Coffee Talk: Building Company Culture Across Dispersed Teams

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Here in sunny Singapore, we’ve been experiencing a fast-growing café scene over the past several years. With new cafes popping out relentlessly every other week, coffee lovers are pretty much spoilt for choice, and even the tea-drinkers like me.

In a sea of cafés across this tiny island-state, it’s indeed tough to stand out in the crowd. You can’t just compete on good coffee and food, because bar none that’s minimal requirement these days. Customers desire more: discerning café enthusiasts have come to expect an experience; quirky distinctions that affirm that they’re not just at a regular café, but they’re at the café.

So I think the company’s culture plays a huge part in getting people to sip coffee at their cafe over all the others – time and time again. (More so than funny ads, an aggressive use of Instagram and Twitter, or new products and promotions.)

Getting regular customers is about getting people connected to your brand, and building your culture is the long-term solution to creating this brand that you believe people will want to connect to. As Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh says –  your brand is your culture. And their brand happens not to be about shoes or online retailing, but about providing the very best customer experience. So everyone in their company (not just the front-line employees) are developed as ambassadors for the best customer service.

But Zappos isn’t quite the same as a Café

Notably, Zappos has a more corporate type set-up than a café chain.

In corporate environments with people working in offices across different locations, and tons of documents and information passing through on a daily basis, there is often much emphasis placed on connecting these remote employees with tools that make them feel connected to each other, and part of one organization.

At F&B chains, it’s a different story. As a coffee chain expands, individual outlets start operating independently; people focus only on what’s happening at their branch, separating themselves from the chain and in turn the culture of the company. Because culture thrives when people in the company are connected to each other, and see themselves as one team achieving the purpose of the company together.

Just bringing people from different outlets together can already be a struggle, so that’s why it’s tough to ensure everyone is aligned to the culture. For instance to get people together for a team-building event or face-to-face meetups, it means the outlets have to close, or people have to take personal time out (which can be gruelling for employees given the long F&B hours). So this kind of bonding won’t really occur on a regular basis.  And usually only representatives from each branch gets sent down to HQ, so only these representatives get to connect with people from the other branches.

Does Technology have the Answer?

I believe technology forms part of the answer in connecting people from dispersed locations together, and committed to the culture.



For instance, regular face-to-face meetups could be substituted (not perfectly of course) with video conferencing. So remote employees get to at least see and talk with people outside their branches without having to leave their own branches.

There’s also mobile technology, tools and apps to better engage employees who go everywhere with their mobile devices. Helping to build a sense of community where people can share updates, experiences and other information among colleagues.

And of course software and online platforms, that make it easier for people to find each other, stay in close communication, share ideas, learn from each other and collaborate.

Undoubtedly, technology serves as a good facilitator and enabler.

However, without an inherent environment that encourages people to participate, voice their opinions, share their experiences and unapologetically be themselves around each other – people aren’t going to start using the tools just because they exist.

In other words, if leaders in the company aren’t willing to listen to what their people have to say or don’t expect them to contribute their ideas, and communication is pretty much just a one-way street. Then in the long-run that’s a culture that isn’t going to unite people around a common purpose, or one that will create a brand that customers want to connect to either.

I think it takes good culture to build culture. Get the culture right first, get the tools to bring people together, and then you can start building a culture that your people want to be part of – even if they have to swim across oceans to get there.

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