Have you heard a company claim that their team is a family? Though the sentiment may often be coming from a good place, it can set unrealistic expectations for employers and employees alike. The truth of the matter is this: your company isn't your family. And that's okay.
At Flight, we wanted an alternate — something that captured the people-oriented intention behind “family,” but without the baggage. Ultimately, we landed on “community,” which we define as a group of people working together with shared goals, values, and a sense of belonging.
The bottom line is that calling our team a community and approaching it through that lens has opened up new ways to engage and build connection, and it became the perfect topic for us to launch our New Horizons support meetup series, where we aim to broaden perspectives with new takes on old topics as well as explore the newest innovations in our industry.
Our first event, New Horizons: Team as Community, featured a panel of speakers who shared their experiences with building teams, and included some group activities so folks could meet one another and start building their own approach to the concept.
The panel was made up of Diana Potter, VP of Customer Experience at Qwilr; Veronica Rojas, Director of Training at Flight; and Amy Gutierrez, Flight’s Team Community Manager.
If you couldn’t make it to the meetup, here are the top takeaways that we hope will help you build your team culture!
Unlearning is often an important first step
Have you ever noticed that everyone's house except your own has a distinct smell? It's because the longer you're exposed to something, the more normal it seems. It becomes your baseline. The same thing happens for us in working environments.
Maybe at a previous job you had a volatile manager, or unhealthy habits like overworking were encouraged. Given a long enough amount of time, those things start to seem normal.
Because of this, new teammates sometimes need to start with some unlearning. Everyone comes in with their own unique background and experiences. Don’t assume that it will be easy for them to immediately go against patterns learned in past roles.
To account for this, allow time for people to acclimate, work toward incrementally building a trust, and be intentional and consistent as soon as new people join. Clearly state what values your team holds and the expectations you have for people. With clear values that are woven through the entire employee lifecycle and an environment of psychological safety, you can rebuild better baselines over time.
Onboarding sets the tone
When you're building a work community, first impressions count. For most companies, the first impression is onboarding. To properly set the tone for what new joiners can expect, it helps to weave community practices into your onboarding.
At Flight, our Director of Training Veronica has done this in a few different ways. First, instead of going straight into technical training, we focus on self-management skills like personal wellness and tips for working from home. Veronica calls this “starting inside out,” and the idea is to put the person at the center of the training experience.
Along with that, we also encourage lots of group discussion and activities. By doing so, we're orienting people toward connecting with co-workers from the beginning of their time with us and showing – not just telling – them that community is important at Flight.
It also sets teammates up with the relationships for sustainable learning throughout their time with the company. With a group of people to learn from, new hires won’t just be relying on the trainer or materials. They can rely on each other, which is a much bigger network for long-term support and learning. In fact, we frequently see teammates who onboarded years ago still refer to their fellow onboarding cohort peers by sharing a joke or reminiscing about their experience.
Focus on inclusivity
Especially when you work on a distributed team, it's not always easy to include everyone on everything. Different time zones and working schedules can make things complicated. Though you may not be able to offer the exact same everything to everyone, you can create unique and memorable experiences even if they're not identical.
For example, Diana Potter talked about a recent company retreat at Qwilr. Some people met up in person, but that wasn't an option for others, so they made a remote track for the retreat. For remote joiners, they created unique local experiences team members could participate in. They even set up things like an online art class so all the remote folks could share in a group activity, too.
Though the experiences weren't exactly the same, they did include everyone in the ways that were possible to them, based on their unique circumstances. Those thoughtful efforts go a long way in building lasting communities.
It’s also important to remember that sometimes you simply can’t offer something that everyone can attend or that everyone will like. Be considerate of diversity in your team and design your experiences accordingly. But, give your team the ability to offer their input, contribute to company-run activities, and self-organize, too, so you can cover the widest possible range of preferences and interests.
Pivot when needed
When my nephew was a baby, one of my favorite things was to slap on the BabyBjorn and take him out for a walk. They're cherished memories I'll have for the rest of my life. However, now that he's five, the idea of strapping him to my chest and going for a stroll is far less appealing for everyone involved. The same principle is true for communities.
In other words, just because something worked at one stage doesn't mean it will work forever. Commit to staying open and honest about the things you're doing. When something isn't a fit anymore, move on from it and find something new that is.
For example, Diana noticed a decline in participation with the digital birthday cards the team had long prepared for each person’s birthday. At first, they were a hit. However, eventually people lost steam, and they simply became routine and were no longer as exciting. As the company grew, it became harder to write a meaningful message. Now, they're looking for a new way to celebrate and are excited to find the next iteration.
And at Flight, one of our programs started as a peer learning program focused on learning technical skills from one another but later became a more informal “Lunch and Learn” program where teammates can casually chat about the things that interest them, whether they’re “work related” or not. This has been multiples more successful than the original starting point, but we wouldn’t have known that without giving it a shot.
Every community is always evolving, and keeping it alive and well means trying things, whether these are changes to existing programs or new ideas altogether. Even things that at first may seem half-baked can be worth experimenting with — you never know what might emerge once a larger group gets involved.
Allow space for community to emerge
Among all the ideas to structure a team as a community is another, perhaps seemingly contradictory one — give space for community to form naturally. Each community has its own spirit that’s unique to the individuals in it. That’s part of the beauty, and it should also be part of the design!
There’s certainly a place for infrastructure, guidance, and leadership, but community can’t and shouldn’t be forced. Allow for individual contribution and agency, and let everyone have a hand in shaping things.
On a similar note, don’t let perfection get in the way of connection! Things don’t have to be 100% polished to be meaningful. As Diana joked, “The only thing that makes a road trip bad is planning it down to the minute.”
Focusing too heavily on organization, timing, and plans for things can cause us to tightly cling to cookie-cutter ideals, leaving very little space for the spontaneous fun and organic connections that makes a community great.
Instead of trying to create a family, consider creating a community — a place where people can connect to the company as well as each other. As long as you stay intentional, committed, and open, you'll be well on your way.