How an Employee Task Force Is Helping Culture Trip Figure Out Its Future Work Strategy

Helena Sampayo
Helena Sampayo|

So, the Government has delayed “Freedom Day” by four weeks. But the pressure for companies to establish a back-to-work strategy still exists—especially when considering the vaccine rollout success. 

And for many companies, figuring out their future workplace strategy is daunting. There’s just so much to consider; employee preferences, locations and how they’ll attract potential talent, to name a few. 

But for international businesses, there are even more dimensions to consider. They must acknowledge other cultural working practices in the decision-making process and navigate how teams will come together in a way that’s accessible and inclusive for all.

With that in mind, we were incredibly excited to chat with Natalina Manni, Director of Business Operations at Culture Trip—the essential travel companion that allows you to discover and book spot-on stays curated by travel experts and local insiders. An ambitious company of 300+ people, Culture Trip has teams spanned across three international cities—London, New York, and Tel Aviv. 

So, how has this impacted their current working practices, and what will Culture Trip need to consider moving forward? Just ask their employee task force. Natalina gave us some fascinating insights into how they’re approaching their future workplace strategy by sticking close to their roots of celebrating travel and culture.

Hey Natalina! Thanks so much for chatting with us. First up, it would be great if you could give us a quick introduction on yourself, your role and what Culture Trip is all about. 

Natalina: Absolutely! I’m the Director of Operations at Culture Trip. At its core, Culture Trip is a travel content blog with a focus on e-commerce. Since starting in 2011, we’ve always concentrated on off-the-beaten-path travels and how users can have a cultural travel experience—it’s right in the title!

We create inspiring content to drive a high number of unique visitors to our site. From there, we help them book the trips that really inspire them, from securing the best off-the-beaten-path hotels to scheduling tours. As travel companions, we also want to push inspiration while you’re on the trip, so we have an app where users can login and create wish lists and things like that. 

My role is pretty varied and includes overseeing operations for the business, programme management and company strategy. Like most startups, you wear many hats! 

Definitely; that’s part of the fun, right? And how many of you are at Culture Trip at the moment? 

Natalina: At Culture Trip, we’ve got around 300 people internally, and we’re spread across three offices. Our main office is located in London, and this is where we house our marketing teams, product and tech, normal comms and brand team, our travel team and customer service. Our data science, recruitment, business intelligence and content are also all set within London.

And since American’s are our biggest audience, we also have content and commercial teams working in New York as well. And finally, in Tel Aviv, we have our team of engineers and product managers. So we’re all set across three very distinctive locations!

In a pre-pandemic world, what was Culture Trip’s relationship with the office? What were your working practices like? 

Natalina: Pre-Covid, we were largely office-based, but we still valued flexible working. While we had core hours and encouraged teams to be in the office regularly, there wasn’t a cap on how many days you could be out of the office in any given week. So, in theory, you could’ve been working remotely every day if you wanted to, and if it worked well with your team—but we definitely encouraged teams to be in the office. 

As an international team, we were already used to working with people spread across different time zones. Our meeting periods were hectic; they would occur in a tiny window, and our meeting rooms were always booked out. Outside of that, our time was way less structured. We had lots of breakout space, and you could have core team meetings wherever you wanted or discussions at your desk, which were way more helpful. 

Since we’re a team of creatives and tech people, we needed to exercise these working practices to function. We acknowledge that introverts and extroverts don’t always work in the same manner—so our working practices were always pretty fluid. 

So, how has Culture Trip been operating throughout the pandemic? Did you all start working remotely?

Natalina: So we actually left the office early, about three weeks before lockdown. About a month before that, we ran a trial day where everyone worked from home. We heard some news about what was happening, so we were keen to see whether we could do it and how people would react to it. We then returned to the office for two weeks and then went into full remote working before the UK announced the first national lockdown. 

Since then, we’ve been working remotely. Our London office has been opening during the periods where restrictions allowed, and people did return—but of course, it was incredibly different to how it was before. Only a few people were allowed in, and we were all very distant from each other. We found that returning to the office wasn’t conducive to improving our ways of working, so it hasn’t been widely accepted. 

But then we have our Tel Aviv teams, and their way of working is entirely different. They’re all back in the office; they don’t have to wear masks, and it’s really important to them to be back there. The culture is very different; they’re much more like a family in the office. I think they definitely wanted to return, as remote working did influence their emotional state. They can still work remotely if they choose to, but they’re all fully back in the office nowadays. It’s so important to culturally acknowledge that people work in different ways. 

Definitely, and in terms of your London teams, what does Culture Trip’s long-term strategy look like? 

Natalina: So, we have no immediate plans to return to the office, but we’re looking at the end of July for our official return to the office. This will most likely be on a rota-basis. We also finished our engagement survey, and our findings were that most people would like to return to the office for a maximum of three days. This sentiment was echoed unanimously across the company. 

So, we will need to develop a strategic plan for working or hybrid working moving forward. The strategy will probably edge more towards remote working, as opposed to office-first. We have an entire task force dedicated to planning out our ways of working as we advance. So it’s something we take very seriously.

You mentioned Culture Trip rolled out an engagement survey. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 

Natalina: Sure! We actually sent out a couple of surveys. The first was to see how people reacted and adapted to home working during the first national lockdown. We were keen to discover what support they needed or whether they still wanted access to the activities we used to have in the office, such as weekly yoga classes. 

Finding out whether they wanted to pivot towards different hours was a significant consideration. We have many people at the age where they have children—and as you know, schools and nurseries fluctuate between being open and closed. So, that was all in the first survey that we sent out in April 2020. 

We conducted our second survey in February, and we wanted to see how people were feeling one year on after the pandemic. Of course, the findings would then influence how we return to work based on how happy or unhappy they were with remote working—and the results were overwhelmingly happy. 

And in our most recent engagement survey, we found that 94% of employees said they’d like to continue with some form of flexible working in the future. A further 91% said they already feel supported if they choose to utilise flexible working arrangements—and this is why we’ve launched our “Feel Good Flex Policy”.

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Can you tell us a little bit more about “Feel Good Flex”? Are you aware of any processes the task force implemented to help launch the policy?

Natalina: So, the Feel Good Flex Policy allows our employees total flexibility around when and where they work—whether it be the office during the evening, at home during the day or a cafe on the weekend. 

Although I’m not involved with the task force and don’t know their processes specifically, I know that it includes people from each of our areas. So that’s people from our finance and recruitment teams, one person from product, tech and content—as well as someone from our travel team. 

During the past year, we also did a lot of KPIs to see if productivity has dropped. While we found that it hadn’t, the KPIs revealed that we needed better practices to help people switch off. Our past surveys found that people are working longer hours in some areas, which undoubtedly informed the decision to launch our Feel Good Flex policy.

You mentioned earlier that your office’s interior had breakout space and plenty of meeting rooms. Once you return, how will you repurpose these spaces with social distancing in place? 

Natalina: That’s a great question. As of now, we’re not sure what’s going to happen with our office space. We’ve renewed our contract till the end of this year, and then we’ll decide whether it’s still fit-for-purpose for Culture Trip. 

For obvious reasons, we couldn’t use any of the breakout spaces or meeting rooms in the last year—and this made having those organic conversations incredibly difficult. We have many meetings at Culture Trip, so we’ll have to cut these down drastically to create time for the most important meetings. 

The question around breakout space is fascinating. We have many creative people at Culture Trip who spend a lot of time in those spaces—whether that’s the design teams or product teams during their scrums and retros. We need those spaces to be collaborative, but right now, we’re actually finding that online serves that purpose a lot better. I think there’s a definite consideration of how we set up our future office and whether we substitute those areas for something that suits us better. 

How has Culture Trip managed to keep the cultural and social aspect alive? 

Natalina: That’s a super important question—and I feel this is something we missed during the first lockdown. At Culture Trip, we’re pretty social. So, each team has quarterly socials, and we also put on a summer/winter party which is a lot of fun. On Friday’s, we would stop at four o’clock and come together bringing food and drinks that celebrate different cultures. So, the social aspect of our lives at Culture Trip was big.

Of course, this pretty much all stopped once the pandemic hit—except for our weekly yoga. But over this past year, we’ve improved at keeping the social aspect alive. We’ve put a team together to help arrange events that take place two or three times a month. I did a pottery course last night, and that was really cool. You get to talk and meet people you wouldn’t necessarily speak to, as well as the people who have onboarded throughout the pandemic. 

We also have a monthly social where extended teams come together—including all the interns and executives. You have to bring a drink, and you chat for an hour and a half, but there’s one rule: you cannot talk about work. It’s great because it gives us the chance to get to know one another. Sometimes, you forget that some of us haven’t met in person, so these socials are a fantastic opportunity to do that.  

We also have a quarterly budget from our social team to be able to do social activities together. And so last quarter, our team did a murder mystery and then this quarter, we’re going to do an in-person event and drinks. Culture Trip really does encourage that social side of things.

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And finally, is there anything exciting on the cards for Culture Trip this year?

Natalina: Culture Trip is always growing, and travel will be exciting in the next year. We all love to travel, so we’re going to be launching trips and tours this June, which means you can book both bespoke tours and pre-populated tours.

We’re also going to be curating more package-based travel as well. So that’s places you can stay, as well as experiences, and allowing users to book those together. We’ll be looking at sustainable and more water-based travel, and shorter stays. 

There are always things to do in the world of travel and loads of opportunities up for grabs. I think it’ll be a big year for growth for Culture Trip—so watch this space! 

Amazing. Thanks, Natalina—best of luck!

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