At InterNations, we’re proud to be a remote-first company. Even the majority of our Munich-based colleagues prefers the comfort of their humble abodes over a daily commute (most of the time). But what impact does this have on a company’s culture? In this part of our series on remote work, Kathrin, our Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Communications, dives into how we shape corporate culture in a digital setting.
What is corporate culture? How do we define it?
Corporate culture defines — and is defined by — working relationships between managers and team members, among team members themselves, and between employees and customers. We experience it through values, norms, and routines. Basically, corporate culture determines the way people interact with each other.
In 2022, the company’s 15th year, InterNations launched an initiative called “Shaping our corporate culture”. Why now?
We thought that a year after officially becoming a remote-first company, it would be a good time to invest in our team culture with the specifics of remote work in mind.
When we were still all working together in our Munich office, the team culture developed organically, based on daily in-person interactions. We saw each other, went out after work, and celebrated together.
Switching to a remote setup meant a big shift in how we work. To give an example, we tend to sychronize our working hours less than before. We have more freedom in how we structure our day, while before everyone was at their desk roughly from 09:00 to 18:00. But it had an even bigger impact on our team culture and spirit. The online setting limits communication. You can’t just walk over to someone’s desk and ask a question or have a chat. And social signals like body language are harder to read.
There are also fewer cross-team and cross-hierarchy interactions. You don’t meet the CEOs anymore at the coffee machine. And unless they’re on the management board, most team members have next to no reason to interact with them. Generally, there is less room for spontaneity and creativity in a remote setting. Creative ideas often develop spontaneously in chance encounters. All that has an impact on team culture.
That explains why you were looking into the topic. But if corporate culture develops naturally between people in their daily interactions, why the need to actively (re)shape it?
Corporate culture is a living thing. But we need to define the optimal culture for an organization with all the specifics of that particular organization in mind, meaning it has to support the business model and also reflect the market environment. For example, if your company operates in a highly regulated industry, having a laissez-faire culture in your organization will probably sabotage your business.
Ideally, leaders have a clear vision of the sort of culture they want and need their organization to have pretty early on in a company’s history, so they can steer it in the right direction. That’s why the culture of an organization often changes when a new leadership team takes over that may have different ideas of how to best achieve the company’s goals.
So while culture is lived by all the people in an organization, it is the leadership that sets its parameters.
You had the corporate culture of InterNations analyzed by Hofstede Insights. Why did you consult an external company?
We wanted to see if our culture had changed since going remote. Our company culture has always been one of our strongest assets. Team members kept telling us how much they liked their colleagues and the team spirit.
In the office, we took this for granted, and every newcomer would easily absorb the culture. But remotely, you need to be more intentional about it. We were worried that our culture might get lost and decided to measure and define it with the help of Hofstede Insights.
And what did you find out about our culture?
The current team culture was assessed with the help of a questionnaire that every employee needed to fill in. At the same time, management defined what our optimal culture would look like within the context of our business model, strategy, and market environment.
The good news is that we found there weren’t many gaps. Our current culture is very close to our optimal one. We were also very happy to find out that there was no difference in the results when we broke them down into two groups: team members who were part of InterNations before going remote, and those who joined us afterwards.
It seems like we managed to transport our culture from an in-person, office setting to the remote world quite successfully. But we’re not going to just sit back and pat ourselves on the back now. As part of the analysis, we identified a few areas (e.g., goal orientation) that could lead to conflicts in the future if we don’t start working on them now.
How can you shape a corporate culture remotely?
There are different ways. For us, the focus was on breaking down barriers that might come with being a remote company. We wanted to keep things personal and fun, and to offer different formats for team members to interact with and learn more about each other.
For example, we ask team members to present themselves and their hobbies during company-wide meetings and our annual company kickoff. We also introduced monthly coffee chats with members of the management board, so our team members can get to know them better in an informal setting. And at least once a year, we all meet up in person. That really helps us keep up that personal connection.
And our approach to things like effectiveness, control, or customer-orientation hasn’t changed with remote work. We had an easy-going office environment, and we haven’t introduced any control mechanisms remotely, either. Remote work adds flexibility. Whether you stick to the old 09:00 to 18:00 model, start and finish earlier, or take a longer lunch break and work late, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you get your tasks done and clearly communicate your working hours.
So aside from the transition to remote work, how has the culture at InterNations changed over the years?
Not much, which is quite extraordinary, given that when I joined more than 12 years ago, we were only 15 people — already very international back then, but all based in Munich. Now, we are 100 people, scattered all around the world, and the culture still hasn’t changed much! It’s probably partly due to the consistency in leadership we’ve had — InterNations is still founder-led.
Do you think corporate culture varies for InterNations employees living in different places around the world?
Culture has many different layers. Organizational culture is just one of them. Of course, most of us are also shaped by the cultural norms of the society we live or were raised in, which might be very different from the culture we experience at work.
Here at InterNations, we see our corporate culture as something positive that defines us both as an organization and as a social group. It has the power to cross borders and bridge cultures. Ideally, it unifies us as a team rather than being a dividing factor.
Image credit: Canva / InterNations