Since our inception, we have been obsessed with crafting solid company values and a strong culture at TravelPerk. We felt it was crucial to shape a thriving, positive workplace community not just for the tangible benefits it can bring but also out of a sense of duty towards our employees. In 2020, like countless organizations, we were faced with some harsh realizations. The pandemic tested our assumptions around the company culture we had created, and it forced us to transform the way we cultivated community at TravelPerk.
How did TravelPerk’s company culture fare in the face of COVID-19?
During the pandemic, as an organization in the travel industry, we faced significant upheavals. Before COVID-19, we had become accustomed to seeing our metrics increase every week. We took for granted that we would keep on growing if we focused on executing our tasks well. Like everyone, the pandemic forced us to reconcile that there are elements in the world beyond our control.
As business travel ground to a halt and we switched to working remotely, our teams naturally had less work, fewer contributions they could make, and ultimately a reduced sense of attachment. New hires knew more about our short-term goals than our long-term aspirations. We found that the mission statement our company’s culture revolved around was becoming diluted.
As the months rolled on and we tried to gauge how long it would be until travel restrictions lifted, employees’ fears and concerns over the broader industry naturally grew. As a company, we knew that to keep our team’s motivated in these troubling times, we had to address the assumptions we held about our culture and mission. If TravelPerk’s current culture is shaped mainly by being together in the same office, how do we keep it alive and help our employees feel ambitious in these new circumstances? As we faced rebuilding our company culture, we were determined not just to survive this difficult period but also to use its lessons to emerge stronger. We took our lemons, sat down, and tried to figure out how to make lemonade out of a global pandemic.
We had to ask ourselves;
- Is getting together for team-building activities safe during the pandemic?
- When the pandemic passes, how important will it be to our teams to get together in the same physical space?
- What would a shift to remote working look like for TravelPerk?
In the end, as a company, we made the decision not to go remote for reasons you can check out here. But we did have to make significant adjustments to how we cultivate our organization’s culture in the wake of COVID-19. One thing remained true throughout the upheaval of 2020. As a company, we were extremely grateful for the foundation we had built. We realized that if your workplace culture has a sound basis when you strip back the office perks, your core values remain intact. The shared sense of purpose we had instilled in our offices was still present when our teams temporarily switched to working from home.
Now that we understood how important this culture was, we realized that we needed to double down our efforts to preserve it. Previously, we had a team for events and office management and a team to take care of our people, but we decided now could be the time to add a different approach. As we processed the challenges that lay ahead, we also acknowledged that we had expanded considerably as an organization. It felt like a much-needed reaction to our current situation and a natural progression to create a team dedicated to keeping our culture strong and a true reflection of our staff’s needs. We named this new group the Community team as the pandemic reminded us that culture is not about free cereal bars and coffee in the staff room. It is about belonging.
How do we define community at Travelperk?
As we crafted our Community team, we had to dig deep into the ideas that had shaped our culture so far. What had inspired us to this point, and what lessons had the pandemic taught us? Ultimately we had to strip it right back and decide what the notion of community meant to us?
At TravelPerk, we define community as;
We took inspiration for our definition of community from Yuval Noah Harari’s world-renowned book ‘Sapiens.’ For Harari, we have lived in two realities ever since we gained cognition. The first, our physical reality, is the world of trees, rivers, and cats (including their memes). The second is our imagined reality, where our notions of religion, nations, and identities dwell. As humans, we share these imagined realities as we create connections with others. The diversity of these is what we more commonly refer to as ‘culture.’
At TravelPerk, we see our community’s shared imagined reality as the mission that we want to achieve together and the culture that supports us through the journey. As a Community team, it would be our job to bring people together over this mission and this culture.
How as a Community team Maslow Pyramid of Needs inspired us
When researching how our Community team could revitalize our company culture, we were drawn to Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs theory. A model for motivation, the theory rests on the premise that community is a massive motivator because, as humans, we intrinsically crave connection and social interaction. Even the most introverted of us wants to feel two things:
- A sense that we belong, that we have a tribe of people who understand us and hold a common goal or set of shared values in common.
- The esteem and feeling of accomplishment that comes from being recognized for our contributions and commitment to our community.
These feelings directly feed into our sense of fulfillment, something we all want to achieve in our lives. As humans, we constantly strive for this accomplishment. Whether we are aware of it or not, it’s a key component in what drives us. But according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, we can’t accomplish fulfillment without the sense of belonging and esteem that community brings.
At the bottom of the pyramid is our most basic needs. These are physiological in nature and go back to our primeval natures. At our core, we need shelter and to have access to food and water. Once these are taken care of, we can move up the chart to security. As cave dwellers, once we had our shelter established and our bellies filled, we could focus on making sure we kept ourselves safe from saber-toothed tigers and other critters that threatened our safety. In the workplace, these two basic needs manifest as having a safe space to work, not just in terms of health and safety but also job security. For organizations, that means, for example, having human resources processes and policies that ensure employees are paid on time and protected from discrimination.
Once we meet our basic needs, we can move up the scale to address our psychological needs. As homo sapiens, we evolved to be a part of small communities so that we could thrive. Teamwork enabled us to divide up the essential tasks that kept us alive, meaning we had more time to develop new skills. In time we came to need these groups for reasons beyond the purely practical. They fulfill our psychological needs of belonging and esteem.
While our lifestyles have changed, our biological wiring hasn’t! Feeling part of a team striving for a shared goal continues to be necessary. In the workplace, it’s the difference between going through the motions to collect your paycheck and feeling like you have a purpose. This is where our newly formed Community team comes in. Our role is to create an atmosphere that fosters belonging and esteem through a variety of measures to ensure our employees feel secure and empowered in the workplace.
At the top of the pyramid of needs is self-actualization. This stage is where we can achieve our full potential and strive for fulfillment. Only once we meet our basic and psychological needs can we break through to this new level of ability and creativity. We refer to this sweet spot as ‘The TravelPerker’s Nirvana.’ Our Community team creates the ecosystem that fulfills the essential and psychological needs so employees can feel confident and take ownership in the self-actualization phase. Here employees feel fired up and are empowered to develop their own meaningful and fulfilling work experience.
I feel like it’s vital to point out that this is not about creating an atmosphere where employees are ecstatically happy all the time! It is about shaping the environment where they feel safe and secure enough to speak up when something isn’t working and provide solutions. It’s also not about pressuring colleagues to stay longer at work or revolve their social lives around company events. We all need time away from work to spend with our friends and families and find fulfillment in other aspects of life. If you have seen the movie ‘The Circle,’ you know how a seemingly great company culture can quickly erode all sense of work-life balance and end up feeling like a full-on cult! To reap the benefits of a great workplace community, you need balance, honesty, and transparency so employees can find their unique sense of purpose and fulfillment.
What benefits has the principle of community brought to TravelPerk?
There are many tangible benefits that developing a strong sense of purpose within your organization can bring. From employee satisfaction to retention, there is significant evidence demonstrating why community is essential in the workplace.
What tangible benefits does a sense of community bring to a business?
- When they feel aligned with their company’s values, and therefore more engaged with their work, employee performance is increased by 20%. [2013, Institute for the Study of Labour by Carpenter & Gong]
- Retention improves as 87% of employees who find their work engaging are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. [2008, “Improving Employee Performance in the Economic Downturn,” The Corporate Leadership Council]
- It’s easier to attract quality candidates as referrals from engaged employees are, on average, around 70% more likely to be a better cultural fit for your company. [2020, “10 Employee Referral Program Fast Facts with Bonus Tips”, ClearCompany]
- Absence due to sickness decreases as employees take an average of 2.7 sick days a year when they feel fulfilled by their work, compared to 6.2 sick days when they don’t feel engaged. Burnout reduces, and engaged employees also report a higher sense of wellbeing, especially regarding their mental health. [2006, “Employee Engagement: How to Build a High-Performance Workforce,” Gallup]
But while it is great to have tangible metrics to measure the success of your workplace culture, at TravelPerk, the pandemic was a visceral example of why we should always treat community as more than a business strategy. Yes, people will work harder for you and stick around for longer. But in a world where people feel increasingly disconnected from each other, strong company culture is not only an employee retention tool; it’s vital to your teams’ wellbeing.
In the near past, most people relied on their neighborhood or religious groups to provide a sense of community. With more and more people living in cities and perhaps missing a communal aspect in their personal lives, employees might come to work in real need of somewhere to belong. At TravelPerk, our bases are in several large cities, including Barcelona, London, Berlin, Miami, and Chicago. We have employees relocating from other countries to join us and a range of cultural backgrounds in our teams.
Whether they are an expat or working in their home country, our teams face the challenges of modern city life. Isolation breeds hopelessness which drains all motivation! So we see it as a duty to create an atmosphere where employees can get to know each other and socialize. That’s how they can have their psychological needs met and strive for fulfillment. We wanted to create a shared imagined reality unique to TravelPerk so that our employees can move through their day feeling connected by a common purpose and get the belonging and esteem we all need. I want to stress again that this isn’t about employees focusing their entire lives solely on work. It’s about creating an environment where for those hours of the day, they belong and can feel motivated by their work. We want our team members to feel secure knowing that their role can be fulfilling, with opportunities for development and growth for everyone.
During the pandemic, the move to home working made it even more apparent that our company culture was a big plus to the wellbeing of our teams. As restrictions were lifted, we had to carefully navigate whether it was necessary or even safe to get together. We asked our employees whether they would even be interested in a non-compulsory meet-up, and we were overwhelmed by the response. The COVID safe BBQ we arranged was voted the number 1 event in the company’s history, and it felt great to see our teams back together and show them our appreciation. Taking care of our team’s wellbeing during this unprecedented time paid off. Despite all the setbacks of last year, we managed to grow our customer base, raise $160 million of investment, and avoid making mass layoffs.
As the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The bottom line is that shaping a solid workplace culture will forever be an ongoing process for our Community team. Our goal is for the organizational culture we develop to bring together our employees. That means we have to dedicate ourselves to evolving our methods and gaining honest (and sometimes brutal!) feedback from our colleagues.
If you would like to read more of our thoughts on developing a strong culture, the Community team’s approach, and the challenges we faced during COVID-19, then please give us a follow. If you face similar challenges and would like to swap stories and advice, I am always looking for inspiration and would love to hear from you! Feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.