The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted companies around the world to embrace hybrid or distributed workforces for the first time.

Valerie Jaffee, Industrious’ Chief of Staff

For many of these teams, the logistics — such as figuring out what tools you’ll use to communicate or how to manage multiple time zones — are the easy part. The real challenges are all about relationships: How do you build and maintain a company culture for distributed teams? And how do you stay connected on a personal level with your colleagues without those water cooler moments?

Valerie Jaffee, Industrious’ Chief of Staff, has been dealing with many of these questions even prior to last spring, since Industrious has long had a mix of centralized and distributed teams. We sat down with Jaffee to learn more about what brought her to Industrious, what she learned from the pandemic, and the role culture plays in an increasingly hybrid world.

Tell us about yourself. What brought you to Industrious?

Early on in my career, I thought I wanted to be a climate policy maker. I had worked for a nonprofit, done some independent consulting work, and gone to grad school. But I realized that I didn’t enjoy it, so I switched over to doing research on women’s entrepreneurship.

At the time, Industrious was just getting started. The HR team reached out to someone I was interviewing for my research; she passed that person onto me. I joined Industrious for two reasons. One, I loved the idea of getting to build a community from scratch and having it be as inclusive and as engaging as possible. The second is that everyone I talked to on the team was just the best. I thought, if I get to work with these people, day after day, I will have a great time at this company. And that has proven to be true.

What does your role, Chief of Staff, entail?

As Chief of Staff, I have the opportunity to be the right-hand person for Jamie Hodari, our CEO. I make sure that Jamie’s spending his time in the most impactful ways. I’ll sometimes stand in for Jamie in meetings.

I also lead a lot of initiatives across the company. I get to be the person who looks at different proposals and identifies what the outstanding questions are or what would help us reach a decision faster. I’m also responsible for having a pulse on how employees are doing then escalating that up to the executive team.

Then the other major part of my job is that I’m the interim leader of the People Team, which has been just absolutely delightful. It’s fun to be more deeply involved in how we hire, think about our employee value prop, create clarity around policies, and provide mental health support to our own team.

What role does culture play in a hybrid or distributed team?

At Industrious, culture is incredibly important because while our product is physical, the value is in our service. More than anything, the reason that we’re able to deliver amazing service is the character of the individuals on our teams and their commitment to delivering incredible service. So for us, culture is the underpinning of everything that we do. If we can deliver on that within our own organization, we’re going to deliver a better product to our customers.

The other part is that right now, it’s a competitive hiring market. People can be picky about where they want to go. I think employees would rather work in an environment where they feel included, empowered, and connected to other individuals. So it’s important to have a clear vision of what you’re describing to new teammates who are coming onboard, how you’re creating those shared norms, and that you have a plan for how to scale that culture as you grow.

Company culture helps determine whether or not employees feel valued, engaged, and connected.

How do you create a strong culture for distributed teams?

It’s possible to have a tight knit culture with distributed teammates. Managers have a big part to play, and part of it is establishing that culture and connectedness are important to you — then being explicit about what that means. For example, maybe it means every person should have a really close relationship with their top five cross-functional partners regardless of where they are: you touch base once a week and you know what’s going on in their personal life. Or maybe it means that you’re explicit that everyone has a part to play in establishing culture on your team, and that you stand up culture captains who reinforce norms and plan fun activities.

Clarity from the outset is important, as is being intentional about how you spend your time. Make sure that you’re actually scheduling touch points. Things that would organically happen in the office if you were just walking by each other aren’t going to happen with a distributed team. You have to consciously put one-on-ones on the calendar — even little 15 minute phone calls.

When we get stressed, we spend most of our one-on-one time talking about tasks rather than building relationships. In a distributed world — especially a fast-moving one — the relationship is incredibly important. Managers should be spending even more time than they think talking about how employees are feeling and how they can grow.

On the employee side, you don’t have to wait for your manager. You should feel empowered to do things that are culture-oriented, whether that’s scheduling virtual happy hours or incorporating fun little personal life moments into your team calls. It doesn’t all have to come from the top.

What were some of the lessons you learned during the pandemic?

One really interesting experience for me has been learning to provide a wide range of ways to engage the team. Going forward, organizations with distributed teams will need to find different points of connection that don’t just cater to the extroverts who love doing virtual happy hours, but also cater to the individuals that build connections on a one-on-one basis rather than a big group format.

Another big learning for me has been all about employee choice, which has been a big part of our own return-to-office plans. People have different levels of risk tolerance. They want to be able to choose the solution that’s best for them and their family. When possible, empowering people to work where and how they want to creates a more positive experience for individuals.

What do you love about what you do?

Industrious is at such a fun stage where we are growing really quickly, and that means of course that everything breaks at some point, and you get to fix it. Your systems break down, your processes don’t work, you’re outgrowing things left and right. You have to hack together solutions — and I love doing that. I love sitting for an afternoon and thinking about how we’re going to overhaul a process like onboarding.

And I love that I’m surrounded by people — including all these new hires we keep bringing in — who want to be part of a team and deliver amazing, high quality work for each other.