Long before COVID-19 disrupted everyday life across the globe, the shift to a more distributed, flexible, and agile workforce was well underway. In 2019, more than 4.3 million Americans worked from home at least part-time. Virtual work has grown by 115% in the last decade. The pandemic transformed remote work from an option to a requirement for millions of more workers overnight.
The Way People Work Has Changed
Whether driven by COVID-19 or the many significant cultural and market forces that favor remote workforces, building and maintaining a strong corporate culture with remote teams is a challenge. Leaders dedicated to positive culture must take great care to maintain momentum even when in-person conversations are happening less frequently.
Why Does Culture Matter?
Organizational culture is the composite values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of the organization. It defines what is necessary to "fit in." Culture includes everything from how long breaks last to more nuanced issues like what to do if you have an idea about how to improve a process.
Culture is different from employee engagement or employee satisfaction, although those are a reflection of the culture. Although many companies still try to explain their culture with emotions like "fun" or "a relaxed work environment." Others will use descriptions such as "customer-oriented" or "start-up like." Unfortunately, none of these descriptions tell us what behaviors or values are expected from team members.
Culture is influential because it directly affects employee engagement and motivation as well as productivity factors such as customer service and product quality.
When everyone works in the same building, culture grows organically through team activities, cross-functional collaboration, and other shared experiences. Spending time together gives teams a sense of purpose and belonging. Of course, these same dynamics can occur with remote teams, but it takes deliberate attention and proactive effort.
When thinking about creating remote work culture for your virtual team, you'll need to consider all processes, including recruiting, onboarding, career development, performance assessments, collaboration, project management, and supporting technology.
Develop a Foundation of Trust and Safety
The basis of any healthy workplace culture is trust and mutual respect. That foundation allows employees to develop a sense of psychological safety which Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School defines as "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up."
Achieving this with a remote team requires both behavioral and structural considerations.
In terms of behavior, leaders set the tone. They must display the attributes of interest, humility, and fallibility. From leaders, employees learn that it is OK to make mistakes and that discussing problems openly is preferable to sweep them under the rug. Especially if remote work is new for your company, leaders must gather feedback from remote employees, often via team meetings or one-on-one conversations.
When it comes to the supporting structure, improvement management software or other technology for gathering feedback can be enormously helpful to employees and managers alike. Video meeting software is also an essential tool for modern remote teams. It can be a powerful tool for virtual team building.
Focus on Values and Goal Alignment
To create a high-performing remote culture, everyone needs to be wholly aligned with the company's vision, mission, and values. It is the responsibility of leaders to communicate about the strategic vision often and in a way that gives employees the confidence that they can make decisions that make sense given the big picture.
An effective way to turn the strategy from something that only executives think about into the basis for day-to-day activities is to cascade goals down from the overall organization to individual employees. Each employee should know how their work moves the organization closer to its mission.
Remote work requires a different level of trust. Not being able to physically see employees working can be discomforting for managers. However, it can also be uncomfortable for workers because they want others to know that they are fully productive. That's why a clear set of performance metrics should be utilized to help both managers and team members demonstrate that work is getting done.
Define What Daily Working Practices Look Like
The concept of remote work or flexible working is not universally understood in the same way by everyone. Therefore, it is essential to talk with your team to clarify the needs, expectations, and a reasonable standard for connectedness and balance.
For example, it might be good for managers to have virtual open office hours when they will be in an online meeting, and employees can pop in with questions or feedback. On the other hand, they sometimes find they need to create blocks of "meetingless" time for more creative work or tasks that require uninterrupted time.
Managers should keep in mind that just because someone's home is also their office, they are not always "at work." Therefore, interruptions and requests that fall outside of agreed-upon working hours should be kept to emergencies or generously compensated.
Meet In Person When Possible and Fitting
If it were not for COVID, we would strongly advise that remote teams meet in person regularly if at all possible. While building culture virtually is possible, nothing beats a face-to-face encounter for developing trust and cohesion. Now that COVID vaccines are widely available returning to regular in-person contact may be possible for your team.
Aside from getting together for the purpose of getting together, there are other situations in which strong consideration of in-person communication is called for. These include:
- Discussion of topics that are likely to be highly emotional or controversial
- The need to share information that is difficult, complex, and challenging to understand
- An opportunity to meet with customers
You've worked hard to build a strong culture of trust and innovation. It is not simple to maintain it when people don't see each other very often, but it is possible with thoughtfulness and intention. Talk to your team about ways to help people feel supported and connected. It is best to have team meetings that focus on how people are dealing with the isolation and challenges of a remote workplace. Honesty and transparency will go a long way toward building a culture that thrives wherever employees happen to be.