Elizabeth Bille & Jesse Bridges

Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, once said that “culture is what people do when no one is looking.” It follows, then, that in a remote, socially-isolated working environment, our online workplace cultures will take on a more critical role than ever before.

A 2019 study shows that remote work is not new for many U.S. employees. However, having large swaths of a workforce suddenly dispersed, particularly in a time of economic uncertainty, disrupted operations, and personal stress, can test a company’s cultural fabric. Organizations with strong cultures prior to COVID-19 can, with intentional effort, continue to reap the benefits of that healthy workplace culture during challenging times, capitalizing on employee engagement and innovation to drive business continuity. Those with unhealthy workplace cultures will likely struggle even more.

Taken together, leaders are asking themselves critical questions such as: “How will having a disparate workforce impact my organization’s culture? Can we maintain all of our pre-COVID-19 efforts to maintain our positive workplace culture and environment? How can we leverage this unprecedented moment to improve our workplace culture?”

Drawing from experiences of employees who work remotely full time, below are steps that leaders at all levels of your organization can take to maintain a strong workplace culture even when your employees are miles apart.

Identify Your Workplace Culture Strengths

To make a workplace culture continuity plan, if you will, first identify which aspects of your workplace culture are “mission-critical,” representing the heart or ethos of your organization. Although “in-person” attributes such as dress codes, recognition events, or office perks may come to mind, dig deeper. Workplace culture is often driven by intangibles such as your mission, values, traditions, communication, and day-to-day interactions – in other words, by the words and actions of your people, wherever they may be.

Once identified, you can then think of new ways to reinforce these culture drivers in a remote environment. Doing this work well, however, requires effective communication.

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Communicate with Intentionality

The importance of connectivity and positive communication cannot be overemphasized in your effort to enhance or maintain the critical elements of your positive workplace culture – particularly when employees are physically dispersed.

5 Ways To Communicate Effectively:

  1. Ensure your workforce has proper access to systems and resources to do their job and communicate with others remote working
  2. Consider the balance between the quantity and quality of communication that is happening
  3. Solicit suggestions from team members on the cadence of meetings and schedule visibility
  4. Be aware of the tone and content of communication to ensure alignment with culture and values
  5. Proclaim your organization’s mission and values repeatedly

Before COVID-19, remote workers actually dedicated more time per week to meetings than onsite employees (with 14% of remote workers reporting that they have more than 10 meetings per week, compared to 3% of their onsite colleagues); yet remote workers said meetings reduced productivity 1.8 times more than onsite workers.

So while it may seem reasonable to replace an in-person meeting or casual hallway conversation with a scheduled phone call or web conference, too many meetings can decrease productivity and morale. To avoid overbooking your workers, especially those juggling child care or other demands during the work day, request their input – this signals a level of collaboration and compassion, and fosters productivity, in a way that doesn’t feel like micromanagement.

A physically-distanced work environment can also create conditions ripe for digital harassment, as stress, fatigue, and incivility in online environments become more pronounced. Address warning signs of disrespectful, culture-harming behavior early by consistently emphasizing your organization’s mission and values, and communicating with compassion, flexibility, and positive intent. This can go a long way to safeguard-and reinforce-culture in this “new normal.”

Reimagine Workplace Traditions – and Make Some New Ones

One article posits that “the traditions of a workplace are its ongoing and recurring practices. They are its conventions, customs, rituals, ceremonies, activities, and physical workspace arrangements.” These practices, formal and informal, create shared experiences that contribute to unique workplace cultures and drive engagement and retention.

If certain workplace customs are critical to your culture, here are a few ideas for reimagining them in a remote environment:

  • Continue to share informational updates and reinforce company values through virtual all-hands meetings. Record them, if possible, so employees who cannot attend due to caregiving responsibilities or other conflicts can fully participate
  • Spotlight new hires and employee anniversaries through pictures of staff in their home workspace and with their “coworkers” (pets, family)
  • Encourage social connections like virtual movies, book clubs, coffee meetups, happy hours, or lunch groups via video conferencing or chat rooms
  • Celebrate the accomplishment of team goals, employee achievements, or staff birthdays with a virtual party
  • If your organization has them, leverage Employee Resource Groups to host virtual events, discussions and development opportunities for specific populations of employees and their allies
  • Organize a virtual volunteer activity to replace your company picnic or team-building event. Volunteer Match, for example, provides a long list of virtual opportunities related to COVID-19 support and other causes. Have employees share stories of how they served with their colleagues.

Finally, keep inclusion top of mind when planning these activities. For example, ensure team members who don’t drink alcohol or coffee, or who have family care obligations or other accessibility needs can participate.

A positive workplace culture is not something that is ever achieved, but an ongoing process that requires attention and intention. And now, more than ever, a positive culture is not a “nice to have”: it is mission-critical for business continuity. It is what will keep your business running during this unprecedented time when “no one is looking.” So the question shouldn’t be how can your culture survive, but how can it thrive?

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