into a grueling ordeal. Conversations that would happen instantly in the office took hours virtually. Asking for help meant doing the complicated dance of Slacking, then finding a time to meet, setting up your Google Meet, and then switching to Zoom because Google didn't work. The lack of a physical space and in-person conversations has hindered spontaneous collaboration. 

 The good news is remote work hasn't been all bad.

We have all seen the statistics about how much more productive and relaxed people are when they work remotely. And while many tech companies have used these types of statistics to justify a total virtual model, they aren't the reason we’ve begrudgingly started to appreciate our time away from the office. 

Remote work gave us a push, or rather a shove, to try something new. Change and growth happen in the face of adversity and challenge. This is an opportunity to evaluate and redefine ourselves, both personally and at an organizational level. By taking a step back and looking at our values, we've stripped back the layers and reconnected with what really matters. Finding a way to connect with each other despite the obstacles is what originally made Jonar’s culture so special. 

Some great new traditions have also been born from remote work. We have bonded over games of Skribble and virtual happy hours. If you have an interest or passion, a Jonar Slack channel probably exists for it.  On the rare occasions that we’ve been to the office, we’ve shared shock and joy meeting co-workers in person for the first time. And, we’ve all been introduced to each other’s pets and families, even if they were not always intentional meetings. 

We’ve learned a lot  throughout this journey.

Our team has learned to self-advocate and speak up when we don't understand. Team mates learned to be more in-tune with each others’ performance and well-being. We've learned that online and offline activities need to be different. We played on the strengths of remote work and discovered  new opportunities for team building, cooperation, and fun. We were inspired to rethink the way we view the physical office; using it as a space for collaboration, explicitly designed to connect people and facilitate idea-sharing.   

Most importantly, we spent a lot of time thinking about the word "culture" and what that means to us. Culture is more than how you feel when you step into the office. It's a unique set of practices and the rhythm we fall into every day. We can't hold onto the idea that culture has to happen in a certain setting to be valuable. A daily weather report or daily riddle shared in Slack is as much a tradition as bagels on a Tuesday. We’ve also learned that it is impossible to know what will happen in the future. Which is why it's imperative that we create an adaptable culture rooted in people and values instead of just a space.

We’re embracing change and planning for a future defined by adaptability.

Many of the lessons we learned over the last two years will stay with us no matter what our future looks like. It was terrifying having to rethink and even lose some of the practices we were most proud of. However, this “disruption” also reminded us of the value of innovation and team that has guided our success for so long. 

We don’t have all the answers today. We can’t say with certainty whether the future of Jonar will be in the office, hybrid, remote or something else. What we do know is that the lessons we have learned over the last two years have given us the tools to approach these decisions with confidence and a new perspective. As always, we will try and try again until we find Jonar’s new normal!

Tamaryn de Kock