On this week’s Culture Collective, we sat down with Vice President of People, Sarah Braver, to discuss workplace culture at Graphika. As a Talent Consultant and People Ops Leader, Sarah partners with organizations in their early stages to go from an “all hands” type of approach to a more strategic and effective structure. Read more, below.
3 words to describe your workplace culture? Explain.
The first word I’ll say is inclusive — and I really, really mean that. Graphika is a really special place because there is absolutely no social marginalization. We work hard to practice radical kindness, and it’s the kind of place where there’s no “cool kids table.” Even our regular “Wine Club” includes folks who don’t drink wine and even some who don’t drink at all.
The second word is rigorous. Graphika’s work has an impact on the lives of everyday people, so it’s very important that we bring an academic level of rigor and review to our work. Whether it’s a brand figuring out how to reach the right audiences or helping major social platforms halt abuse or harmful disinformation, Graphika is right there in the middle of it. When Graphika was invited to contribute to the report for the Senate last year, the stakes were extremely high, so we had to get it right. Our rigorous, scientific approach has established the company’s integrity and trust across government, academia and business.
The third word is authentic. Graphika is a place where everybody can really be themselves. This contributes to our inclusive culture. People bring all sorts of different knowledge to work, and it’s a place where personal expression is part of the everyday culture. We have a lot of in-house expertise on relevant fields and topics, such as Russian propaganda, Astrophysics, and Computational Social Science. What’s even cooler, though, is learning about the wacky range of stuff Graphikans are into outside of work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom to global linguistics to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to dog agility competitions. Graphika team members bring different points of view and we expect everyone to bring their full selves to work everyday.. Because we work in a very scientific and technical field, this means everybody brings their own expertise and geekiness to bring to the table, which we love. It’s just a really great place, because when you meet somebody, they’re going to be their true self to you.
What is your office superpower?
My office superpower is my superpower in life, and it is why I have this career. I very quickly understand people, deeply. So, that means I remember everything I learned about you during your interview process, everything you tell me about things you’re into, and even your pets’ names. I remember those personal details and try to encourage you to be yourself. We spend so much of our time at work, but I don’t want work to be someone’s only life. While I expect that when you’re here, you’re working, I want you to be able to be comfortable to be yourself. I expect that you have an entire other life, and I like to celebrate that other life.
Why is company culture important?
What people experience when they come into your workplace during the interview process is probably 90% of their decision making. I encourage team members to be welcoming, kind, and inclusive to potential new teammates and treat them like they already work here, so that they can feel what the culture is actually like. Don’t treat candidates as a stranger or guest; treat them as a family member.
Culture is also important in problem solving. When a company or team faces tough challenges, culture is the pre-agreement that you’ve made socially to figure out how to solve a problem. When you’re working at breakneck speed to solve real problems with technology, you don’t have time to slow down and make agreements about how to work together. We have to rely on each other and accept input from every direction, which only works when there is a strong foundation of trust and open communication.
Good culture is flexible and changes as the team changes (Bad culture expects people to conform to it, not impact it). Every person brings something new to the table, and we want to make room for them. When selecting new team members, we are looking for what they can add to the culture, not how they can replicate it.
What does your team normally do for lunch?
We don’t have catering, but we are a very lunch-focused group. Our shared love of food is one part of our culture, and part of our inclusive DNA. We do lunches together as much as possible, or, at least, everyone is invited. We have a bunch of tables in the middle of our office for eating and anybody can sit down and join, which is great, because it encourages people not to eat at their desks, creates random social interactions, and we get into some fun and weird conversations. We just started using a fun Slack integration called Lunch Train. So, instead of saying in a random channel, “Hey, I’m going to XYZ. Does anyone want anything or does anyone wanna go?” Lunch Train literally starts the lunch train. It says, “This train is leaving for this place at this time, meet by the front door.” So that’s really fun.
We are lucky to work in midtown, Manhattan, so we have what feels like unlimited options for lunch. Our team has a lot of vegetarians and vegans so we have a lot of folks trying to find new and exciting places that cater to those diets.
What are ways your company brings your team together?
At Graphika, we have three drivers bringing people together. Not only are we proudly very vegetarian-friendly, we’re also proudly major geeks. Every company claims to be a bunch of geeks, but at Graphika, we can tell you what it means to be full of nerds. So, how does this manifest? We love game nights. Strategy — tabletop board games are a favorite. We’re building an inner-office dungeons and dragons practice, which is something I’ve never played but my friends and my husband are really into. We’re starting a new training club that’s learning how to play D&D. A lot of people are interested but don’t know how to play because a lot of people start playing when they’re kids and they don’t really invite new people in.
Actually, even our Slack channel naming is nerdy. For instance, we used to have #g-eats (all general channels start with g). Someone realized it should be called #g-astronomy. Now that I think of it, we also have #g-eekery. There’s also friendly competition between the Dogs and the Cats Slack channels. Some advocate for a “pets” or “cute animals” channel and others have a strong preference for one animal over the other. There’s a lot of speculation about what does and doesn’t go into each channel.
Lastly, our head scientist is based in Boston and whenever he’s in town does a really cool fun interactive lecture about our tech and science, so that everyone can really understand. Those are very well attended! Graphika’s technology is very complex, so having an outlet for all of us to join — even those not on the technology side — is a big community building experience that brings us closer together.
If you could propose an idea to positively impact any company’s culture, what would it be and why?
The best recommendation I have to impact company culture doesn’t sound right away like it’s about company culture. Wherever I go, I make hiring everyone’s job — from CEO to XYZ. This is so important. Hiring should never be one person’s responsibility alone, no matter what role it is or job it is, as many people as possible are participating in the interview process. When you treat candidates like part of the team and everyone participates in the interview process, the candidate has buy-in and you’ve prevented social marginalization. When staff have participated in a candidate’s hiring, they’re invested in this new team member’s success.
We live this practice at Graphika. If a candidate comes in near the end of their interview process, we schedule meetings around lunch. After wrapping one on ones, the candidate’s invited to a big lunch with the whole team. By the time they join, they feel like they already work here and there isn’t a moment of feeling like an outsider. When you’re invested in your teammate’s success, that goes a long way towards a positive company culture.