Our world looks a lot different than it did not even a year ago. As we’ve lived and worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been forced to adapt to the uncertainty and disruption that came with it. Any time the world faces disruption, change and innovation ensue, and this pandemic is no different.
One such case is the push for businesses to adapt to remote work. Honestly, if your organization didn’t already have some sort of remote-work plan in place—whether that came in the form of allowing employees to work from home one day a week or ditching the brick-and-mortar office entirely—you’re well behind the curve of where modern businesses are headed and what employees expect today.
According to a GetApp study released in January, the amount of people who work remotely at least once a week has grown by 400 percent over the last 10 years. And based on a study by Buffer, 99 percent of people would choose to work remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers.
Remote work was coming whether you were ready for it or not, and thanks to COVID-19, many businesses got the nudge they needed to catch up to where the modern workforce is headed.
But adjusting to remote work does come with challenges. Namely, the effects of remote work on team culture. “How do you create a culture when everybody is not in the same space?” asks Carla Harris, vice chairman and managing director of Morgan Stanley, in this interview with Leadercast. “I don’t think industries and companies are going to be in a position where they can demand that everybody be in the same place at the same time when you have competition saying you don’t need to do that. So then how do you create a culture when you don’t have proximity of bodies?”
As a remote worker myself with years working with all kinds of leaders through Leadercast’s mission to fill the world with leaders worth following, here are some insights I’ve learned that may help you on your journey to building the remote team culture you want for your organization.
1. Get clear on your purpose, mission and values, and communicate them well.
For seasoned leaders, this might seem like leadership 101, but it is pivotal for culture building and can’t be stressed enough. I know we’re talking about remote culture here, but really it doesn’t matter if you’re meeting in person or working virtually—if you don’t have clarity around your purpose, mission and the values for which your company stands, you will have an impossible time creating a cohesive culture. Without clarity in these areas, your team members won’t know what they exist to do within the organization, what they’re working to achieve, who they serve or for what they stand. And if your employees are lost, you can bet your customers will be too.
How are you and your team living out the organization’s purpose and values each day? Are the actions you take getting you one step closer to achieving your mission? Have your actions changed at all or become less prominent since working remotely? If they have, you may need to consider how you, as a leader, are communicating your purpose, mission, and values so they continue to serve as firm roots for the organization and its culture regardless of office location.
A great starting point is to develop a culture code, an employee handbook that breaks down the specifics of your company culture. If your organization doesn’t have one, now is the time to create it. Your culture code should include items like your purpose and mission statement, your core values, company traditions, expected employee behaviors and norms, your vision for where the team is headed, etc. (For example, check out this culture code by Netflix or this one by HubSpot.) This is a living document that you can not only share internally but externally, too. By doing so, customers and potential hires will have a transparent view of who they’re doing business with (or hoping to work for) and will know your commitment to culture building.
2. Dedicate time for people to connect “away from their desks.”
My husband recently started a new job, and typically in the first week, you’d meet one-on-one with the people on the team and across different departments to get an overview of the company and how it operates. You’d go out to lunch with your teammates to get to know them on a more personal level and you’d introduce yourself to others in the breakroom, too.
Due to COVID-19, my husband’s first week looked much different. His company is operating virtually through the end of the year (at the least), so he didn’t get to meet his teammates in the way he usually would—a scenario all too many employees and employers can relate to right now.
According to a study published by the Academy of Management, teams operate better when employees care about one another. Providing opportunities for employees to connect outside of the jobs they do together is one way to build care among your team. No matter if your team is virtual or in-person, it’s important for leaders to encourage moments designed to build deeper connections. In an office setting, we do this often through team-building activities, holiday and birthday celebrations, brain breaks, etc. It also happens organically as colleagues eat lunch together in the breakroom or have quick chats by the watercooler.
Virtual social connection is much more challenging because you have to be intentional about dedicating time online specifically for relationship building. In the case of my husband, his company planned a virtual happy hour at the end of a workday for everyone to meet him and play virtual games that encouraged them all to get to know each other better and connect as a team.
3. Understand individual work styles.
While many employees might prefer to work virtually, the reality is that not everyone is cut out for working from home. As leaders know, some workers are great at prioritizing tasks and managing their time. These are the people who perform best with little management. Others, however, may need more guidance.
If your organization were to choose to close its office doors permanently and operate virtually instead, you’d be careful to hire people who are self-motivated and who thrive with little supervision. In this filmed interview with Leadercast, Pamela McClinton, senior director of information technology at Freedom Mortgage, explains that one of the most critical qualities a virtual candidate worth hiring must have is self-motivation. A few questions leaders can ask when interviewing virtual candidates to learn if they are self-starters are:
- “How do you work alone?”
- “What inspires you?”
- “How are you self-motivated?”
- “How do you want to do your work every day?”
Right now, many office-based companies have been thrust into a work-from-home model with little knowledge of how current employees work on their own. I’d encourage leaders to sit down with their team members and ask them these hiring questions above. Yes, they may already be on staff, but it can give you clues as to what you can do as a leader to support the team members who performed well in the office but are no longer doing so now that they’re at home. The last thing you want is one underperforming apple to set a tone for the culture of your team as they establish and learn new norms that come with working remotely.
4. Communication is the backbone of a great remote culture.
OK, the same could be said for in-office teams, but for those working virtually, it becomes even more critical for everyone to be in the loop on new plans, company changes and employer expectations. And according to a 2019 report by HubSpot, communication between coworkers is one of the biggest challenges remote workers routinely face.
To combat this, you can host a daily virtual standup meeting as a way to keep lines of communication open between yourself and your team members. Through these meetings, you’re able to communicate priorities, timelines, and company changes or updates with your team, and your team members are able to share with you what challenges they’re facing, where they need support and offer feedback. Virtual standups also serve as an accountability system (did your team members accomplish what they said they would in yesterday’s standup?). Keep these meetings short, maybe 15 minutes or so. If an employee mentions a hiccup they’ve encountered, meet with them privately afterward to be mindful of the rest of the team’s time. Additionally, while you may have flexibility in individual work hours (some people may work the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while others may clock in a few hours at night after their kids go to bed, for example), holding these meetings at a set time every morning is a good way to get the team working on a similar schedule.
An important note about communicating effectively when working virtually is to understand and establish communication preferences. Do your team members prefer email, instant messaging or video calls? Make sure everyone is aware of each other’s preferences and work together as a team to set norms for how to best communicate with one another.
Maybe you’ve seen the benefits of remote work during your time navigating this pandemic. Or maybe your organization, like many, wasn’t very prepared for virtual work and has yet to overcome the challenges that come with the adjustment. With that, I encourage you to give it more time. Let this season serve as a trial in creating and tailoring your remote-work policy for whenever you’re back in the office—because if you don’t, you may lose valuable talent to companies that provide more flexibility. The world just took a major step closer to supporting remote work on a grander scale; your business has to do the same.