Remote Working: The Culture Effect #SHRM19

 

Not a lot of organizations look at remote working with a favorable eye. To the majority, it is still the root to all evil when it comes to productivity, engagement and performance, and they don’t have to be old school management to think that way. We all remember how IBM banned remote working in 2017 as did Yahoo way back in 2013 – Yahoo’s reasoning being that to communicate, collaborate and be the best place to work, people must be “side-by-side.”

Like all new trends shaping the scene when it comes to how we work in the future, more research continues to be published about remote working, the pros, the cons and how to make it work for organizations that have taken full plunge. The most recent being a two year study done by Google, where 5,600 of its employees were surveyed to get insight into how to do remote working better. Just to give you an idea of the scale of remote working at Google: Approximately 30 percent of the Google’s meetings involve staff in more than two time zones, and 39 percent involve more than two cities. The intention of this post is not to explain why remote working ‘works.’ But while we are at it, it’s worthwhile mentioning that Google’s study found that distributed teams performed just as well as their centrally located counterparts. It also found that working remotely comes with its own share of frustration. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

In a nutshell, yes, remote working can be really tough – for both employee and the organization.

From my readings, I found that one particular theme seems to cut across all research – organizations must be very deliberate about creating culture alignment between co-located and remote teams. To better understand the importance of cohesive corporate culture in remote working, I turned to Professor Jonathan Smilansky, Academic Director of the Career Management Center at the Tel Aviv University Business School and a leading lecturer in the field of Human Resource Management. Professor Jonathan is an international expert on management development and employee engagement and a consultant to leading organizations. Previously, he was the Global Human Resources EVP at Universal (New York) and at the Meridien hotel chain (London), VP Internal Services at Visa International EMEA (London) and a Partner at Hay Management Consultants (London). He published numerous professional papers including one of today’s leading books in the field of management development “Developing Executive Talent” (Wiley). Professor Jonathan will be speaking at the upcoming 2019 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition (#SHRM19) in Las Vegas about “Building Management Teams in International Businesses: The Need for Cross-Cultural Emotional Cohesion.”

I asked Professor Jonathan about how remote teams are shaping the future of work today. His reply was that “in many of today's international businesses there are remote teams operating in different countries. There may be R&D functions in Eastern Europe or Asia, manufacturing in a variety of settings and of course sales offices globally. But even within the United States, businesses will have multiple sites and a single manager will in many cases have employee groups spread around.”

A cohesive culture is key and HR is accountable

A lot of people think, Oh, if everybody’s scattered throughout the world, it’s impossible to have a team that functions, that works, that meets objectives. But we know that a cohesive company culture makes this possible so a key question we need to find answers to is how do we build an aligned culture between co-located and remote teams. According to Professor Jonathan, “the key element here is the realization that having a cohesive team is important for business effectiveness and for employee engagement that is critical for effectiveness. It may be easier to build cohesion in a single location but it is no less important when one's team is spread around. We know that building a cohesive team is based on a number of elements such as sharing a common vision and strategy, sharing each other's objectives and work progress, discussing successes and challenges, sharing emotionally meaningful moments like birthdays, etc. And with focused effort, all of these can be done remotely with the help of our modern communication tools.” He also added that “building team cohesion and cultural alignment are management objectives, just like the achievement of business objectives - but it is HR's accountability to ensure that managers at all levels understand these challenges, have the knowledge and skills required for carrying them out and monitoring that this is actually happening everywhere.”

One must keep in mind though that cultural differences across the different parts of the world, different time zones play out in company culture. From Professor Jonathan’s experience, “having worked as a senior executive in businesses where the headquarters was in New York, London or Paris as well as consulting to a broad range of businesses in different national settings – the business and people issues are similar but there are wide variations in communication patterns. Messages are communicated and interpreted very differently in different cultures and managers and HR executives need to be aware and to consider these differences.”

Remote working is not going away soon, yet how do organizations prepare?

In Professor Jonathan’s opinion “remote working is only going to expand as businesses see the advantages of using employees with different basis of expertise and the costs associated with that. Expanded communication tools facilitate this process. Companies and HR functions need to build their level of expertise in managing remotely while being aware that cultural differences and the impact of not seeing people face-to-face always have negative impacts. The organization needs to invest in continuously addressing these issues through manager training and through corporate communication processes (instead of pretending that these challenges do not exist).”

Bringing it home

My takeaway from my conversation with Professor Jonathan is summarized in this conclusion he draws ‘to be aware that as business pressures increase - for example when the business is facing more intense competitive pressures, when there are senior management changes, when there are acquisitions or significant parts of the business are sold, when there are significant changes in technology and strategic directions – then they impact communication effectiveness and cultural differences within the business become much more challenging. It is like a building that has in it weak spots, small cracks, that under normal situations do not pose any danger. But when there is an earthquake, even a small one that would not usually endanger the structure, all of these cracks become much larger and the whole thing can collapse. Therefore, focused efforts on addressing communication within culturally diverse organizations in general is a key element of risk management in preparing for when times become more challenging.”

 

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