10 practical tools for building empathy, trust and openness at a workplace

In this article you’ll find ten methods we use and experiment with at Housemarque to foster trust and openness in our work community. These are some of the tools we are exploring at the moment while our company culture is growing and changing.

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This photo was taken from one of Housemarque’s Open Space days.

We believe that bringing our full personality to work and being open and vulnerable towards our colleagues will help us make great video games and allow us to grow as a individuals.

The tools we use and experiment with at Housemarque to build our company culture:

  1. Hold Team Retrospectives to invite change and open communication
  2. Use Dixit cards or similar check-in methods to support openness in meetings
  3. Organize Open Space days for the whole company
  4. Set up Compliment Walls to team rooms
  5. Install a Hobby Calendar to your lobby or kitchen
  6. Exercise and remind the community of the Principle of Charity
  7. Practice giving and receiving feedback
  8. Build a One-on-One Support System to foster trust
  9. Organize coaching and facilitation training and offer reading tips
  10. Write a Company Culture Handbook

Now let’s look at these in more detail:

1. Hold Team Retrospectives to invite change and open communication

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A retrospective in action at Housemarque
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Artist dicipline team’s retrospective schedule

As an organization one of the most important features we have is how we handle change. That is the reason every now and then, all our teams will need to reflect on how they are doing and what they are going to change in the future.

The simplest form of a retrospective only has three questions to answer:

  • What worked well for us?
  • What did not work well for us?
  • What actions can we take to improve our teamwork?

With a team that is small (3–7 people) or very familiar with each other, tackling these three questions is relatively fast and easy, and should be done every month or so.

Read more: Retrospectives / Atlassian

Read more: My Favourite Facilitation Tools — The Essential 6 / Grape People

2. Use Dixit cards or similar check-in methods to support openness in meetings

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Few opened packs of dixit cards are waiting for retrospective participants on meeting room floor.

We’ve facilitated a lot of meetings and retrospectives. In some meetings we use check-in methods and we’ll explore how this is affecting openness in the conversation. To get people to be really present and open in the sessions, we’ve used this check-in method:

  1. As a facilitator, lay 100 Dixit cards of the table or floor before the meeting starts.
  2. In the beginning of the meeting let everyone pick 2–3 cards that look interesting or resonate with them in some way at the moment.
  3. After the cards have been picked, do a round where everyone tells why they picked the cards or what feelings or thoughts the cards cause.
  4. Something magical happens everytime we do this. People will be more open towards others when the actual meeting begins, as we’ve lifted our masks at least partly.
  5. Do a quick check-out round after the meeting to let people share how everyone felt about the session as a whole.

Read more: Why we start every meeting with a check-in / Daresay

3. Organize Open Space days for the whole company

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Tuomas opening our 2018 summer Open Space in Suomenlinna

Every half year or so, everyone at Housemarque is invited to an half-day excursion, where we talk about and decide upon topics that concern all employees at Housemarque.

We’ve tackled topics such as environmental friendliness, diversity in recruitment, coping with stress and even technical discussions about computer-generated trees. All topics come from employees themselves during Open Space.

More information will be provided when the event is coming up, but if there is a challenging topic you’d like to discuss, that is the perfect forum for it.

Read more: How to run an Open Space event / Transition Network

4. Set up Compliment Walls to team rooms

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Eevi showing the complimentary Post-It notes we wrote about our colleagues in an Open Space day

We as human beings have all sorts of worries daily at work:

  • Does this person trust my skills?
  • Why are they saying this to me?
  • Do my colleagues even like me?

This is why it’s so important to get positive feedback at work. It feels really special when someone compliments you with a written note. Even short one sentence messages on post-its can make a huge difference. They can shift the presumption “No one likes me.” to “This person thinks I’m great!”.

Read more: How To Give Concise Positive Feedback / Forbes

Read more: Give Your Team More-Effective Positive Feedback / HBR

5. Install a Hobby Calendar to your lobby or kitchen

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Afternoon footbag session

Important part of building trust is to be able to feel relaxed and comfortable with your co-workers. This can be accomplished by having all kinds of laid-back activities together: breakfasts, footbag sessions, playing Towerfall Ascension, walking around a few blocks near the office, drawing together, talking about Star Trek, anything that is not directly work-related.

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Make the Hobby Calendar visible in the office

We want to encourage all employees to start new activities involving their co-workers. Or you can take part in existing activities such as board game sessions, sci-fi movie nights, geeky store tours and horror game club gatherings.

Starting a new club is easy, just gather the interested people together, add a post-it to our hobby calendar in the kitchen and organize an event. You don’t need to ask anyone’s permission for this, only thing you need is traction from like-minded co-workers.

You may ask for financial support from the company, if needed. We’ve set up a Fun Fund system, in which every employee has an equal annual budget to use for organizing fun things with their colleagues. You can even use the office after hours, provided you leave it in the same state it was in.

Read more: Why You Should Invest in Real Friendships at Work / IDEO

6. Exercise and remind the community of the Principle of Charity

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I like to have our Prime Directive visible in most meetings

When we work together as a team, we must build trust and fellowship to be able to be efficient. Thus when we give feedback to each other, we strive to work from the principle of charity​.

This is the belief that no matter what has happened, we interpret the results in the most rational way possible and considering the best, strongest possible interpretation.

The principle of charity is also the source of the ​prime directive​ that we use whenever we look back at the work that has been done.

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Working from this principle allows us to fix mistakes that have been done in the past without assigning blame to others.

Read more: The principle of charity / Future Learn

7. Practice giving and receiving feedback

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We sometimes watch GDC talks and other similar educational videos in our Wednesday Lunch Club

I know we all know this, but this is something I have to remind myself all the time: if I feel agitated or defensive about some feedback, wait a bit before replying to the feedback, and respond in empathetic manner and with questions to clearify the feedback if needed. Especially if discussing in Slack.

And of course it’s equally important to strive to give feedback that’s considerate, actionable and contains the reasoning behind the suggested solution.

Here are some examples of imaginary feedback and what could be my initial reactions:

”UI is awful”

Me: I see you’re frustrated, but can’t decipher what to change. Also, I feel like crap and I need to have a beer at the pub NOW.

”Change HUD panel color to green”

Me: Very actionable, but why? What bigger problem would this solve? Also, I feel I don’t have much creative freedom here and I’m brainlessly following orders like a robot. I might visit the pub after work.

”I really like the functionality, but I feel the UI doesn’t seem like it’s visually tied to the game world and narrative, maybe try adding some animations?”

Me: Hmm, you might be right here, I’ll see what I can do. Also, could you give some examples of UI’s in games that did this well? Also, you’re awesome and I would like to buy you real ale in the pub.

I think the same rules apply when giving others tasks face-to-face and in Slack and project planning tools. Try to define the problem instead of giving a task to execute a solution that is already specified to minute details. This shows you trust your co-worker’s skills, creativity and judgment and gives them creative freedom to possibly find an even better solution to the original problem.

Watch and share to your team this 2016 GDC video by Secret Portal’s Jeff Hesser about giving and receiving feedback: Maximizing Artistic Critique — Improving Communication for Everyone Involved in Critical Feedback

Read more: How to give feedback the right way / Impraise

Read more: How to Give and Receive Feedback at Work: The Psychology of Criticism / Buffer

8. Build a One-on-One Support System to foster trust

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Yours truly in the forefront and sitting right next to me is Tuomas — the co-writer of this article — who also is one of the persons who does my one-on-one chats at Housemarque

Dedicating time to listen to your co-workers as a lead is of paramount importance in nurturing trust in an organization. We’ve built a system where every employee at Housemarque — including our CEO and HR Manager — has one to three persons they can meet in a private discussion session regularly.

See to it that you can talk in privacy, reserve enough time, make the situations comfortable, manage expectations and listen empathetically. If you honestly care for your peers, they will feel this and return the favor. Remember to ask for feedback about your own work.

Read more: How to make 1:1 meetings time well spent / Small Improvements

9. Organize coaching and facilitation training and offer reading tips

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A bookshelf from Housemarque’s health partner Heltti’s office

Great leadership doesn’t happen by accident. If you need training for your employees, leads, producers, facilitators and coaches, we’ve had good experiences with these companies in Finland:

NeuroLeadership Group (Brain Based Coaching)

a road-tested, practical coaching methodology: how to facilitate insight, set inspiring goals, review actions focusing on learning and development, strengthen new habits

strengthening internal motivation

supporting learning and development through quality everyday conversations

Read more: https://neuroleadership.fi/en/

Grape People (Facilitation)

With facilitation you can ensure an organised meeting and get to what matters — results. We don’t facilitate for fun — the goals of our clients are always at the forefront of our minds. Having a third party moderate the discussion ensures that everyone can participate, including supervisors. Facilitation also helps you ensure that every voice gets heard — not just the bold ones who have no trouble getting their point across in the workplace anyway.

Read more: https://grapepeople.fi/en/

Our favorite books:

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux, Ken Wilber

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Stanley McChrystal

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by L. David Marquet

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock

Dear to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

10. Write a Company Culture Handbook

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Illustrations for a future version of Housemarque Mindset Manual by Emilia Hekkala

Our two goals as a company are:

  • Be a great workplace, where people can develop professionally and as a person
  • Develop great games that bring joy & happiness to gamers and our fans

To help us reach these goals, we co-wrote a document called Housemarque Mindset Manual. Creating a solid artifact that embodies your company values and methods will help bring everyone on the same page. But remember to involve the whole community to give feedback for the handbook. This needs to be built from the ground up, not dictated from an executive committee.

Here are three citations from Housemarque Mindset Manual:

1. Be who you are

In Housemarque we cherish our different personalities and our quirky hobbies. Be it Cthulhu board games, road cycling, role-playing, or cosplay everyone here can and should feel comfortable sharing what they really enjoy in life. We’ve seen that dismantling our facades and sharing personal experiences — like defeating impostor syndrome — help us work better together. It’s easier to be candid with people you trust.

2. Become who you want to be

We believe in personal development — the development of our professional and social skills and maintaining our physical and mental health. Want to learn something completely outside your job description? Great! You never know what might become handy. How we put this into practice is discussed later.

3. Diversity, inclusion and non-harassment

We believe that a diverse team is able to create the strongest ideas. We participate actively in different Women In Games organizations and we are supporters of events like the Helsinki Pride Week. We also support our diversity with both internal and external actions like organizing bias training and using more accessible language in our communications.

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We gathered ideas from our colleagues on building our company culture in an Open Space day

We hope these ten tools help transform your organizations at least a little bit!

Johannes Koski — UX Director and Coach at Housemarque

Tuomas Hakkarainen — Coach at Housemarque

List of references linked in the article:

Retrospectives (Atlassian)

My Favourite Facilitation Tools — The Essential 6 (Grape People)

Why we start every meeting with a check-in (Daresay)

How to run an Open Space event (Transition Network)

How To Give Concise Positive Feedback (Forbes)

Give Your Team More — Effective Positive Feedback (HBR)

Why You Should Invest in Real Friendships at Work (IDEO)

The principle of charity (Future Learn)

Maximizing Artistic Critique: Improving Communication for Everyone Involved in Critical Feedback (Jeff Hesser, GDC video)

How to give feedback the right way (Impraise)

How to Give and Receive Feedback at Work: The Psychology of Criticism (Buffer)

How to make 1:1 meetings time well spent (Small Improvements)

Written by

Dad. Geek. UX Director. Democracy activist. Founder of Silakkaliike and Safepoint community. Building a collective of researchers, scientists and activists.

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