The culture of your organization can be one of your most valuable assets. As management guru Peter Drucker has said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But by the same standards, a weak, non-existent or toxic company culture—the pandemic-born term languishing feels particularly apt here—can also be a massive liability for your business.
When I took over my family’s 100-year-old business at the age of 28, our company culture was indeed languishing in the ways of the past. Length of service was more important than daily performance, and decision making was painfully slow. We were operating under an intransigent hierarchy, and struggling under the weight of “we have always done it this way” thinking. Over time, these ingrained cultural beliefs had made us dangerously slow to react to a competitive marketplace—and were quickly losing market share and money.
Taking the Wheel + Turning the Ship
Thankfully, with help from my mentor, Frank, we were able to change the culture and mindset of the organization. What’s more, while it might seem surprising, we did this not by diving blindly into the present, but by creating a clear vision of the future—by making quick decisions and acting on them, as well as bringing in some fresh talent in key positions.
The challenge facing business owners and leaders today is even more pressing. From that seminal moment in March of 2020 when we all retired to our homes for the first wave of COVID-19 quarantine, many leaders who were previously unaccustomed to managing a remote workforce were treated to a crash course. Now, as 2021 wraps up with the virus still very much a part of our lives, remote workplace culture is no longer a temporary condition.
And, as tired as we all are of hearing the phrase “the new normal,” it’s time to normalize remote working—and that means working to put systems in place that address the unique challenges presented by a team that’s rarely in the same room. Case on point: a recent Gallup poll found that employees who don’t work in the same location as their manager are:
- 10% less likely to say someone cares about them at work
- 10% less likely to feel recognized for their contributions
- 5% less likely to feel as if their opinion counts
Culturally, these are dangerous feelings—and changing them requires remote leaders to engage in both theoretical self-exploration and practical planning.
Defining + Developing Remote Work Culture
Remote work culture is the unconditional feeling of connection that co-workers experience when they’re bonded by similar priorities, interests and attitudes. Being able to identify the gap between the connection you had in the physical workspace, then being able to replicate them online, will be key to surviving—and hopefully, thriving—over the next few years.
For example, a client I met in my travels on the leadership keynote speaker circuit who has a ritual that on your birthday, you buy everyone else in the office a cupcake. It’s a way of celebrating that’s fun and inclusive for everyone. But how do you replicate this in a virtual environment? One idea is to have treats delivered to employees’ homes, then celebrate with a team video call. In our personal lives, we’ve made this work for birthdays, milestones and even weddings—so there’s no reason it can’t work in the professional realm as well.
The ultimate goal, of course, is for your remote work culture to replicate traditional culture as closely as possible. Identify the difference by working out which elements of your culture are tied to physical space—and then find a way to adapt them to online. Here are my five top tips for translating your current company culture to the virtual environment.
1. Make sure basic environmental needs are covered.
Start with the basics! Everyone on your team should have a quiet, dedicated workspace with a computer, reliable phone and internet service, and any other supplies they might need, like a printer/scanner or external hard drive for additional storage. You may need to work with each person individually to assess specific needs and how best to make them happen—but physical comfort is always the foundation of emotional and intellectual satisfaction.
For example: I found that the chair I had in my home office was fine for an hour or two a day. But once I started working from home full-time, it made sense to invest in a better-quality chair with more back support, plus a standing desk so that I can now toggle between sitting and standing in meetings or when working on documents. I also had to upgrade my lighting as my office is pretty dark and I found that nobody could see me during virtual meetings.
You’ll also need to attend to office security, as the incidence of cyber crime has gone through the roof during the pandemic. Make sure your employees are using a VPN (virtual private network) when working on company business, so there is less chance of them being hacked. You should also provide regular training about the latest scams and security risks.
2. Document new policies and procedures for remote work.
Changes in policy don’t create confusion—it’s usually a lack of clarity that creates chaos. So, as you go through the ongoing process of adapting to remote work culture, it’s critical that you document any new policies and procedures as you go. Stress to your team that these are living documents that are subject to change as you work together to find the best solutions.
To start, jot down the remote work culture questions you have heard the most from your employees, and log your answers to those. For example: do you expect your team to work fixed hours, or are you willing to be flexible? Do you encourage or discourage employees from checking messages outside of regular business hours? What are your preferred communication channels, and how often should employees plan virtual meetings? Can employees travel while working remotely as long as they meet their deadlines?
The members of my team know that I have no problem with them traveling, as long as I know how to contact them in an emergency—and as long as they get their work done on time, to the desired standard. We’re all aware of everyone’s preferred communications channels and times. Having these basic policies and preferences clearly defined, conveyed and agreed upon is an excellent early step in replicating those in-person vibes remotely.
3. Reevaluate your company values—and document those, too.
The first-wave quarantine in 2020 was a great time for personal and professional soul searching. In those early days of full-time remote work culture, my assistant and I took a fresh look at our company values—what we stand for, how we as a company help to nurture those values, and how we expect those beliefs to show up, in every area of the business.
It only took a couple of drafts until we had something we were all happy with. And once we did have it, we found it to be an incredibly practical tool—whether for onboarding new talent, or as a standard against which to measure important decisions. You’ll feel the same, I’m sure.
4. Plan and communicate your event calendar in advance.
With a new year right around the corner, now’s the time to get your event calendar locked in! This is particularly important for a healthy remote work culture, especially if you have team members working non-traditional schedules. Board meetings, management meetings, all-hands meetings, company training programs and even social gatherings—get all of it inked NOW, so your expectations are clear.
If you offer a hybrid work environment—and you should, if you can, as 54% of employees prefer this kind of arrangement—it will be important to think through how meetings and social gatherings will work when some of your people are there and some are virtual. It does take some experimenting (and often some new equipment investment) to make sure there is a viable hybrid option for every event, but it’s wonderful once you work out the kinks. Just make sure all your invites include both options, with instructions for attending each.
My team, which is mostly virtual these days, offers a Friday afternoon virtual happy hour that is usually pretty well attended—it’s a chance for lighthearted social interaction with our work colleagues that would otherwise not exist in a virtual work environment.
5. Adapt personal growth plans for a virtual environment.
Now that the move to a corner office is not available as a sign of progress in the organization, it is important to continue providing clear guidance on how employees can further their careers. Setting and reaching specific milestones along a desired career path may look much different in a remote work environment, and it will be up to you and your team members to define that journey—but just having the conversation will already increase your chances of retention. Fair pay, flexible schedules and robust benefits are important, but understanding that there is a future growth plan in place can be a huge motivator for employees at all levels.
Of course, business mentorship will have to adjust for the remote work environment as well.
I have been fortunate to have some great mentors during my career, and I know from experience that regular contact with them can be incredibly motivating. Professional mentorship can provide your employees with essential guideposts for their development journey, and help them to develop a strong sense of belonging within the organization.
One of the biggest challenges of remote work culture is that if your top performers don’t have a personal connection with the organization, they become virtual mercenaries—easily tempted to leave your company for any higher-paying remote role. Without a sense of belonging and a shared purpose, these mercenaries have no loyalty. The good news is, mentorship translates nicely to the virtual platform of your choice. And perhaps one day soon, we’ll all be free to start meeting for coffee or cocktails again on a regular (and relaxed) basis.
Define your remote work culture now, for a successful 2022!
As 2021 winds down, it’s clear that virtual work culture is here to stay—and even has its benefits! Those employees who work virtually have more autonomy than ever before, and are more likely to feel they can do their best work. Do your part to preserve the elements of high-performing in-person culture and complement these with solutions that make these values accessible to everyone, everywhere…and you’ll be in great shape for 2022 and beyond.