MP spoke with Nik Vassev, entrepreneur and business executive with a proven track record of innovation and top-line revenue growth within the technology industry, about developing a positive company culture. He co-founded Rocket VR Health, a virtual reality therapy company providing evidence-based treatments as mental health solutions for cancer patients. Previously, Vassev founded and sold Mindleap, the world's first digital health platform for psychedelic therapy, and worked for leading cyber security and data analytics companies. He currently sits on several boards of public and private companies and is also a contributor to leading business publications.

How can leaders cultivate a culture of inclusive leadership throughout their organizations, and why does such inclusivity matter?

A startup depends on innovative thinking, and I believe that can only happen with a diverse mix of viewpoints and abilities. 

At Rocket VR Health, our employees are taught to respect and embrace the opinions and perspectives of others to create a culture of inclusion, which, in turn, fosters innovation. With our emphasis on inclusion and collaboration across different departments, our employees are encouraged to embrace new ideas and technologies while always challenging assumptions. 

Promoting a workplace that encourages creativity and exceeds expectations truly affects the output and, ultimately, the outcomes of your business. 

It’s especially important when you’re working in a space like we are — where we’re trying to do new things. Our goal is to promote thinking that’s outside the box.

How important is recognizing employee achievements to developing a positive work culture, and why? 

Recognizing employee achievements and workplace milestones is critical to boosting employee engagement. It’s especially important for us because our work is 100% remote. 

Because of that, we lean into how we can engage our employees, and publicly recognizing their accomplishments is one fundamental way. This kind of celebration helps foster a human connection when everyone is working remotely and lacking the casual interactions that can build connections in a traditional work environment. 

By pointing out everyone's wins and highlighting their professional progress, it gives our team members a vested interest in one another’s success. 

They’re rooting for not just themselves but their colleagues to succeed, and when one of us succeeds, we all succeed.  

What should celebrating employees’ milestones and achievements look like, and why?

I think it’s essential to acknowledge employees' positive impact through company-wide shoutouts (internal and external), events, or bonuses. 

Those are very practical and concrete markers of progress. 

But there’s another one that can be even more impactful: we show our employees how their work is creating positive change not just for the company but in the lives of our patients, partners, and communities. 

In our case, our work is helping to address the unmet mental health needs of cancer patients and survivors. We find a way to connect someone’s achievement at work to real-world examples of making a difference in healthcare. 

When employees see their work making a tangible difference in other people’s lives, it’s something to celebrate and motivates them to continue doing great work. You crave more when you have that positive feeling of making just one person’s life a little better. 

It builds on itself.  

According to The American Institute of Stress, 83% of American workers suffer from work-related stress. What are three out-of-the-box ways leaders can help reduce their employees’ work-related stress and add to work culture, and why these three?

1. Meditation/Mindfulness Using VR

We are big believers in mindfulness, as it is scientifically proven to help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep. All our employees have our VR headsets and actively use our meditations and on-demand wellness content. 

By putting on a VR headset, they can take a short break for 10-15 minutes and be transported to a virtual natural environment to refresh their mind and spirit in the middle of a work day. 

Being in nature (even digitally) contributes to improved physical well-being, and reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. 

That reset can help create more clarity and focus when employees return to work.

2. Working From Home

Everyone at Rocket VR Health works remotely. We’ve found that working from home eliminates a lot of work-related stress, especially when our employees don’t have to deal with the wear and tear of a daily commute. In a remote or hybrid work situation, it’s essential for the company to set up some guidelines so that work doesn’t bleed into employees’ home life. 

We feel strongly that a work-life balance needs to be maintained in remote and hybrid work, and we encourage our staff to get offline once the business day has ended. 

3. Team Building Activities

Working from home can assume that collaboration with colleagues is more complicated. 

We continue to foster a collaborative workplace by encouraging team members to meet up in the Metaverse. Connecting with colleagues in the Metaverse can bring another element to meetings and quick check-ins that one-dimensional platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams just can’t offer. 

We also host virtual team happy hours where we talk about life and focus on building more meaningful relationships with our colleagues. As our company grows, we plan on hosting quarterly in-person events and retreats, but for now, those have been happening at VR events we attend across the US. 

66% of American workers suffer from sleep deprivation caused by work-related stress. How can leaders determine whether these issues are due to toxicities stemming from leadership or compartmentalized toxicities that happen without the leaders’ knowledge, and how can they be addressed?

It’s critical to cultivate a workplace that values openness and offers opportunities for your employees. 

If you’re in a company that doesn’t have open communication channels or any chance for advancement, people will feel like they’re not being heard and stuck. 

Those are two clear signs that the problems aren’t compartmentalized toxicities but company-wide. 

Also, when you have a remote workplace, as we do, you have to be careful not to let work spill over into your employees’ lives. 

The separation of work and home life should be clearly defined from the organization's top, and those lines should be maintained. 

When you remove those barriers, employees often feel they can’t escape their job – except by leaving – and you don’t want to lose great talent! 

I believe strongly that it’s essential to establish what your company values. If people see that you value that kind of work-life balance, then they won’t feel trapped and overwhelmed by their work. 

Ultimately, it comes down to communicating these cultural issues to your employees so they feel respected and safe.  

Not all environments need creators. However, what value can developing a creator work culture add to an organization, what might that culture look like, and how does one develop it from the ground up?

At Rocket VR Health, creators are the name of the game. 

The core of our business is putting together stunning VR spaces with some of the top-talent animators from Hollywood who are envisioning and developing our virtual spaces and experiences. Because of that, we have a creator work culture built into our business. 

I’ve seen firsthand how a creator-driven culture can inspire big ideas and innovative, outside-the-box thinking. 

That’s incredibly useful when you’re a startup trying to achieve something that hasn’t been done before. 

Putting creators at a company's center helps incorporate innovation into your mission and values. From my experience, this environment can also promote diversity of background and experience in in-person and virtual workplaces. 

Regardless of whether your company is working towards a creative product, I strongly encourage developing a creator work culture. Providing a workplace that encourages creativity also, as a byproduct, encourages team members to strive to exceed expectations continuously.

Startups often require employees to do more for less and do so with smiles. How can leaders spot when employees are overworked, positively intervene, and what corrective actions should be taken, and why?

Open communication channels at all company levels are key to a successful startup. Employees need to know that they can approach their managers easily and see that they can reach senior leadership if there are broader issues of overworking that need to be addressed. 

There is a strong and well-documented connection between employee burnout and mental health. In a survey by Deloitte, 77% of employees say they have experienced burnout at their current job. 

In addition, 91% say that unmanageable stress or frustration impacts the quality of their work, and 83% say burnout can negatively impact personal relationships. 

As a startup, we try to stand out from the pack on this issue. 

As a mental health company, we actively differentiate ourselves from the typical startup culture of an office becoming your life. Part of that is because we are 100% remote and encourage work-life flexibility, but the other part is that we’re a company that aims to improve mental health with our business. 

If a mental health-focused company cannot practice what it preaches, a huge disconnect will inevitably show up in the product. 

Before my work with Rocket VR Health, I founded another startup called Mindleap, which connects people with mental health specialists who can help them thrive and develop healthier minds. 

So, working for two companies directly in the mental health space has made me more aware of the importance of mental health in general. This has also made me much more cognizant of how it can affect a company’s ultimate goals and successes. 

The bottom line is that you don’t want your employees to feel burnout from overworking because it will start to affect the broader team and overall company output. 

Does offering benefits such as four-day work weeks, unlimited PTO, health insurance, and the ability to work from home make up for toxic workplace cultures? 

While these are great incentives, they’re ultimately very surface-level solutions to a much deeper problem. 

If you’re in a place with toxic work culture, this approach is equivalent to putting a band-aid on a broken leg. It will not fix the core problem, which is the need for a company’s leadership to be fully attuned to employee welfare. 

So while these benefits are great, they don’t always build a culture the way people might want them to. 

You have to build from the top down. 

Make your company's values clear, have open lines of communication with leadership, and ensure that your employees’ well-being truly comes first. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Company culture is the collective behavior of everyone in the organization, how they act, make decisions, and behave when no one is watching. 

A crucial part of establishing a good company culture starts with the hiring process and making sure there is a match before someone even joins your team. 

The other side is onboarding and ensuring they know who you are as a company and what values you stand for to ensure that new team members have all they need to be successful in their role.

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