By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
When the world hunkered down to weather the COVID-19 storm, business leaders formed strategies to keep things going until circumstances improved. One of their first hurdles was to figure out how staff could operate on a remote basis for a few months.
Then the pandemic amped up and raged on. As it became apparent that the situation wasn’t short-term, temporary stop-gap measures became semi-permanent. Much of the business world settled into virtual mode in the ensuing months.
As challenging as it was, an interesting thing happened over the course of the year. After the pandemic forced the virtual work model on businesses, many people discovered that they preferred it.
Management benefitted from reduced office, overhead, and travel costs and could redirect those savings into other areas. They also gained access to deeper talent pools not limited by proximity. And their businesses were more scalable because growth didn’t need to correlate to existing space and equipment.
Employees appreciated reduced commuting expenses and time, and they also enjoyed greater flexibility with their work and personal lives. And many even found they were able to be more productive when working virtually, as noted by the Harvard Business Review. As the business world emerges from constraints forced by the health crisis, many companies are reevaluating the need to have everyone work on-site.
Some have already switched to a totally remote model, while others are restructuring with a hybrid workforce. A Gartner survey in 2020 indicated that 82% of company leaders plan to have employees continue to work remotely at least part of the time.
But along with the advantages, there are potential downsides to the emerging new normal of operating with a virtual workforce.
At CultureWise, we understand that the ability to avoid those pitfalls rests on the strength of a company’s culture. In this article, we’ll explore those negatives and discuss what it takes to intentionally improve and drive organizational culture to overcome them. You’ll learn how your culture can help your business not just survive but thrive in a virtual world.
Remote Possibilities: Potential Problems with a Virtual Team
Corporate culture is determined by the attitudes and behaviors of the people within an organization. Even when people work in the same place, it’s an ongoing project to maintain a positive culture. It’s even more challenging when people don’t physically work together. But keeping remote staff connected and motivated is crucial to the well-being of your company.
Certain problems are magnified when people do their job at home and aren’t surrounded by their colleagues. When employees work off-site, they’re more susceptible to:
- Distractions: a home environment can make it harder for people to focus on company standards and goals
- Feeling out-of-the-loop: people think they’re missing out on work activities, discussions, and guidance
- Erratic communication: fewer face-to-face encounters can fuel misunderstandings
While remote staff members navigate these potential pitfalls, management faces the task of keeping people zeroed in on organizational goals and operating as a team.
Perhaps the most significant risk of having a remote workforce is the possibility that it will negatively impact employee engagement. A TELUS survey of over 1,000 Americans working during the pandemic found 51% felt less connected to their company culture while working from home.
TELUS CCO Marilyn Tyfting maintains that preserving a strong culture is paramount in a virtual work environment. “Given culture’s key role in retaining top talent, it’s an increasingly critical success factor for companies nowadays given the significant transition from on-site to remote work models due to COVID-19.”
If the virtual or hybrid workforce is here to stay, and a strong culture is vital to a remote team’s success—how can the potential problems of this new dynamic be addressed and solved?
This Isn’t Uncharted Territory
Preserving a strong culture without the benefit of having everyone under one roof isn’t a new problem. It has always been an issue for any company with multiple locations.
Large organizations may have enough resources and structure to maintain a stable culture in various sites. But expanding small and medium-sized companies often find it hard to keep people connected and maintain a healthy culture.
When most companies start out, the culture that defines the organization is established by example. The owner or CEO models the actions and attitudes that they want employees to have as they work with customers and each other. The boss embodies the culture, and the team falls in line. It works. It’s “the way things are done around here.”
But when smaller companies start to grow, perhaps by going from 10-20 people to 100-200 or by opening another facility, the leader no longer routinely interacts with everyone. At that point, without finding another way to steadily drive its culture, the company is at risk of losing what made it special.
The pandemic forced the same dynamic on the emerging virtual and hybrid workforce.
Like owners of growing companies, business leaders with a remote workforce can’t energize the culture by physically setting an example. If they want to retain what made their organizations successful, they need to become much more systematic and intentional about perpetuating their culture.
Remote Culture—Is That a Thing?
A company’s culture is reflected in its employees’ attitudes and behaviors, but it isn’t tied to in-person interaction and activities. Regardless of where a company’s workforce operates, its culture—good or poor—is in play.
As a company faces changing circumstances, whether through transitioning to a remote employee base or growth, its culture can change for better or worse.
Edgar Schein sums it up well in his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership: “Culture is dynamic, in that it can evolve with new experiences. This change can happen in two ways: as the result of a clear and present crisis — the ‘burning platform’ syndrome — or through a managed evolution under a skilled and sophisticated manager.”
The pandemic caused a platform-on-fire culture shift. But now, business leaders who are making a long-term commitment to a remote or hybrid team have an opportunity to decide how to manage their company culture going forward. They have two options:
- Have the optimistic assumption that their organization’s culture will simply adapt.
- Or intentionally develop a new, dependable way to sustain their company’s culture.
4 Ways to Strengthen Company Culture in a Virtual World
If you’re a business leader with a remote workforce, there are four things you can do to take a more systematic approach to manage the evolution of your company’s culture.
- Define your culture in terms of clear behaviors. It all starts with clarity.
- Teach with repetition. You won’t change behavior without it.
- Build a curriculum so that your leaders can teach with consistency.
- Use technology to connect people to your culture.
Define Your Culture
The first step is to define, with clarity, what you want your culture to be. That means specifying the behaviors that will help your people work cohesively and successfully. While you may have some vision, a mission statement, and a set of core values, that’s not sufficient.
Values tend to be abstract, but behaviors are actions. Because they’re actions, they’re much easier to teach, coach, and give feedback about. They’re easier to operationalize—no matter where your people are.
Teach with Repetition
After you’ve defined the behaviors that you want your people to demonstrate, you need to develop a structured method to continuously teach them. The only way to get behavior change to stick is through repetition and practice. It’s not enough to post your behaviors on your website or mention them in occasional messages from the top.
Create opportunities to prompt everyone on your staff to regularly talk about the behaviors. The best way to accomplish that is to build routines. For example, you might require that every virtual meeting begin with a discussion about a specified behavior and how it relates to what the group is doing.
Build a Curriculum
The third step is to build a curriculum around your behaviors so that your leaders, managers, and supervisors are all teaching the same thing in the same way. It’s one thing to articulate the behaviors that are important to your company’s success. But if your managers don’t know how to teach those behaviors, or they’re all teaching them differently, you risk confusing people instead of helping them.
The fourth priority is to make maximum use of technology. Another benefit of our digital world is the number of available tools that allow us to effectively communicate—regardless of location. Between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Yammer, and various mobile apps, there are many ways to engage your people and teach your culture. The sooner you get your entire team to embrace these tools, the more effective you’ll be with your culture initiative.
What Comes Next for Your Culture?
Companies that continuously nurture and strengthen their culture are using one of the most effective methods to drive individual and organizational success. As we turn the corner after the pandemic and settle into a more virtual working world, it’s more important than ever to intentionally improve your culture.
The best way to accomplish this is to follow the four recommendations listed above. In doing so, you’ll be able to operationalize your organization’s culture so that it’s effective wherever your people are working.
You might have the necessary internal resources to create a new culture initiative in-house. If you go that route, read David Friedman’s second book Culture by Design. In it, the CultureWise founder and CEO offers a clear step-by-step guide for building an outstanding corporate culture in a practical way that’s achievable for any business.
If you need more help, you can take advantage of the CultureWise suite of tools and products based on the plan outlined in Friedman’s book. This turnkey operating system for culture is offered at several pricing levels, making it actionable and affordable for companies of any size.
The important thing is to take an active approach to help your culture adapt and thrive in the virtual work world. The changes you implement in your culture will not only define how your company operates now. They will reflect where you want your company to go.