Studio Culture and the Spirit of Vulnerability

In the wake of the pandemic, businesses have shifted towards as much remote work as possible. This has meant making a lot of changes quickly and not all adjustments have been fully successful. thoughtbot has also been going through trial and error with its processes. But with the dire need for good communication, trust, and vulnerability, it is now more than ever that I am reminded just how precious thoughtbot’s studio culture is.

The pleasure of going to work is a luxury that to some extent I took for granted prior to COVID-19 rocking our foundations. It is a near given between the folks at the Boston studio that people love and prefer working from our Winter Street office. There’s something unique about thoughtbot’s work culture. And informally, we agree that one of the best parts about working at thoughtbot is quite simply working with thoughtbotters. The studio itself, with the efforts of many great people, is kept clean and orderly with abundant snacks, coffee, and tea to help brains keep their focus.

I came into thoughtbot as an apprentice designer mid-January and can attest that the sense of community was apparent from a first glance. Even through my time interviewing, I was impressed by the bond between thoughtbotters. Having that privilege has not only cultivated my love for the company and its people but also has set the bar high for my studio culture expectations.

A few questions arose to me:

  • What makes thoughtbot’s culture so special and why do I enjoy arriving at work each day?
  • How is my work impacted by this culture?
  • How do you sustain this culture with ever-changing employees?

What makes a good studio culture?

My following point is highly influenced by the work of Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly (if you’re unfamiliar I recommend giving it a read and/or checking out her TED talk). Her research focuses on shame and vulnerability. Particularly, she highlights the power of vulnerability and why it is so deeply important for cultivating a fulfilling, productive, and rewarding life experience. In contrast, shame is a universal and powerful emotion that, if left unchecked, can have a multitude of negative consequences including but not limited to: depression, addictions, social withdrawal, bullying, sexual assault, etc. To combat the effects of shame, Brene Brown proposes the concept of shame resilience. Shame resilience is the effort made to identify shame and its consequences, thereby overcoming it in the process. Brown outlines the steps as such:

  1. Recognize and accept personal vulnerability
  2. Raise awareness regarding social/cultural expectations
  3. Form mutually empathetic relationships that facilitate reaching out to others
  4. Discuss and deconstruct shame

thoughtbot has actively worked towards empowering vulnerability and allowing employees to be their unabashed selves. We are encouraged to make mistakes, ask for help, ping a studio-wide Slack channel, Google search problems, say “I don’t know,” all the while not feeling like we have failed the company or our peers. We are empowered to be real humans with real human problems, bond with coworkers beyond coexisting, and breed empathy within our relationships.

How is my work impacted by this culture?

Good studio culture is understandably correlated with productivity, work fulfillment, and mental health. I relay this knowledge firstly as a newcomer to the company. The ability to have my opinions heard, reach out for help, and make mistakes has greatly helped me grow in confidence as a designer and as a contributor to the online space. This confidence empowers me to complete my work and challenge the unknown that I haven’t mastered yet.

The aforementioned shame resilience translates into thoughtbot’s work-life by integrating the conversations about problems into the daily routine instead of pushing it off into a silo and ostracizing those that have issues. This means being able to talk through problems and blockers that arise quickly and without judgment—with both coworkers and clients— which then means that we’re able to create better and more effective solutions in our work.

In tandem to the great efforts directed towards shame resilience, knowledge at thoughtbot is abundant and more importantly, shared. thoughtbotters are talented and I say this less boastfully and more of genuine admiration of the work I see around myself. There is a consistent willingness to help; on multiple occasions, I have had individuals go out of their way to assist my troubles without me asking.

How do you sustain this culture with ever-changing employees?

Over the life span of any company, culture can change with the ebb and flow of employees. How do you maintain a steady culture of empathy and shame resilience? Shame is unfortunately universal and is experienced by everyone, manifesting in different ways depending on the type of expectations that are built around the individual. But the common experience of shame is also an opportunity to facilitate empathy` and build lasting relationships in your working culture. The steps towards indoctrination are largely based on the acts of coworkers.

As mentioned previously, the helping hands and constant reminders that it’s okay to ask for help or question the system goes a long way in terms of building that cultural understanding. thoughtbot is in a unique position in that individuals may have the opportunity to go through an apprenticeship program in which they can experience, learn, and integrate into the culture of vulnerability. Those that are within the apprenticeship are tasked with the purpose of learning, growing, and tuning themselves to the rhythm of thoughtbot. Being within the position with expectations that you are to ask questions and thereby learning that asking questions extends beyond the apprenticeship begins the process of solidifying the habit that vulnerability is welcomed. A lot goes into building a strong and empathetic apprenticeship program.

Beyond the apprenticeship program, thoughtbot weaves in vulnerability through small ways. Things like being more empathetic in code reviews, engaging in pair programming, and emphasizing that developers learn by helping. These three examples are just a few of the ways in which thoughtbot underscores communication and also easing the domineering hierarchy to be able to hold space for conversations around shame.

In conclusion…

While this post is by no means exhaustive, and admittedly there are hundreds upon hundreds of good things to say about the people in this company, it stands that thoughtbot’s culture is special and in large part, it is due to the acceptance and empowerment of vulnerability. I am beyond grateful that such a culture exists and that I have the opportunity to share it with others.