In the wake of Covid-19, many industrial distributors, software developers, non-profits, retailers, and other businesses have adjusted how they do business, which includes staggered work teams to reduce the number of employees on site at once, remote workforce, curbside service and more. One of the most critical challenges of adapting to this new sense of normalcy is to maintain company culture. How do you do that when your team is scattered? At Tribute, not to mention our daily communications via email and Microsoft Teams meetings, we also use Slack, which is a group texting service. Everyday our employees "check-in", share good news, play a lunch-time game or two, share fun photos and memes, and more. It's kind of like having a conversation around the water cooler or lunch room with your peers. It's a way we have found to stay personally connected to each other and it's been successful.
This is only a small part of maintaining company culture. Sherry McMenemy, VP of Corporate Knowledge, Volaris Group, recently published the post Company Culture When Everyone is Remote. She addresses the personal factors of working remote and the feelings employees may have, how leaders can deliver on trust, safety, connection & identity, and purpose, and more.
Company culture when everyone is remote
By: Sherry McMenemy | VP of Corporate Knowledge, Volaris Group
Every company has a culture, whether it’s intentionally built or not. When there are sudden or critical changes to a company, often you’ll see more of the “true” culture emerge – not in what is written down, but in decisions made and in how people relate to one another and to their customers.
The external markers of culture are often tied to an office – what it looks like, how the desks and shared areas are arranged and used, how people interact, the dress code, etc.
With co-located teams, most companies ignore culture building, with the expectation that it will build out “naturally”. But the culture that is built may not be what was intended. Sometimes you don’t figure this out until it’s too late.
So, what happens when the entire company goes remote?
Personal factors become more important
With no physical space to define a company or a team, other, more immediate things have a greater impact on people. Right now, there are additional stressors associated with anxiety, family concerns, unusual work setups, and so on. Additionally, many people are reluctant remote workers - this is different from planned distributed teams.
Here are some impacts to be considered:
- People will have anxiety related to working hours and perceived productivity. They worry that if they aren’t “on” all the time, leaders will think they are slacking off or not putting in a full day’s work, especially during regular work hours. The results are often unhealthy and less productive – fewer breaks, fewer casual interactions or “fun” time, working longer hours, virtual meeting fatigue, and so on. On top of trying to manage household obligations.
- There is ongoing uncertainty. People are uncertain about their role, their job, the economy, their safety, and where the company is going or how it will come out of current business challenges. It’s distracting and can also impact a person’s mental health.
- They will feel isolated sometimes and over-socialized at others. Working on one’s own can be isolating, though with everyone in the same situation, it’s levelled things a bit. On the other hand, having many video chats per day can be exhausting. People feel like they are always “on” because they have to pay attention to non-verbal and verbal communications while being aware of their own “performance”.
You have to build culture in different ways
In some ways, you can find analogues to the ways you might nurture culture in your office. But in others, you’ll need different approaches.
As a foundation, companies need to deliver on trust, safety, connection & identity, and purpose:
- Leaders have to trust that people are doing their jobs (because they are). If nothing else, this is a key learning that many managers have realized coming through this global work-at-home event. Work may happen at different times, but people are committed to getting it done. Trust has to be there for people to feel secure and confident in their role, and to move from that onto bigger things, like purpose, or innovation and strategic thinking. As Wade Foster says, getting things done is a product of trust.
- Safety comes out of trust, as well as a demonstrated commitment and supports for wellbeing and psychological safety. This includes personal protections (PPE for employees requiring it to be at work), programs to support mental health, and potential office and work changes in the near future as some people return to the office. Safety requires action and education, so just talking about it won’t be enough.
- Connection & identity. This takes more purposeful intervention with distributed teams because self-management is more prevalent. Everyone has to have confidence that everyone else is reachable (not any time day or night, but open to engagement). This means that leaders especially have to have a stronger collaboration channel/social channel presence. Also, social activities should be encouraged, and social mini interactions should be seen as a normal part of work. People need social bonds and allies to feel connected.
- Sense of purpose. There is the big purpose that comes from your company mission and vision, but there’s also the “me” purpose. Leaders need to communicate clearly and frequently with teams, across teams, and in 1:1 meetings about where things are going, and what role each person plays in getting there. People working remotely do a lot of self-management, so they need to have clear goals and priorities to work from.
Tools don’t create culture; they support it
It’s been natural in the last few weeks to spend a lot of time on tools – many companies needed to “go digital” very quickly to ensure a smooth transition to remote work. In the end, though, the tools do not equal company culture. Just because you can run video-meetings does not mean employees feel trusted, connected, and safe. And behaviors that contradict company values can happen just as easily outside of the office as in it.
To the extent that your tools and platforms enable teams to connect and interact, they support culture. In fact, some teams say they feel closer in some ways because people have been:
- More genuine. When you can’t fully separate home from work, a little bit of your personal life comes into work, and many have said this has been a welcome development.
- More cooperative. Meetings stay on track to intended purpose with fewer digressions. People are more aware of giving turns to speak, and there is a feeling of commitment to working together.
- More empathetic. People have more empathy for others, and they are more willing to avoid jumping to conclusions about ill intentions.
That being said, it would be really hard to run a company with remote workers without collaboration, communication, and document-sharing tools in place. We are seeing first-hand why a robust digital workplace is necessary, not nice-to-have. To tie this into company culture: sharing best practices is a pretty fundamental part of Volaris culture, and having tools like the intranet, Teams, Yammer, and communities are the tools that support it.
It’s an opportunity to clarify values and be more intentional
There is an opportunity here to clarify those values, behaviours, and interactions that truly define your company. And then be very intentional in developing a company culture infused with those values.
Building and sharing company culture
Some of the best lessons on culture-building come from organizations who have never had offices. There has been an uptick, especially in the startup and new technologies spaces, to grow companies that are 100% remote as planned.
Planning is a key component of intended culture. The physical stuff is the smallest portion, but with the highest visibility. The real “being” of culture happens lower down, where the assumptions and enacted values are. This is good news, because you don’t need everyone in the same physical space for these to be strong and impactful.
To perpetuate and enact your values, regular interaction (i.e. team meetings) are necessary. But if all they only cover status updates, then there’s no substantive culture building going on.
You need to have open conversations about expected behaviours and ways of interacting to build a purposeful culture. You might ask questions about:
- How you talk with each other and with customers.
- How much work is expected.
- How disagreements should be resolved.
- What “ownership” means and who can make decisions about what to stop and what to start.
- How formal or informal people are expected to be.
- How different people learn and work on the team. There are lots of different personality profiles that can spark some interesting conversations about diverse styles.
Communications are key. Company-wide communications should aim for a level playing field. So even if there are some people in the office, keep the communications virtual (if it’s a townhall) or on a global channel so that everyone experiences it in the same way. Communicate frequently – on where the company is at, on what the current challenges are, and on how you will deal with those challenges enacting the company values. If you say that transparency is a value but then don’t communicate to employees on a regular basis, the actual message is that you say one thing and do another.
Team culture will be a little bit different from company culture, in that it’s likely to have more tactical components. It should be both top-down and peer-to-peer. Ultimately, team culture is tied to the diversity of the people on the team. You might ask questions about:
- Where the team works. Which platforms, what gets documented, where tasks are tracked.
- How the team communicates. Work channels, social channels, when and how people should check in, and how you communicate availability to each other.
- Tone and conduct. How does the team handle disagreements? What’s okay to say or not okay to say? What are expectations/rules for team sharing and meetings?
Virtual team building is also something a lot of remote-first companies engage in. This can be anything from Friday virtual meetups, to online team challenges, to specific Teams/Slack channels just for social stuff (photos, jokes, memes, chat, quizzes, puzzles). This is another way to build trust when people aren’t co-located.
Note: You need to rethink onboarding as well
Remote onboarding is fodder for a whole other article but think about how you communicate and enact company culture for anyone onboarding right now or into a remote role. Some of the key elements include:
- Workstation setup and systems onboarding.
- Intros and team building.
- Buddies and long-term mentors who provide all of that “not on paper” guidance.
- Policies, procedures, conduct and other mandatory induction tasks.
- Training and onboarding programs.
- Welcome practices, including swag.
- Exposure to company culture.