By John Berkowitz, CEO and co-founder of OJO Labs, the first end-to-end platform for buying and selling homes at scale.
I’ve always believed that the very best companies start with the best people. The best people are looking for more than a job. They seek a vibrant culture, a place to learn, grow and contribute — and a place where they might have an outsized impact on the world.
The headquarters of my company was built with the best people in mind. Our mission was emblazoned on the wall in the lobby entrance, the first thing you’d see in the morning and an end-of-day reminder beckoning you back. As our company grew, the values and behaviors that support our mission came to life through the day-to-day interactions in our workspace. With frequent breakout brainstorms on the patio, dogs bringing joy and warmth to our space and roaring lunchtime laughter in the kitchen, the energy and camaraderie were palpable.
Then the pandemic hit. Our once-bustling locations were suddenly empty. We were forced to put company culture through the ultimate pressure test as our entire workforce went 100% remote, like so many others fortunate enough to work from the safety of home. Without physical offices to serve as cultural hubs, we had to rethink employee engagement from top to bottom. At the same time, what our people needed most from leadership and each other had changed drastically.
Faced with so much uncertainty around us, we knew company culture was a vital aspect of this transition. We also needed to provide clarity and connection — and we had to do it with team members in hundreds of locations. The approach was similar to that of a hard tech problem, where we knew not everything would work; we’d double down on things that were successful and fail forward trying. Guided by our company value “relentlessly improve,” we were unafraid to test new paths even though we were unsure of the outcomes.
1. Foster Culture Beyond The Office Walls
After making what, at the time, was an early decision to close the office, we did what every other company did. At least at first. We logged into Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. We leaned even more heavily on Slack to get things done. These were lifelines, but online tools and forums couldn’t replicate the energy and serendipity of our physical office spaces.
So we spun up new ways to come together. Two engineers launched a grassroots morning talk show, bringing a recruiter on as producer. Their show is now both wildly popular and core to our culture. We launched a virtual workout program and hosted office pet meet-and-greets. We ultimately learned more about our colleagues as beautifully whole people.
We created new traditions that felt right for us. And we doubled down on some things that had always been a priority, like providing employees with the time and space to be their best selves. We built on our unlimited paid time off policy by shutting down operations for a week in July, when racial reckoning and political unrest had reached new heights. We made the decision to recognize Election Day as a companywide holiday from here on out. These changes have had a massive impact on our team — we’ve found a way to come together and support each other even without an office space to call home.
2. Provide Clarity In The Face Of Uncertainty
Beyond bringing our culture online, we knew we needed to step up and lead in new ways. While we couldn’t offer complete certainty, we could provide clarity to cut through the noise and put our teammates at ease. In times of crisis, your first instinct may be to protect employees from the turbulent highs and lows, but bringing them along for the ride fosters trust and calms the waters. Transparent by nature, we committed to being transparent by design, bringing our whole company into the most consequential decisions and discussions happening at the executive level.
When we took on the seemingly impossible task of raising funding amid a global pandemic and closing a massive acquisition, we were upfront with our team about the opportunities in front of us and also the risks we were taking by pursuing them. The outcome was uncertain, but our employees had the clarity they needed. We went in with eyes wide open and incredibly optimistic.
3. Create Meaningful Connections
The work we do at my company directly impacts the lives of homebuyers and owners. It’s important to remember, especially when so much is in flux and it’s easy to get stuck (or completely lost) in the weeds. With so much going on, it’s so easy to lose sight of what you’re working toward. So we set out to create meaningful connections between teams and our broader purpose.
We launched a series of workshops to engage people across departments in research, ideation and execution around our purpose. These workshops not only helped us become more focused as a business but also gave employees an opportunity to reconnect with the organization and remind each of us what we are working toward each day.
In addition, we brought in speakers to educate the company on the challenges facing homebuyers and owners today. We held seminars on topics from inequality in the real estate industry to how we can promote anti-racism in corporate America. Each session laddered back to our overarching purpose to level the playing field for all homebuyers, owners and sellers and gave employees actionable steps on how they can make an impact.
The changes we’ve made in the wake of the pandemic aren’t Band-Aid solutions. As an organization, we recognize that the future of work has changed forever — and we’re embracing that. We have no expectations of returning to corporate life before the pandemic. We’re creating a new playbook. We’re redefining what it means to be an employee for our company, and this, in many ways, feels like the opportunity of a lifetime.