As remote work was suddenly thrust upon organizations just a few months ago, businesses at large scrambled to find online tools to keep their workflow, and their culture, moving along. For many, this sudden shift to a more remote work environment highlighted culture issues and challenges that may have been hidden or not seen as important in the real-world office. Issues with culture can reveal itself in many ways, from how well employees get along and support each other, to how they take care of customers, and productivity can suffer as a result of it all. It also shows up in how disengaged employees are; how disconnected they feel which is never more clear than in a desire to work remotely, versus around their co-workers.
Whatever the symptoms of cultural ailments you may be experiencing, you’re not alone; let’s face it, there’s no such thing as perfect and we all need to work at culture every day. It’s not something you do once and it sticks; and it's not something that stays the same therefore attention to it is key. So, if your business was already struggling in this area pre-pandemic, how can you possibly turn it around with the new challenges before us? And how on earth do you address that without the benefit of face-to-face interaction and in-person collaboration?
It’s never too late. It does take hard work and a concerted effort to build the trust that underpins positive culture, but it is definitely possible. It also takes a belief common to everyone involved that it’s important, and the commitment to improve it. If you’ve stumbled in this area before, you can still set your leadership and team on the right path—even during a pandemic. In fact, it’s more important than ever right now that each and every employee feels valued, supported, and rewarded for their efforts.
Building and even repairing company culture remotely
Not only is it feasible to rebuild or create a positive culture, but it can be done remotely. Leading, coaching, and nurturing your teams does not stop when you move to an online environment; in fact, these skills are even more critical for remote teams.
1. Place employees at the heart of your culture-building strategy.
You can’t just tell employees to be happy, especially not now. Think of everything they’re going through in their personal and work lives at this moment. People have very real health and safety concerns. They’re juggling new or increased responsibilities at home. They’re exposed to an onslaught of news and other media constantly reminding them of the fragile state of our economy, environment, and way of life. And they’re scared; don’t forget that.
Start from a place of empathy. Get feedback and input from staff to generate better ideas and increase buy-in. A simple thing to do, but big on value. And while we’re at it, culture is not built top-down; it’s the other way around. Senior leadership may express the culture they want, but keep in mind there’s already a culture there. It may not be the desired one, but getting that buy-in on how it should be, must come from the entire team. There isn’t anything worse than trying to implement an initiative when you spring it on your staff and they are hearing it for the first time. Further, culture is too personal; it comes from the heart. So instructing everyone on what is and/or should be is an approach that is destined to fail. The answer to finding out how to identify the culture that will provide an environment where the employees and the company wins is simple. Ask them.
As we face down reopening in various stages and the possibility of backsliding depending on COVID-19 infection numbers, you might find that the fully remote environment isn’t the right answer for everyone. Perhaps a hybrid model is an option; but it must include the appropriate safety protocols such as employee clustering, allow for distanced in-person collaboration, and account for contact tracing.
What matters most is that you are asking employees for ideas and input on how they can best work together. How they can best manage their own jobs and be productive and fulfilled right now? What would set them up to win? Chances are, they have suggestions that you haven’t considered. Or asked for. Yet.
Let your teams know how valuable their feedback is. Provide them a safe, anonymous platform to submit suggestions. Be clear there are no repercussions for sharing their feedback, positive or negative. Expect that there will be differing concerns. Consider each and every suggestion an opportunity to course-correct your culture. There’s only one response to feedback and that’s “thank you.”
2. Ask yourself if you’re part of the problem.
Take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself what role you could be playing in your company's culture problems. Are your efforts helping or hindering its success?
This inward view can be difficult for leaders. You could be inadvertently contributing to poor employee engagement or an unfriendly/uncollaborative atmosphere where trust is tough to come by. Listen, trust is a tricky thing - you can’t demand it. You can give it and earn it - and you can lose it in a second (and it’s hard to win back). Or maybe you’re not a big believer in culture as an influencing factor in business success… but I promise you, that culture is there whether you acknowledge it or not. If you feel like you’re succeeding without a great culture, and you might be, as yourself how much better your business could be if you had that, too.
Regardless of the role you play now or have in the past, start now. You get to decide how you will help move a more positive culture forward—as does every single one of your employees. Are you inspiring them through your own actions to be open, trustworthy, and reliable? If you’re going to lead in an area that makes a real impact, this is it.
3. Training and development matters. Don’t stop now.
Regardless of whether your employees are remote, in-office, or a combination thereof, training is essential for them to thrive and achieve their goals. If they’re going to support your business targets, you need your employees feeling filled up and energetic. Investing time to provide training lets your team know that you are interested in their development, and you value what they bring to the table. A total win-win.
Skills sharing allows an employee to share their knowledge with other staff members. These super-efficient 30-60-minute sessions are a motivating accomplishment for the presenter and can be more engaging for trainees. Skill-shares are easy to administer virtually. Make it manageable for the presenter by encouraging them to prepare only minimal materials and instead focus on sharing their experience and actionable takeaways with fellow employees. And remember, teaching is now about letting everyone know how much you know; it’s about expanding the skills and knowledge of those attending. So lot’s of interaction and time for Q&A is important too.
Online training should continue remotely. Pre-recorded videos and courses that employees can start and stop as their schedules allow are great formats for the current environment. Remember that team members are juggling home and work priorities right now, so lengthy intensive sessions are not ideal.
4. Communicate often across channels.
Open, two-way communication takes effort and thoughtful design. You’ll have tools for workflow and project management, virtual team-building and other activities, meetings, announcements and notices, and more. How will you make sure every single employee feels included and no important messaging is missed?
Provide opportunities for one-on-one time and platforms where employees can chat via video, audio, or text. Help them understand the best channels for each type of communication, as well. You might provide a Slack channel for quick questions and answers and check-ins, but prefer that project updates and resources are kept in Basecamp, for example. Perhaps you would rather have team-wide announcements posted on the Intranet rather than in an email chain. If that’s the case, those preferences need to be a part of your communications program and training.
What you really don’t want is employees feeling lost and disengaged at home, unsure of who to ask or where to get in touch with them. And if you have team members that prefer to be disengaged find out why. It may just be the nature of the job, but it could be something more (and a culture problem could be in that mix).
5. Make your culture a priority, not an item on your to-do list.
Exceptional company culture doesn’t just happen. You need to focus on it and commit to it every single day. If reaching your business targets is your only priority but it is at the expense of employees rather than through supporting and building them up, you’re not building a sustainable business.
Retaining and sourcing the right talent is going to get more complicated after this pandemic, as it has given employees time to pause and reevaluate what’s really important to them.
When businesses are fully open again, will employees feel comfortable returning to work for an organization that pushed through at the expense of their well-being? I would bet money that a good deal of people will seek to work for companies that put their people first and demonstrate great culture. Wherever you’re at today that could very well be you, leading in your company and industry with a fired-up, passionate workforce.
You just have to get started. Now is a good time.