As the COVID-19 pandemic hits its one-year mark, and businesses settle into remote work, some struggle to maintain the positive company culture that existed in person.
With the advent of modern technology and the emergence of cloud computing, traditional employment looks a lot different. Cubicles have been replaced by home offices, water cooler chatter has now been relegated to Slack channels, and commuting now means a 20-second walk to your kitchen table or home office. The office has changed, but the need for positive company culture has not.
In some cases, entire teams are scattered around the world with no centralized office. For example, Virtasant, having no brick and mortar shared space, has employees and contractors located around the globe. The shift to remote work appears to be here to stay as companies recognize the cost benefits and business efficiencies. For example, Global Workplace Analytics reports that almost six out of 10 employers see cost reduction as an advantage. Companies like IBM cut real estate costs by $50 million. Dow Chemical and Nortel saved over 30% on non-real estate expenses. This savings means companies can focus more on their core offerings.
Increases in employee productivity have also been touted as one of the positive byproducts of remote work. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that remote work increases performance by 13 percent. In addition, there is less turnover, and improved work satisfaction. But, despite the multitude of business advantages, how are businesses retaining positive company culture?
For employees, the lure of increased work-life balance is quite attractive. More flexibility and lower expenses for fuel, public transit, and meals make remote comparatively more cost-effective.
But there are downsides. Without an office, typical team-building activities are limited and communication is at risk of erosion. The lack of personal interaction in remote environments tends to lessen opportunities for meaningful connection.
Despite the distance, there are strategies that managers can implement to promote positive company culture in remote teams.
Good communication is a vital component of any relationship, personal or professional. Working remotely makes it hard to get a pulse on employees' experiences at work and how they are doing as a whole.
Claire Schmidt is the CEO of AllVoices, a platform that allows employees to anonymously send feedback to company leadership. She believes that staying connected is even more critical during stressful periods like the ongoing pandemic.
“As a leader, you can no longer walk through the office and chat with people at random anymore. Many employees are dealing with really serious issues at home," says Schmidt. "Whether it's the death of a parent, dealing with caregiving for children who are doing remote learning, or even dealing with themselves or their partner being sick.”
Schmidt shared that other employee relations issues like bullying on platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams have also presented challenges. This is likely because people feel less accountable for their words and actions when hidden behind a screen.
“It's become more clear than ever that building multiple communication channels for employees to speak up to leadership is critical for cultivating positive company culture within remote teams. Some employees are comfortable coming to their manager or HR with feedback, questions, or concerns. Others, especially newer employees who may not have met their manager or HR in person, have not been able to build that trust yet. So it's up to companies to find new avenues of communication for these employees.”
Typically some companies rely on group activities, pingpong tables, and margarita machines to help build relationships among team members. In this new remote configuration, companies are searching for ways to recreate that environment.
Erika Flora is the founder and president of a digital transformation consulting and training company, Beyond 20. She and her team take a creative approach to team building.
“If we're trying to solve a problem as an organization, we'll create a virtual whiteboard and we'll put a bunch of colorful, sticky notes on the whiteboard. Then we'll pose a question and say this is what we're trying to solve and allow people to work on it together because when they're working on a problem and they're figuring something out, it's a different dynamic than if you're just talking to one another and brainstorming.”
Flora is a proponent of the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers and uses it to generate actionable ideas. Beyond 20 also uses an online collaborative whiteboard, Miro to facilitate group work.
She suggests starting a tradition. When the pandemic hit, her co-founder wanted to bring the vacation to work since travel was restricted. Every Friday he started wearing a different Hawaiian shirt. Then, it evolved into a virtual happy hour where employees join in, display colorful backgrounds, and have drinks together.
“It's really kind of silly, but it's really fun,” Flora laughed. “And many people in our company have said ‘these are so great. Let's keep doing them even when we're back in person.’ So I think finding a tradition is important, whatever that may be, whether it's on Mondays or Fridays or for lunch, but find a fun tradition. I think that's something for people to look forward to each week and really can help bond a team.”
Some employers go to great lengths to ensure employees are being productive, including monitoring keystrokes and webcams. IT market research company Gartner revealed that 16% of employers are using technologies to keep tabs on employees using methods like, “virtual clocking in and out, tracking work computer usage, and monitoring employee emails or internal communications/chat.” So how can productivity be encouraged without creating friction among the team?
Janko Micic, Director of Software Engineering at Virtasant explained how his team handles employee accountability.
“Each manager tracks the performance of his team members. Every member is assigned a ticket that describes functionality that needs to be delivered and is scoped to a day of work, and the ticket should not have any external blockers or dependencies toward other team members. We can implicitly say that our goal is to have five tickets delivered every week by every engineer.”
In regards to incentives Micic added, “Our idea is to isolate the best performers and promote them to a higher role. We will use metrics to identify the best performers. If we find someone underperforming, we will coach them in the area they need coaching. We can identify that because we are tracking all tickets in JIRA. We are growing at the moment but we take into consideration the complexity of tasks as well.”
According to research, more than 38% of remote workers struggle to achieve a healthy balance between work and personal life. Employees tend to take cues from superiors, and set expectations based on how leadership approaches work. Seeing the boss making home life as much as a priority as work can make all the difference.
“Company leaders serve as beacons for company culture. If leadership isn’t using policies aimed at creating a good work-life balance, employees won’t feel comfortable using them either,” said Ed Stevens, CEO of the relationship-building platform Preciate. “For example, your company may have a robust parental leave policy in place, but if the last two managers only used a third of their allotted leave, it may make others feel like they shouldn't take the full time either in order to meet expectations.”
When in doubt, ask questions. It’s simple but always relevant advice. If you want to learn what your team needs to feel nurtured by positive company culture, go straight to the source.
“Especially when working from home, it can be difficult for employees to let others know when they are struggling,” Stevens added. “Take some time in your regular meetings to ask if there is anything they need or could use advice on. This opens up the door and helps employees be more open and honest with what's going on both at work and in their personal lives, enabling managers and company leadership to provide relevant support.”
Remote work has presented itself as the best option for the times and also exists as a way to build a global business. While working remotely has benefits, it’s especially important to be intentional about creating a semblance of community.