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October 29, 2020 . Sandy Bielawa

Carving out a great culture

Ursa Health Blog

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When I got my first work-from-home gig some years ago, I really wasn’t sure it was for me. How would I get to know my colleagues? What would I miss if I wasn’t in the office? Would my contributions be seen and recognized? I expressed my concerns to a very wise friend, who scolded, “What are you complaining about? You have a great job and the flexibility to come and go as you please.”

Although that wasn’t precisely true, I shut up and learned to appreciate my new reality.

Ursa Health is a fully remote company, so when the pandemic hit, we were fortunate that our work experience was largely business as usual. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for all of us. And what possibly makes it a just a bit harder is that we’re an analytics company, full of profoundly analytical people.

How do you build connections and keep close with colleagues when you are never in the same room with them, or when you’ve actually never met them in “real life”? More importantly, how do you get to know them at a deeper level, so that you collaborate effectively and derive fulfillment from your work relationships, not just your work end products?

If you’re newly working from home, you’ve probably read article after article about this already. Here’s a good one with tips from Google.

But for you small companies out there, here’s are a some thoughts about how our small company makes it work:

Get involved and creative about team activities.

Hang on, don’t skip by this one because you think, “Yeah, HR’s got that covered.” First of all, culture is by definition is a team sport, not something you passively absorb. Free drinks and snacks = not culture. Free lunch, where everyone takes the time to eat together = culture.

The good news is that with so many of us working from home, culture now extends to remote workers. It always bothered me that you typically had to be in the office to experience most activities designed to reinforce that you’re a member of one team. That won’t be the case going forward—to the benefit of the full workforce.

So, how do you foster a desirable culture in a work-at-home environment? We have people with good ideas or interesting hobbies who bring them to the team. So, for example, when a new person starts, we always celebrate their first week or so with a pretty competitive online game or two, typically during work hours. Although we used to get together in Nashville for team retreats, we’re going to experience our first online version next month, and we’ll talk about how we can make this remote world work even better.

Let people breathe.

Earlier, I mentioned the flexibility that’s supposed to come with working at home. Before the pandemic, I’m not sure people who worked in office quite got how challenging working from home could be. Were you one of those people who secretly thought your work-at-home colleague had a sweet deal, and maybe didn’t work anywhere near as hard as you did? Thankfully, that perspective has been thoroughly debunked.

An individual’s work value has never been about what time she shows up, what time she leaves, or whether she’s pinned to the seat in front of her computer 100% of the time in between. Nor is it about whether someone’s always available to answer your call, whether that’s well past supper or over the weekend.

People need flexibility, not permission, to balance work and home. True flexibility, like we’ve achieved at Ursa, means that you are trusted to get the job done, and to arrange your life accordingly, because you are a valued contributor to the organization’s success. We all need time during the day to make a pot of coffee, put on a load of laundry, tend to family members young and old, go to a doctor’s appointment, and otherwise live our lives. No questions asked.

Conversely, at a small company like ours, where people wear a lot of hats and you are potentially growing faster than you can hire, not being constantly available may seem like you’re burdening your colleagues, even if they say it isn’t. We keep an eye on employees and make sure they take the time they need to refresh and revive, no matter how important their role is.

Appreciate those moments when life intervenes.

What everyone is finding out about working at home is that keeping the two separate can be difficult. So we don’t try too hard to do so, and it’s okay when life happens. At Ursa, we’ve all gotten calls from our CEO while he walks his dog. We’ve enjoyed kids on calls and their drawings on white boards. Significant others pop into videoconferences and say hi, and we can occasionally hear the musically inclined practicing their instruments in the background. These are glimpses into our teammates worlds that we wouldn’t get otherwise.

Be nice, and practice gratitude.

Probably my favorite Ursa value is “Prioritize a calm, respectful workplace.” Not only is it important to me, but I can see that it’s the same for everyone else. People work at it. We have a weekly team huddle, and it’s great to have that defined time to assemble and discuss key projects, issues, or decisions.

But what’s notable is the tenor of those meetings. No one talks over anyone else, or if they do by mistake, they immediately apologize. No one complains. About anything. And we rarely get off the videoconference without someone being called out not for a mistake but for her or his excellent work on one project or another. We practice gratitude for the work, and gratitude for each other.

Our online communication with each other is the same. There are no ALL CAPS. People are responsive. That alone is astonishing. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve worked for where I’ve sat and wondered, “For Pete’s sake, can they JUST ANSWER MY EMAIL?” We use Slack, which fosters more immediacy in our communications, but we also pick up the phone. And again, it’s rare if a conversation ends without people thanking each other for their time and ideas.

Celebrate the silly.

Speaking of Slack, it’s super easy, even in a small company, to have too many channels, which can make it hard to stay on top of all the conversations. Here, we tend to be very spare in our channel usage. My favorite is called “Random,” where anyone can feel comfortable sharing something … well, random. It’s a little current events, a little advice, some gentle teasing (COVID haircuts or lack thereof providing helpful fodder), and a whole lot of .gifs. A recent fav:


The photo at the top of this blog—the results of our first-ever pumpkin carving contest—is a little bit of all of these remote-working tips. More good things to come. Wishing everyone a happy and safe Halloween from Ursa Health!




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