Preserving Organizational Culture with a Remote or Hybrid Workforce
Regardless of where a company’s workforce operates, its culture—good or poor—is in play. An organization’s culture is reflected in its staff’s everyday attitudes and behaviors. It’s evident in the way each employee works, functions on a team, and interfaces with the public, but it isn’t tied to in-person interaction and activities.
Most leaders understand the influence culture has on their companies, but many are unclear about how to preserve it as they gravitate to remote and hybrid teams. They find it particularly challenging to promote and sustain a healthy work culture with employees who don’t operate on-premises or use the same schedule. But leaders must master this skill since these non-traditional work models are becoming increasingly prevalent in the business world.
The Remote Workforce Explosion
Remote work has existed since the internet made telecommuting a reality. But it wasn’t a typical path until the pandemic forced multitudes to perform their jobs from home. Then, almost overnight, the work model that was the exception became the new normal for just about everyone.
At first, business leaders saw the remote work trend as a stop-gap strategy to keep their companies operating until the health crisis subsided. But as the pandemic dragged on, organizations developed ways to refine and enhance the new work construct to operate more efficiently. Eventually, the home office evolved into business central.
Because so many people worked from home for almost two years, analysts were able to collect substantive data on the phenomenon—and they reached some surprising conclusions. Their research showed:
- After recovering from the sudden change of venue and settling into the remote routine, a significant number of people prefer operating from home.
- Despite some employers’ concerns, most remote employees were as productive, or even more productive, as they were at the office.
As people’s comfort level with remote work grew, they increasingly began to view it as a permanent option. Consequently, when pandemic restrictions began to recede, many companies continued to operate with a percentage of their team remaining remote.
Both employers and their staff saw plusses in the remote work model:
Advantages for Employers
- The ability to hire from a talent pool not bound by location
- The addition of a top benefit sought by job candidates
- Reduced overhead in office space and associated costs
- The ability to scale at a lower expense
Advantages for Workers
- Savings of time and money formerly spent on commuting
- Improved work-life balance
- More flexibility in how and where they work
These positive attributes, combined with evolving technology, ensure that remote work will remain a significant part of the business landscape.
The Emerging Hybrid Workforce
Almost all business sectors include jobs that don’t have to be performed on-site. But operating with a completely remote team is impractical for many organizations. Consequently, when people could comfortably return to the office, numerous companies opted for a more flexible alternative: a hybrid work model.
A hybrid workforce isn’t as easily defined as one that is entirely remote. Instead, hybrid teams are more fluid and usually fall into one of three configurations.
- A partially remote and partially on-site staff
This model works for many manufacturing, distribution, medical, and other fields that require some people to be on-site while others can work effectively from home.
- A staff that splits the week between working off-site and in the office
Organizations that operate with this model can rotate the teams that meet in person or have the entire staff work on or off-site at assigned times.
- An asynchronous team with staff working on different schedules
This kind of team can be all-remote, all on-site, or a combination. People’s shifts are scheduled based on what works for them, their tasks, and the company.
Why Hybrid Teams are Popular
In theory, the hybrid model combines the best of all workplace worlds. For employees, it offers:
- The potential to have flexible schedules so they can better meet personal responsibilities
- A choice to work at the times when they’re most productive
- Opportunities to reap the best experiences of working in both virtual and on-site environments
For employers, a hybrid workforce includes many of the benefits of a remote team, plus:
- More flexibility in workflow management
- Less crowded workspaces that companies can optimize for modern requirements
These solutions fill numerous needs for organizations and their employees. But the variables that make hybrid and remote work attractive also create new challenges.
The Cons of Remote and Hybrid Work
Along with the advantages, there are potential downsides to operating with a remote or hybrid workforce. One of the biggest concerns is that shifting to these work models can dilute the quality of a company’s culture.
Certain problems are magnified when people do their job at home and aren’t surrounded by their colleagues. For example, 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, opportunities, and guidance
- Erratic communication: fewer face-to-face encounters can fuel misunderstandings and delays
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. And perhaps the most significant risk of having a remote workforce is the possibility that it will negatively impact employee engagement.
Engagement is the degree of workers’ attachment and dedication to their organization. Consequently, an employee’s engagement level is directly related to the quality and efficiency of their performance on the job. In addition, low engagement is one of the biggest factors driving turnover.
So leaders were understandably concerned when a TELUS survey of over 1,000 Americans working during the pandemic found that 51 percent felt less connected to their company culture while working from home.
Even when people work in the same place, maintaining a positive culture is an ongoing project. It’s even trickier when people don’t physically work together. But for a company to operate efficiently, leaders must keep their remote or hybrid staff connected and motivated through a supportive work culture.
A Historic Parallel
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 across various sites. But expanding small and medium-sized companies often find it hard to maintain a healthy culture and keep people connected.
When most companies start out, the founder establishes the culture that defines the organization. They model the conduct they want employees to exhibit as they work, collaborate, and serve customers. Because the boss embodies the culture, their team learns “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 opening another facility, the leader no longer routinely interacts with everyone. At that point, the company is at risk of losing what made it special if it doesn’t develop another way to steadily drive its culture.
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. So if they want to retain what made their organizations successful, they need to become much more systematic and intentional about perpetuating their culture.
Fortifying Work Culture for Remote and Hybrid Teams
As a company faces new circumstances due to transitioning to a remote employee base or growth, its culture can change for better or worse.
“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 leader.”
The pandemic caused a platform-on-fire culture shift. But now, business leaders are considering a long-term commitment to a remote or hybrid team. This deliberate decision provides them with an opportunity to decide how to manage their company culture going forward. They have two options:
- Optimistically believe that their organization’s culture will simply adapt
- Intentionally develop a new, dependable way to sustain their company’s culture
To effectively build culture in a standard or virtual workplace, leaders must have a plan and a process to approach this vital initiative. As CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman illustrates in his book, Culture by Design, without these things, creating a robust culture is little more than wishful thinking.
4 Steps to Build a Vibrant Culture in a Virtual World
Business leaders with a remote or hybrid workforce should manage the evolution of their company’s culture with a systematic approach. The best method involves four steps:
- Clearly define the behaviors that should shape the culture
- Routinely teach, coach, and practice the behaviors
- Create a curriculum to help managers teach with consistency
- Utilize technology to communicate and emphasize the culture
Defining Workplace Culture
Leaders must specify what they want their culture to be before they ask their employees to adhere to it. They can’t rely on their company’s mission, vision, and core values to prescribe what the culture should look like in real-time. Instead, they must define the behaviors that will help their people work cohesively and successfully.
Mission, vision, and values tend to be abstract, but behaviors are actions. Because they are something managers can literally see people doing, behaviors are much easier to teach, coach, and give feedback about. Consequently, they’re easier to operationalize—no matter where employees work.
Teaching Behaviors With Repetition
After defining the behaviors they want their team members to demonstrate, leaders 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 print and distribute a list of behaviors or mention them in occasional messages from the top.
For the behaviors to make a tangible impact, leaders should create opportunities to prompt all staff members to regularly talk about them. The best way to accomplish that is to build routines or rituals. For example, the CEO might require that every virtual or in-person meeting begins with a discussion about a specific behavior and how it relates to what the group is doing.
Creating A Curriculum
The third step is to formulate a curriculum around the preferred behaviors to give managers and supervisors the tools to teach standardized material in the same way. It’s one thing to articulate the behaviors essential to the company’s success. But if managers don’t know how to teach those behaviors, or they’re all teaching them differently, leaders risk confusing remote or hybrid team members instead of helping them.
There are many components that leaders could choose to build the curriculum. For example, they might create and circulate daily tips to help people understand the ways a specific behavior affects their work. Or they could set up quick automated lessons demonstrating the behaviors in play. They could also incorporate short videos to emphasize aspects of the behaviors and create tutorials for more in-depth learning.
There are various apps companies can utilize to deliver this curriculum efficiently. The key is to develop enough rich content to continuously stimulate and engage remote and hybrid employees while reinforcing the culture.
The fourth step in maintaining a strong culture with remote or hybrid teams is to maximize technology. One of the benefits of our digital world is the multitude of available tools that allow people to communicate effectively—regardless of location.
Between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Yammer, and various mobile apps, there are many ways to engage employees and teach culture. The sooner leaders provide access to and encourage their entire team to embrace such tools, the more effective they will be with their culture initiative. Technology can help employees lean into company culture in three primary ways:
Technology that promotes teamwork includes optimized video conferencing, group chat capabilities, and shared project tools that make it easier to collaborate effectively. These platforms elevate culture by providing more channels for:
- Meaningful interaction, including team building
- Making people feel more included and tuned in
- Providing more access to management
- Pathways for regular constructive feedback and mentorship
- Aligning expectations
- Innovative ways for people to connect personally and have fun
One of the most potent ways companies can strengthen their culture is to harness technology to communicate meaningful acknowledgment. IT recognition programs are valuable tools to help remote and hybrid employees feel noticed, energized, positive, and respected. These platforms help companies with various work teams reinforce the behaviors that strengthen organizational culture.
While technology can facilitate dispensing appreciation, it can also be misused to offer blanket niceties that dilute the power of meaningful recognition. People instinctively know when praise is perfunctory versus authentic. CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman notes that genuine appreciation has the following components:
- It is specific.
The acknowledger tells someone exactly what they appreciated about what they did, rather than saying, “Good job!”
- It is timely.
The closer the acknowledgment is to the event being recognized, the more effective it is. Technology allows leaders to act instantly rather than waiting for team gatherings.
- It describes the impact.
Beyond noting what was done well, meaningful appreciation also describes how these actions affected the team and organization.
Along with internal culture drivers like fluid collaboration and meaningful recognition, a more personal factor weighs heavily in employee engagement:
People want to work for a company with values that align with their own—one that strives to positively impact the company and the extended community.
Many businesses are built on meaningful principles, but they often seem intangible to the people who work there. And these values can often feel even more abstract to remote and hybrid teams.
To ignite engagement, a company’s commitment to these principles must be shared broadly, and employees should be invited to participate in initiatives that bring them to life. IT offers the means to build a community platform with various ways to plug in and be a part of the experience.
Additionally, technology offers creative ways to reinforce the behaviors that enable employees to manifest these principles in their work. These accessible tools can help workers develop a sense of purpose and fulfillment. People are much more engaged when they are proud of what they do and the organization they work for.
5 Key Behaviors Frame Culture in a Remote or Hybrid Environment
As noted above, unlike a company’s core values or mission, the behaviors that form its culture are tangible actions that determine how the organization functions. A work culture anchored in specific positive behaviors empowers employees to thrive regardless of where and when they perform their jobs.
The following five work-related behaviors are particularly important to weave into a remote or hybrid culture to ensure individual and organizational success.
- Honor Commitments
- Make Quality Personal
- Get Clear on Expectations
- Share information
- Think Team First
1. Honor Commitments
It’s not easy for managers to effectively monitor everyone’s activity with a nine-to-five staff that operates under one roof. Remote and asynchronous teams present an even stiffer challenge. That’s why honoring commitments is one of the most valuable behaviors for companies to instill in the modern workforce.
Leaders create an arena for positive accountability when they make following through with deliverables an indelible part of their company’s culture. They erase the need for micromanagement and hyper surveillance because honoring commitments and delivering results become points of employee pride.
Regardless of where and when they do their work, staff members know they’re part of a responsive team that makes good on responsibilities.
2. Make Quality Personal
Along with honoring commitments, employees who consistently deliver quality work are essential to an organization’s success. Therefore, adhering to high standards is another key behavior that leaders should incorporate into their work culture. But absent a manager’s constant, in-person guidance, remote and hybrid staff members need internal barometers to maintain high-level performance.
The best employees are predisposed to making quality a personal issue, though strategic coaching can reinforce this behavior. Consequently, leaders need to look for this characteristic when selecting remote or hybrid team members. They should seek people who prioritize doing things well, not simply getting things done.
3. Get Clear on Expectations
Uneven productivity or performance is often rooted in misunderstandings. So a core goal of a high-performance culture is ensuring everyone is on the same page—whether they’re working in the same room or different zip codes. Getting clear on expectations is an important behavior for any work culture, but it’s particularly critical for people who don’t have the chance to work together physically.
Leaders should train managers to take the time to explain specifically when, how, and why things are to be done. And if direct reports aren’t sure what’s expected of them, they should be encouraged to ask questions until they have a clear picture. Establishing this kind of alignment for remote and hybrid teams may take extra time, but it will build much stronger efficiency in the long run.
4. Share Information
It’s easy for employees to slip into a silo mentality when working remotely or during non-standard hours. That’s because they attend to the tasks in front of them without the constant reminder that they’re part of a unit. So while they may honor their commitments and produce quality work, they could also be slowing the team’s progress because they neglected to share useful information.
Effective communication relies on people’s habits and attitudes. A work culture that stresses sharing information helps people form productive habits around this behavior, including strategic use of technology. And as with every aspect of company culture, employees will follow the example of those in charge. A high level of transparency must be modeled from the top down to be effective.
5. Think Team First
Remote and hybrid employees naturally feel detached from the central organization. To overcome this hurdle, leaders should create a team-oriented environment that transcends working in proximity. They must intentionally coach behaviors that prioritize collaboration and make people feel like they are part of the group.
One of the most critical elements to include in workplace culture is to value everyone’s perspectives and contributions. This quality is even more critical with remote and hybrid teams, where people can often feel left out or overlooked. Leaders should coach staff members to leverage technology to cultivate relationships and coordinate more effectively. People don’t have to work in the same space to function as a team.
Perpetuating Work Culture with Remote and Hybrid Teams
To be effective, leaders must be very intentional about building and strengthening their company culture—they can’t simply introduce it and hope it takes hold. It’s even more vital for them to constantly reinforce organizational culture with remote and hybrid teams who don’t benefit from in-person contact.
Leaders can effectively keep the work culture front and center for all existing employees by strategically using appropriate tech platforms. But there are two other ways to preserve and fortify their company’s culture with remote and hybrid team members:
Job seekers who want the flexibility afforded by remote and hybrid positions are also looking for companies with great cultures that can support these work models. And the best way for companies to perpetuate their culture is to hire people who will enhance it. To accumulate the right talent, employers should leverage their culture throughout their recruitment process.
They can follow multiple strategies to accomplish this goal, including:
- Using recruiting materials to describe how their company culture transcends walls
- Featuring the culture prominently on the company website
- Showcasing the culture in job ads and on social media
- Using the culture as a platform for discussion in the interview process
Employers should look for people who are attracted to and can succeed in the culture the company wants to maintain. After identifying the best candidates, they should explain how the culture helps remote and hybrid recruits flourish and connects them with company goals.
New hires form their first “inside” impression of their employer during the onboarding process. But as important as this period is in developing a lasting relationship with recruits, many companies don’t make the most of it. As a result, nearly 33 percent of new employees look for a new job in their first six months with a company, and 23 percent leave before their first anniversary.
The risk of attrition is even higher with recruits who never get a chance to form ties in person or bond with the whole team. Therefore, leaders must rethink their onboarding methods to avoid making a weak impression and maximize retention within their remote and hybrid teams.
Technology offers excellent tools to conduct highly effective onboarding sessions that can have an even bigger impact than old-school methods. Virtual or hybrid onboarding sessions should include:
- Consistent, high-quality interactive experiences
- Extended informational sessions for recruits to practice and develop new skills and adapt to the culture
- Accessible learning modules and resources that employees can revisit
- Multi-layered support from multiple connections
When done well, onboarding establishes strong ties between all parties and a runway for new employees to succeed.
Participation and Reinforcement
Leaders should offer remote and hybrid recruits multiple ways to plug into the organization as soon as they settle into their roles. Tactics can include:
- Rituals, such as beginning each virtual meeting with everyone’s reflection about a specific behavior prescribed by the company’s culture. Remote and hybrid employees often have fresh viewpoints that can be valuable for the team.
- Virtual one-on-ones and mentoring sessions. These online meetings give new employees an opportunity to express concerns, ask questions, absorb knowledge, and form relationships.
- Platforms to applaud their teammates for wins and share good news. The more remote and hybrid team members participate in this kind of activity, the more connected they will feel with coworkers and the team’s success.
- Invitations to contribute and distribute short written insights or casual videos that highlight some aspect of the company’s culture to the team. These are morale boosters for everyone in the organization, wherever they perform their work.
Leaders can use these and other creative methods that reflect their company culture to engage staff operating in non-traditional work models. Remote and hybrid team members become much more vested in employers that make a conscious effort to loop them into the heart of the organization.
Company Culture in the Evolving Work World
Because workplace culture is so pervasive, it affects every aspect of a company’s operations and significantly impacts its bottom line. Companies that continuously nurture and strengthen their culture are using one of the most effective methods to drive individual and organizational success.
Leaders’ first step is to develop the culture they believe will be most beneficial for their business and staff. Then they should ensure all team members understand and buy into that carefully cultivated culture. And as business continues to settle into a more virtual environment, leaders must take an active approach to help their culture adapt and thrive with remote or hybrid teams. Their efforts will not only define how their company operates now; they will also determine their company’s trajectory in the future.