Music has proven to be a powerful way to strengthen our company culture and deepen our connection as a team. The switch to remote and hybrid work took its toll on company culture. Like everyone else in 2020, we became a Zoom-centric company, something that continues to this day. This shift necessitated that we figure out how to collaborate remotely and maintain our collective connection.
As CEO of MATRIXX Software, it was particularly daunting. I had just assumed the position in January 2020, only a month and a half before COVID closed everything down. Previously, I served on the board, but I was not a day-to-day employee. Not everyone knew me and vice versa. In any company where I’ve worked, however, culture has been one of my top priorities. I knew that making sure MATRIXX was a place where people want to work would prove crucial to our success.
Given the circumstances of the pandemic, I barely had a chance to meet my team before lockdowns were put in place. Making personal connections virtually isn’t easy. Like all people, I am used to relying on informal chats and small talk between meetings. In our new world of back-to-back virtual calls, casual catch-ups were lost. What’s more, productivity was called into question — how easy would it be to meet goals in an isolated environment?
Like most companies, Zoom calls were critical in keeping us all connected. We needed, however, to find a way to cut through the monotony of another virtual meeting if we were going to maintain a level of cohesiveness across our teams. That is when inspiration struck: music. Music is often the great equalizer. It motivates, uplifts, energizes, and entertains. We started a tradition of inviting two employees from different parts of the company to be guest DJs and play a song before and after company-wide meetings.
We quickly discovered that this activity created a unique bond between our guest DJs, who often did not previously know each other. It was also a nice way to get people invested in a meeting and fired up while waiting for a call to start. Besides being a fun activity that wouldn’t take up much time, it invigorated people and helped us get to know a little something out of the ordinary about each other.
Music can inspire and bring people together in unique ways. It carries its own culture and can play a fun role in building and supporting company culture as well.
Over the last year, we’ve created a company playlist that ranges from covers of the Foo Fighters to an original remix. Ultimately, every track has ended up reflecting employee sentiment. In many ways, these songs tell the story of the past two years of living through the ups and downs of COVID and many other external issues we’re all facing in this world.
Besides just picking a song, my favorite part of our DJ project is that I get to chat with the guest DJ about why they’ve selected the pieces and what they mean for them. Many of the songs are inspirational. Among the first choices were REO Speedwagon’s Roll With the Changes and Faith by Dolly Parton. Other songs show conviction in times of challenge.
Early in 2021, when everyone was back from the holidays, someone chose Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles and closed with Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra. Just this past month, to celebrate International Women’s Day, we featured an eclectic playlist of female artists that included Alicia Keys with Girl on Fire, Sia with Unstoppable and Aretha Franklin with Respect, to name a few.
You learn things about people through music. The guest DJ project elevated the visibility of employees who might otherwise not have had the chance. People’s musical choices also highlighted their personalities in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t know.
That’s been especially important in the last 24 months because so many people at the company today have not met anyone in person or haven’t seen each other in a long time. We’re international, so it has also been fun to see some of our Australian teammates, for example, take pride in sharing famous Aussie bands with the company.
Music can also relay messages about togetherness and working through differences. Someone recently chose Call Me by Blondie, citing the song’s unique backstory. Blondie’s lead singer Debbie Harry, a punk rocker, wrote the lyrics while Giorgio Moroder, the Italian “Father of Disco,” composed and produced the song. Despite their vastly different styles, their collaboration generated a hit song that encapsulated sound, time, and place. Chatting with our guest DJs, dressed in their baseball caps, sunglasses, and bling, I had the same feeling about our team — that with the right alliances, teams, and people, anything is possible.
As part of our ongoing attention to company culture, we run surveys to make sure we keep a finger on the pulse, check how people are feeling, and get ideas about what we need to work on. Despite our initial concerns about culture and productivity, we ended up having one of our best sales years ever in 2020 and the trend has continued.
We hired fantastic people in this new remote world and got to know them virtually. I’ve never met many of the people who joined over the last two years in person, yet our focus on culture has paid off. Roughly half of our new hires have come from employee referrals. If you have happy employees who love what they’re doing and whose skills fit the role, the rest will follow.
One thing that’s clear: we plan on keeping the guest DJs going, even as people start to return to the office and meet in person. Music has proven to be a powerful way to strengthen our company culture and deepen our connection as a team.
NOTE: This post was adapted from an article that appeared in Fast Company, 25 April 2022.