There’s no question; it has been an unprecedented and unpredictable year. From navigating life in a pandemic and a sudden shift to remote work, to what seems like a never-ending barrage of horrible global events, it’s been a lot. People everywhere are languishing, feeling burnt out, self-reflecting on the meaning of life and how to feel purposeful in their work. On top of this, we have more than doubled our team’s size since we last saw each other in the office. It seems like a more important time than ever to keep a finger on the employee pulse. So why, in a time of such change, would we abandon our annual engagement survey?

Our Focus on Culture Renovation

Culture has always been vital to BenchSci; it’s something we take seriously and strive to be intentional about (see our blog post about how we value and believe in “success beyond success”). 

When the pandemic hit, after we got our bearings and adapted our business from an operational perspective, we realized that we had a responsibility to re-focus on our culture. Not because anything was explicitly wrong, but because we knew that the world—and how we worked within it—was changing, and that would impact our culture. 

So when we heard of the book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company, we were immediately intrigued.

In the book, Kevin Oakes argues that organizations need to move away from thinking about “transforming” their culture and instead think about “renovating” it. As Brené Brown captures in the foreword, “It's all about keeping what works, changing what needs to be changed, and ensuring proper care and maintenance—much like refurbishing and living in a beautiful historic home and improving its overall value.” 

A Listening Tour Focused on Learning

We started by developing a listening process that was focused on seeking to understand the current state of BenchSci’s culture and how we might refresh it to better meet the needs of our team members. We wanted to make sure that we were bringing team members along the process with us so that they not only felt included but also had the opportunity to provide feedback and refine our understanding. We also knew, as a company of fewer than 150 people and in hypergrowth expansion, we would need the process to be scalable. 

Our process developed into an aggregate ecosystem of listening that included:

  • A company-wide employee survey with open-ended, generative questions
  • Small group discussions with <50 team members who represented different teams and demographics (for example, ICs who started before we went remote, ICs who joined remotely, managers, parents/caregivers, women)
  • A Google form where people can submit feedback or ideas about our culture
  • A series of findings reports, videos, and workshop-like collaborative sessions with team members to share what we were hearing, refine our understanding and collect additional feedback in an ongoing manner rather than at just one point in time
  • Over 60% of the company reaching out to have informal conversations about what was on their minds

With all of this data in hand, we looked across everything we heard and identified common themes. From those themes, we created opportunity areas for us to focus on and address.

Actionable Insights

The result was a deeper understanding of team sentiment around what we’re currently doing well at BenchSci and what we could be doing better. It provided a deeper level of context and direction. For example, we confirmed that two of the main reasons our team members love working at BenchSci have to do with (1) our mission, and (2) the people who work here. People are driven and motivated by what they do and the people they do it with. 

We also identified some areas where we could be doing better, such as the fact that, especially with the pandemic and our move to remote work, many team members are missing connecting with their colleagues in more personal and informal ways. Additionally, we found there was an increasing feeling of administrative and email overload, which detracts from the mission-oriented work that inspires and energizes us.

These insights led us to ask:

  • How might we build better connections, relationships, and trust in a remote work environment? And, 
  • How might we better streamline systems and processes so they enhance our work rather than detract from it?

From there we were able to focus our attention on developing strategies and initiatives to address the above questions, using them to inform and inspire our quarterly OKRs. 

Continuous Maintenance and Growth

Because of what we learned through this listening approach, we decided to abandon the annual engagement survey. The main value of the engagement survey was the resulting KPIs, which provided us with a baseline understanding of our culture and could be tracked year over year. But the survey and KPIs weren’t dynamic and responsive enough to our changing world—so we decided to take what we learned from the engagement survey and drill down deeper to contextualize our understanding and develop more comprehensive action items.

By creating and following a holistic listening strategy and engaging team members at multiple points throughout the process, we learned a lot more about how our team members are doing and where we should focus our attention. We intend to conduct our listening tour on a continuous basis—supporting proper care and maintenance of our culture—as we continue to grow and navigate the constantly changing world. 

Written with Kari Sulenes, Leadership Director

Written By:
Nika Stelman (she/her)