Companies look to nature in an attempt to restore corporate culture

Company culture is a crucial ingredient for effective teamwork and employee retention. Remote work presents new challenges and demands new solutions.

During the pandemic, some organizations have seen people join and leave the company without ever meeting their team members in person. Many workplaces will be all too familiar with the challenge of developing effective working relationships on Zoom.

Remote work has made it more difficult to maintain corporate culture. It’s a significant issue for employees, with 54% of workers willing to leave an employer that doesn’t prioritize culture, according to a recent Cezanne HR survey.

Some companies have tried to solve the problem by encouraging staff to return to the office, but forcing this on staff and removing the flexibility they are now used to may prove equally unpopular.

Solving this challenge will require new solutions. Some organizations are looking beyond the four walls of the office to reinstate the collaborative energy and team spirit that they have been missing for two years.

back to nature

For software giant Salesforce, part of the answer is its 75-acre Trailblazer Ranch. The new “wellness center” was built in Scotts Valley, California, and includes a fitness center, sleeping cabins, an outdoor amphitheater, and a communal dining area. Employees can participate in nature trails, yoga sessions and cooking classes.

Salesforce president and chief human resources officer Brent Hyder says co-workers have missed being together and bonding during the pandemic. “With employees working in a new flexible environment, our physical spaces now serve a different purpose today than two years ago, so we needed to find a way to allow our employees to meet safely, connect and collaborate, and grow personally and professionally.”

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Although 77% of Salesforce employees said they want to meet face-to-face with their teams again, the company recognizes that many people have benefited from the flexibility of today’s work arrangements. “Parents have seen more of their children, recent graduates have moved to affordable cities, and individuals have spent more time on wellness.”

Trailblazer Ranch was designed as a solution. The goal is for 10,000 global Salesforce employees to visit the ranch and benefit from the facilities this fiscal year. The space has been designed around nature and well-being and the company hopes it will be a place where colleagues can “build trusting relationships, learn from each other, be inspired, grow in their careers and give back to the community.

In the UK, there has been growing interest in nature-based teamwork sessions. Manchester-based Freshwalks, which facilitates walking sessions for corporate clients, saw demand increase by 84% between 2019 and 2021. Its founder Michael Di Paola believes this is partly due to the shift to hybrid working.

“Employers and their teams were looking for a teambuilding format that encourages natural human connection in a safe and healthy way,” he says. “Teams are looking for the opportunity to get away from their desks and get together with colleagues to share new experiences and build their relationships.”

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The commercial real estate company Bruntwood Works benefited from these “netwalking” sessions. Director Rob Valentine says the experience is an ideal way to create a more meaningful relationship with colleagues.

“There is a quality of conversation that you simply cannot achieve with video calls, which has brought immeasurable benefits to the business. Culture is the beating heart of our business, and it is crucial that we find ways to preserve it even when we don’t see each other as often.”

Back in the saddle

Jude Jennison, founder of Leaders by Nature, noticed a similar trend. Her leadership classes were inspired by her experience overcoming a fear of horses. After 17 years at IBM in several leadership positions, Jennison started her own coaching business, which uses horses to teach people how to lead in a clear and engaging way.

“If you exude confidence and are clear about what you’re asking the horse to do, he’ll usually commit,” she says. “But if you don’t build a strong relationship and there’s no trust, the horse will plant its feet and refuse to move. This is the clearest feedback you can get on your leadership skills and in team communication.

Although classes were unable to go ahead during much of the closures, bookings are now busier than ever. “Teams have been working remotely for so long and some have never met,” says Jennison. “Where people don’t have those levels of trust, respect and understanding, there’s no substitute for that face-to-face contact.”

Eman Al-Hillawi, CEO of business management and IT consultancy Entec Si, has continued to take colleagues to see Jennison’s horses throughout the pandemic. “We felt the teams had become more distant and disconnected from each other as a result of us all working remotely,” she says.

Previously, employees could visit customer sites as a team, she says, but the pandemic has made the work quite two-dimensional. “Jennison’s sessions helped the team reconnect and work through issues together.”

Learn to know you

In order to maintain the corporate culture, some companies even take vacations together. Communication consultancy Magenta has a small team of 13 people. In addition to flexible working policies and quarterly outings, the company organizes an annual mini break for the whole company. Holiday destinations have so far included Lisbon, Seville, Lyon and a stay in Dorset.

Managing Director Jo Sutherland says it’s “the perfect way to onboard new people”. She believes that by creating greater closeness and camaraderie, colleagues work harder for each other.

The company has been organizing such an outside trip every year since 2016 except for 2020 due to the pandemic. Vacations have become an especially important part of company culture since the shift to a hybrid work setup.

“You find out things about each other that you wouldn’t necessarily know in an office environment,” Sutherland adds. “I don’t think you always get the same level of understanding from the people you work with at other companies.”

As more businesses seek to recapture the team spirit that was once fostered in the office, a growing number of companies are looking outward to rekindle their corporate culture. For these companies, worker retreats and teamwork excursions have allowed colleagues to reconnect, without losing the freedom and flexibility that hybrid working provides.