Good people are attracted to a great company culture, and top talent stays because of it. While company culture can be purposefully and strategically designed by senior leaders, it is also a culmination of all the little things, guided by collective values, beliefs and practices, that happen organically and sometimes accidentally within an organization. Culture drives engagement and shows up in what people say and do when they walk through the halls, pop into someone’s office or bump into someone while getting a coffee. A good company culture can contribute as much as 20-30% in performance differential (HBR, Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture, 2013) and the physical workplace is a key component.
After nine months in this new virtual world, employee engagement and company culture are suffering. Common, spontaneous situations have been removed from our everyday, and some people are beginning to deeply miss the collegiality of a shared work environment. In a remote work situation, every conversation is scheduled, and as people tire of video and conference calls, there is little appetite for “virtual socials” or “small chat” at the front end of business meetings. When such events do happen, they can feel contrived and inauthentic, not to mention uncomfortable for team members who struggle with a virtual social format . To add to the problem, burnout is on the rise, and people are looking to spend less time in front of a computer screen. This leaves leaders feeling perplexed as they grapple with how to maintain and develop engagement and culture as remote working continues to extend into the foreseeable future.
“After nine months in this new virtual world, employee engagement and company culture are suffering.”
While there is no replacement for working together in a shared space, there are a few things that leaders can do to intentionally build engagement and maintain a positive team culture while working remotely. Purposefully engaging in some of the suggested activities below can help you intentionally cultivate a more productive and rewarding culture for your team.
To begin, take a step back. Reflect on the hallmarks of your pre-pandemic culture. Make a list of how those elements of culture embodied themselves in terms of activities, sense of feeling, physical environment and cadence. Make a short list of the top 3-5 strong, positive elements of team culture that are missing in your current reality.
Next, reflect on the less desirable elements of your pre-pandemic culture. What are some components that you’d like to say goodbye to? What slowed you down in getting things done and executing on your goals? Make a short list of 3-5 culture elements that you’d like to avoid integrating into your remote working culture.
Finally, think about the new culture that you’d like to create. The reality is, in a remote environment, culture will show up differently. Rather than trying to recreate a past that isn’t going to return, embrace the opportunity to start something new. Think about organizations in different industries and consider which elements of their culture might drive increased engagement or innovation in your team. Make a short list of 3-5 new practices that you’d like to adopt.
Create your plan
Once you have prioritized your lists of cultural do’s, don’ts and wants, make a clear plan for how you will intentionally keep alive your most impactful cultural assets, how you will leave your cultural de-railers in the past and the new frontiers you’d like to explore. Be mindful about how any new plans will impact your team. Avoid ideas that will create extra work or additional screen time. Prioritize ideas that are easy to implement and will give an instant boost to the team. Finally, reflect on the diverse nature of your team and ensure that the practices you are adopting are inclusive and respectful of each members’ background and style. Here are some ideas to inspire you:
- Create rituals. People crave a sense of belonging, and rituals help create consistency, predictability and drive a sense of community in an isolating time. Think about how new rituals can act as a catalyst for the culture you want to create. Reflect on your cultural “do’s” or “wants” and brainstorm rituals that could help to solidify them. Perhaps it is starting every day with an inspirational quote or beginning every meeting with a gratitude for a team member. The options are endless, but incorporating rituals into your daily leadership practice will help ground your team during an otherwise unpredictable time.
- Virtual water cooler. Innovation, decisions and relationships all happen at the water cooler and it is probably one of the most deeply missed elements of the shared workplace. Use virtual channels like Slack to recreate the water cooler and normalize using this challenge to take a break from a busy work day. Use OneNote or similar programs as a place where team members can share personal stories or anecdotes they would have naturally shared with each other in the office.
- If your team regularly celebrated milestones or big wins pre-pandemic, adopt an easy way to carry on the celebration in a virtual context, without putting another meeting in people’s calendars. Have everyone on the team send an email simultaneously to the person of honour. Or collect testimonials from all team members and share them in a meaningful format to recognize the individual. Remember to focus on celebrating the things that are important to your culture, whether its new ideas, client success stories, examples of living the organization values or anniversaries. Acknowledging these moments in meaningful ways will help keep their importance alive.
Sustain the momentum
Culture is more than just a declaration of “who we are” and some cutesy activities. A positive, productive culture requires intentional effort and ongoing monitoring. Once you’ve established your plan, remember these tips as you implement:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be clear on the culture that you want to create. Document it, provide updates and genuinely reinforce and encourage it at every opportunity.
- Create check in’s and ways to assess your progress. Making these anonymous will enable candour and help confirm if you are on the right track.
- Provide feedback and coach. As a leader, part of your role in driving culture is to provide feedback to team members on their contributions. Acknowledge people when they are enabling your culture, and help people identify when they could contribute more.
- Consider sub-cultures. Consider the dynamic between team members in addition to that of the broader team. These dynamics can impact the cultural health of the broader team if you are not attuned to them.
- Be inclusive: Remember that we all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and everyone will find their own way to live the shared culture values.
Culture matters. It is a critical driver of employee engagement, productivity and business results. While the pandemic continues on, be intentional in the culture you are fostering to ensure you are creating meaningful employee experiences while maximizing your return on people investment.