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You Can’t Fake Culture

Jenna Hasenkampf • October 31, 2019 • 5 minutes to read

“Culture” is one of the latest agency/company buzzwords floating around. It makes sense. Retention is a tough nut to crack right now and it’s becoming more and more apparent that liking where you work is important to people. It’s not just about salary and status, but more and more about whether it feels like a good personal fit. Enter the agency era of “Culture”.

The thing is, you can talk about culture all day long, you can include it in your mission statement, your values, even your slogan, but it can’t be forced or faked with a positive outcome.

Working at an agency where I have been a remote employee 90% of the time in the last year and most of my co-workers are in similar situations it could seem impossible that we have a real company culture. How do you create a culture with a team that you see a couple times a year at best?

A few weeks ago on our first morning of the MKG semi-annual work retreat we got ready to do an escape room. Some of us hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half, none of us had met every single team member in-person. We’d met up for dinner the night before to kick things off, but otherwise hadn’t had much time together. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“No bathroom breaks and no phones” the facilitator said, no leaving the room until we’d figured out how to unlock the box with eight other people, two of which I’d never met in person before. The box had a number of different locks on it requiring different things to open, such as colors, numbers, and letters, each lock requiring a different set of components. The room had a variety of objects strewn about, themed around the movies, and each of us had been given a few clues as well to get us started.

I certainly didn’t expect an experience that was practically seamless in working through the puzzles and clues and watching team members, who had never met, spend an hour or more working through a single puzzle together.

I’d never been in an escape room type scenario, but I’d always pictured it as a team effort focusing on the same thing all together with someone/s running the show. And maybe escape rooms are like that some of the time, but for us it was another day at the office, just more fun and in-person.

Our team is geographically spread out in New Orleans, Philly, Cleveland, Seattle, and Portland areas. We don’t spend much in-person time because a lot of us have small kids and so a lot of travel is difficult and inefficient. But we zoom and we gif and we slack and as I saw in action in the escape room, we’ve built up a solid level of trust and comfort with each other.

In the room we rarely spent time as a full team focused on a single puzzle, we mostly spread out and worked in small teams that were fluid, people coming and going from puzzles as they want to. Having new perspectives popping up throughout solving puzzles offered help rather than hindrance time and time again. No one assigned roles and in the end, everyone had at least one strong contribution to solving a puzzle and opening a lock on the box. And we emerged victorious, unlocking all of the locks without using a single cheat clue

I’m not going to tell you all of our secret sauce, but here’s a few key pieces of MKG culture that I think really contributed to our escape room synergy:

  1. Everyone has a voice. Good, Neutral, Ugly. I’ve heard it all. We ask questions, give feedback, and share points of view weekly with an agency retrospective and bi-weekly one on ones. None of us is always right, not even our founders, and we’re better for it. In the escape room this meant no one was afraid to speak up if they had an idea.
  2. Trust. We try not to micromanage (I’m an Account Director, I’ll be honest, sometimes it happens). As ADs we trust our team to be the experts on our client’s Digital Ads, SEO, and analytics needs. We may offer ideas or perspective but we defer to our experts on what needs to be done and the best way to do it. In the escape room the team self selected what they worked on when and rather than being disorganized or a mess, it allowed everyone to play to their strengths and efficiently move where they could contribute. Everyone had a hands on role rather than someone orchestrating without contributing.
  3. Be silly. This sounds corny, but it’s essential. Last week we had a 40 comment thread about chili on one of our slack channels. It started out of the blue and just caught fire. It was fun and a much needed outlet during a busy work week. I’ve gotten every single one of our team members to sing karaoke now, even the ones who claimed they wouldn’t. Being silly often means being vulnerable and establishes a level of comfort that can be surprising and extremely beneficial to your company culture. In the escape room we had to do a dance montage as one of the challenges and no one hesitated.

Our retreat next year is going to be in the Windy City and I’m already looking forward to it. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to our daily video calls, GIFs, and this Friday when everyone shares their halloween costumes.

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