10 Ways to Foster Culture in a Multi-City Organization

Anyone who has tried it knows that opening a new office in another city is hard — and in another country is even harder. 6S Marketing has done both in the last 3 years. Our Toronto office is humming and firing on all cylinders with a dedicated team of business development, account management, and digital marketing strategists that lead the charge on some of our largest accounts. Our New York office has doubled in size this past year, landing more new business than ever before.

6S Marketing Toronto

This success has come with its fair share of learnings and challenges. Our agency has failed three times when opening new offices and had to go back to the drawing board to start over. So what does it take to expand into different markets and open new offices, while maintaining a cohesive culture? We’ve finally hit the sweet spot where our Vancouver, Toronto, and New York offices work in tandem as a larger international team to resource, problem solve, and share knowledge.

Here’s a list of our top 10 insights on what it takes to successfully open an office in a new location.

1. It all starts with strong leadership.

It sounds cliché, but a tenured senior leader or one of the co-founders is required to build a strong foundation from day one. Starting a new location isn’t easy. It calls for someone who is deeply loyal and invested in the business. Someone that can see the big picture, and not get bogged down with day to day challenges. Someone who understands the business processes, which clients would be a good match, and who can act as a brand evangelist. At 6S, co-founder Chris Breikss relocated to New York City for two years to open our SoHo office. He knew we had some of the brightest digital talent in North America, and he needed to penetrate the New York market with that message. Chris also focused on bringing in new business with key accounts, building relationships with other agencies and partners, and ensuring that we had a strong employer brand that would allow us to attract and retain top talent. With this foundation, when Chris chose to relocate back to Vancouver, it was much easier for key employees to pick up where he left off and continue to build 6S Marketing in New York.

Chris Breikss in SoHo

2. Pick the location based on how attractive it is for employees to relocate.

The New York office, located in SoHo, is now led by two top performers from Vancouver and we have hired other local talent to grow and support that office. New York is very obviously an attractive destination for an employee who is looking to grow and develop their career. Living in New York was always a dream for Chris and his wife, and this expansion allowed them to fulfill that dream. A similar strategy was employed in Toronto, where we relocated leadership from Vancouver to help lay the foundation.

3. Cohabitate.

In the beginning, in both Toronto and New York, 6S chose to cohabitate with a complementary agency. This allowed us to keep infrastructure costs down, create a more upbeat and social office vibe for our first employees, and helped position us as an established agency in two of the most competitive business cultures in North America. This worked very well for us, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone who is starting an office in a new location. Some helpful tips:

  • Start with your network when looking for an organization to share office space with. The physical environment and the people in it are going to greatly impact the culture. Choose a like-minded organization with similar values. We’ve shared office space with our friends at Manifest Communications and Engine Digital.
  • Be near your competition. 6S Toronto’s first location was in a neighborhood that is referred to as “Tech Alley”. There are numerous agencies located between King and Queen between Bathurst and Spadina. It’s a central location that marketing folks, and their clients, are used to traveling to. It also ensured for a seamless transition when we were ready to invest in our own private office space, as we wanted to stay in the same area.
  • Rent a little more space than you think you will need. This will ensure that you have room to expand and grow and that there is room for employee inter-office travel.

4. Use technology to enable communication across offices.

Breaking down barriers to communication across offices is essential to employee retention, team collaboration, and culture. Feeling isolated and disconnected is very common feedback for remote offices, and investment and effort are necessary to ensure that employees don’t feel like they are on the other side of the country (even though they are). At 6S, we have recently invested in Slack, an instant messaging and collaboration tool. All team meetings are conducted through Google Hangout, so we get to see one another’s faces. We’ve also purchased video conferencing hardware for all our boardrooms. We’ve found that the investment we’ve made in these tools is tenfold. We have more engaged employees and better employee retention; people are happier and spend more time on productive tasks for our clients.

6S Marketing Vancouver

5. Connect all locations to the mission, values, and business goals.

Top talent, especially millennials, need purpose, not just a paycheck. It’s critically important that your employees feel connected to the vision, mission, and values of your organization. This is challenging for an established office, and even more challenging for new locations. Communication, culture, and connection is a huge part of our HR strategy. Every office has a weekly stand up meeting where we share a piece of good news (both personal and professional), what we are working on, and roadblocks, if any. We share committee updates, team events, and business KPIs. Semi-annually, the 6S leadership team hosts town hall meetings across all offices to holistically review business goals and progress. These presentations are structured around each of the 6S values. When we first started doing the town halls, the positive feedback that we received was overwhelming. Weekly updates are critical, but it’s also vital to take a step back and reflect on entire quarters and connect employees to the long-term vision — so they can help execute it.

6S Marketing New York

6. Our company values are tattooed on the walls.

Core values are the guiding principles that act as a compass within an organization. They help us all to understand the cultural norms, including what behaviors are going to make us successful as an individual and as part of a team. They help us make decisions, and they are woven into the ways that we celebrate and fail. Ideally, employees talk about them and hold one another accountable to them. Shared values are really important to company culture. Keep them front and center in all your offices.

7. Weekly one-on-ones with the co-founders.

We’ve all heard the story of the CEO who writes a personalized birthday card for everyone in the organization and the impact that had on engagement. As a CEO, one of the greatest gifts that you can offer is your time and attention because the message that sends to individuals is “you matter”. For new locations, leadership has to make deliberate efforts to schedule this time as there aren’t lunchroom conversations or casual opportunities. At 6S, co-founders carve out 30 minutes each week to connect with senior employees in the new locations to provide a business update and general check-in. Senior employees ensure that any business updates are communicated to all employees and that everyone feels “in the know” and valued.

8. Encourage your employees to travel to the other offices.

As far as technology has come, nothing replaces real human interaction when it comes to building relationships. There are countless studies regarding the ROI of having friendships and connection in the workplace, such as this one from Forbes. We often refer our colleagues at 6S as our work family. “Family is everything” is actually one of the 6S values that refers to the importance of relationships in and outside of work. We wanted to walk the talk when it came to building real relationships across our offices and put in place an inter-office travel subsidy of up to $600 per year per employee to build camaraderie and friendships across our offices. This amount can be allocated to flights or hotels, and employees are required to work a minimum of 3 days from the office during their trip to be eligible for the travel subsidy. To take advantage of this perk, employees submit a request through our HRIS, BambooHR, for inter-office travel. Once approved, an email goes to our accounting team so that they can budget/track the cost, and it also automatically gets added to our internal calendar so that there is visibility into which office employees are working from. We’ve also found this perk to be very effective in attracting talent!

9. Build a strong employer brand and forecast resourcing.

Your biggest asset as an organization are the people on your team. Make the investment to hire the best people you can. 6S has a strong employer brand in Vancouver, but in a new market, you have to get the word out about who you are and why people want to work there. In 2017, we’ve invested over $20,000 in our employer brand by utilizing tools such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor enhanced profiles, sponsored job postings through Indeed, social media, and employee referral programs. Employees are the voice of our employer brand and the marketing team funnels the content to the right channels.

6S Marketing also partners with various schools across Toronto and New York to bring on co-op students and new grads. We forecast growth by service (e.g. Google AdWords, Analytics, or Social Media). For example, if we have 400 hours of PPC work that might be closing in the next two months, we can let HR know that it’s time to start looking for a PPC strategist. This allows the talent team to be more proactive with hiring and results in a stronger workforce.

10. Placing a strong emphasis on hiring for fit, as well as technical skills.

We all know the importance of hiring individuals with shared values. We’ve found this to ring especially true for new offices as often employees are relocating to different locations and have to rebuild their lives. Hiring for the right fit allows us to build teams that are not just coworkers, but social support systems for one another. We ensure that candidates meet with the teams that they will be working with, and allow those teams to play a role in the hiring decisions.

To sum it up in one sentence, our biggest learning from opening a new office in a new city while preserving company culture is to have a strong HR strategy in place while doing it. We didn’t let failure break our spirit — instead, we chose to learn not lose from the experience. Persistence paid off, and we’re fortunate to have three high performing offices under the 6S Marketing umbrella.

Hopefully, this article was able to provide some insight into our experience and can benefit others who are expanding.

Feature photo by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

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