Company Culture: How to Sustain it When Working Remotely

Company Culture: How to Sustain it When Working Remotely

When more and more employees work remotely, what happens to company culture? In this article, we explore what company culture is and why it matters. We delve into what you can do to nurture a great culture, also when employees are now working remotely, as digital nomads or using a hybrid model.

Mirjam Buitelaar | May 30th, 2021

Businesses are finally starting to feel at home working from home. The novelty has worn off and teams are getting accustomed to the flexibility of remote, hybrid, and the digitally nomadic (place unconstrained) working lifestyle. But now that we are past the reactionary period, what has happened to our company culture?

Losing a sense of identity and collective mission as a company can easily happen when there are more pressing fires to put out. Internal branding gets put to one side and employees and leaders might drift away from the values and norms you worked hard to instill. Have we lost sight of who we are as a business? How do we get our employees aligned with our culture once again?

Let’s first take a look at what company culture is and why it matters before we delve into how remote work might influence it and what you can do as a company to nurture, maintain or restore a collective identity.

What is company culture and why should we care?

“Company culture eats strategy for breakfast” - Peter Drucker

Company culture is not just a set of values or Maxims brandished on the walls and championed in front of potential clients. For some, that is the case though. In a study of 24 major UK brands by Lucy Kellaway, she found that only 5 of their top executives knew their values. They are merely words on paper for many, but those executives misunderstand the power of company culture.

In truth, company culture is the core personality of your business. It is the organic rule set that governs how people behave towards one another, toward the brand, and how they act in service of the overall purpose. It articulates your internal branding and guides what an employer values and actively encourages in their employees.

“So, why is it important? We have bigger fish to fry right now.”

That would be a fair response if your employees weren’t entirely responsible for your ability to achieve success. Again, company culture isn’t just splashed on the walls. It is deep seeded. It connects the people that work for your business and informs them of the standards, behaviors, and expectations.

If it is not managed, employees may become disengaged which lowers productivity, quality of work, and innovation. It eventually costs your company money.

What is different between in-person and remote company cultures?

The majority of companies have gone through the pandemic with their fingers crossed hoping things will work out. Significant investments have been made to provide teams with the infrastructure to operate remotely but little attention has been paid to the distinct difference between in-person and remote company culture.

Remote Culture Requires More Attention

To actively sustain a company culture when employees are mostly working remotely requires more intention and attention. It needs more champions because informal conversations and tacit learning don’t take place face to face in the work environment. Employees are at home or maybe even in coffee shops. They are more disconnected from the typical expectations of them if they are not reaffirmed.

New Hires Can Struggle

Company culture and tacit learning is especially important when it comes to new hires. Whilst in person, the window they get into culture is gleaned consciously and subconsciously from their peers and the environment. When onboarding exclusively remotely, they don’t hear the in-jokes and tone of the conversation that often informs how they should treat others. This can quickly lead to isolation, loneliness, and even insecurity.

Work Becomes a Focal Point

For your tenured employees, remote and hybrid work has caused change. The obvious culture costs have been the chit-chat with colleagues, and the barriers to collaborative work. The isolation and human side can easily get overlooked by managers who are focused on achieving results. Unfortunately, however, human emotions and feelings play a large role in performance management.

Beyond the connection, remote work has also subliminally become the focal point of their daily lives. Employees struggle to switch off and psychologically commute home. This dampens the energy, motivation, and overall engagement they bring to work every day.

Signs Your Company Culture is Struggling

When humans struggle with identity issues, we buy Harley Davidsons or soft-top cars but what does it look like for a company? Company culture might be somewhat intangible at times but disengagement has real impacts.

High Turnover

The first major sign that your remote culture is not quite working is your retention of new hires. Those that have been in your company for less than two years. Do they stay or move on? What caused them to consider looking elsewhere so quickly after joining your company?

High churn rates are a good indicator that your culture is having a negative impact. You might think that’s just standard for the industry but think about the expense. It costs about 20% of an employee's annual salary to replace them by the time recruitment, onboarding, productivity losses, and more are accounted for.

People rarely leave jobs for no reason. They typically leave because of toxic cultures, boredom, and poor management. If your company experiences high staff turnover, it might be time to assess your culture.

Lack of Employee Suggestions in Problem Solving & Idea Generation

Google ran a study known as Project Aristotle to find what factors impact their teams the most.  Psychological safety came out on top - by a distance. What is it? The social safety from embarrassment to contribute novel ideas, admit mistakes, raise concerns and speak up.

Employees who don’t speak up or highlight potential problems don’t feel psychologically safe. They feel they will be embarrassed or labeled incompetent which stifles your business's opportunity to innovate.

Poor psychological safety is generally associated with a troubled company culture. The trust and respect between peers have dwindled somewhat. If your employees don’t feel safe to admit mistakes and suggest ideas, the business as a whole suffers.

Negative Internal Communications

Communication is a vital sign of company culture and like any vital sign, when it goes south, it takes a lot with it.

Keep an eye on how staff interact with each other and especially with management. If there is negative competition, gossip, or overly harsh feedback that verges on disrespect from either party, something has gone wrong.

Negative communications fester and impact other team members. Good company cultures automatically let people know that this is not ok and if it doesn’t, it is time to check-in.

Employees Frequently Work Late

A willingness to work late is often a misnomer of positive culture, especially in the remote environment. If employees are put under pressure to work late or through breaks, then morale and engagement will eventually begin to decline.

Late working is usually indicative of an imbalance in the work-life dynamic. It may achieve the immediate aims of a manager but the long-term implications are damaging. Employees who are not psychologically safe enough to clock off are the result of a concerning company culture.

High Absenteeism and Lateness

Absenteeism costs $2,660 annually per shift work employee in the US. Among the main reasons for discretionary and unplanned sick days are stress, disengagement, lack of motivation and work-life balance, and illness. Most of these are avoidable by improving your culture.

If you see a growing trend of absenteeism and punctuality problems among your workforce, it is time to do something about it.

7 Tips for Establishing a Positive, Remote Company Culture

1. Make Your Values Clear

Your values are the foundational verbiage of how you do things. They guide your decision-making throughout the business life cycle.

Work collaboratively with your stakeholders to define who you are as a company and what rules you live by. Ask yourself: What values will help us achieve our goals? Now and in the future? What is important to us in terms of how we behave and what is perceived by our customers, the surrounding community, and others?

Once your values are clear, activate them by disseminating them to your employees in every example you set and communication you provide as a leader. Values are nothing when they are not tied to actions.

2. Senior Leaders Must Walk the Talk

As much as we want everyone to take part in creating and feeling part of the company culture, it is ultimately led by leadership figures. They are the living and breathing ambassadors of the culture that they believe in.

It is the senior leader's role to make sure that your values and culture is the one they champion. Often for newly onboarded remote employees, they are unfamiliar with the culture and will look at others' behavior, especially that of your top company executives. Without their genuine buy-in and belief in your culture, it is almost impossible to harmonize employee expectations and get everyone to live by the values.

Leadership living the company culture allows every other employee to fall in line behind them. But, they must also be given the tools to do so.

3. Give Employees Concrete Examples and Training in what “Living by the Values” Means

HR teams need to provide coaching and training on what the culture looks like in action.

How do we make decisions in line with the culture? How does my management style align with the values? Do I need to improve my skillset to deliver the right messages? Am I in need of coaching to understand how to be a better leader?

Company culture that is not exemplified in obvious examples is typically lost on employees. Unless it is tied to tangible practices, executives and employees alike lose sight and interest and begin to develop their own.


4. Apply Remote First Thinking

The tendency for leadership is to treat remote workers as an extension of an in-office team especially when you have a hybrid model. This is pretty much the opposite of what should be done.

If remote work is the agreed status for part of your team, it should be respected and valued. Communications, events, meetings, and other interactions should be convenient and sympathetic to the remote workforce. Not as an afterthought or as an inconvenience.

As soon as you start having informal conversations and meetings that leave the remote team out, you cause fractures, mistrust, and misunderstandings among the wider team.

It is also worth remembering the remote, hybrid, or nomad work style can add time flexibility to the variables worth considering. Unless your team works the same hours regardless of location, you will likely end up with asynchronous schedules.

Adopt your thinking to be remote first. Communication and clarity are key. How can you keep everyone in communication and collaboration with incongruent locations and schedules? How can I always involve my remote team? What does the new plan look like for remote employees? Are the voices of my remote staff heard?

5. Make Company Culture Malleable

Company culture and values are not the immovable commandments of a company. They are guiding principles that should be applied within context.

For example, many US, Netherlands, and Nordic companies value 360 feedback where employees are allowed to appraise their management. This is not a perfect fit for many Asian cultures where there is great respect and value placed in the leadership hierarchy. Offering feedback up the chain of command is far from the norm in many company cultures.

Company cultures should adjust and change to fit the local culture and even team dynamics. While it should not deviate too far from the overarching norms, it should at least be sympathetic to the localized experience.

6. Know When it is Time to Change

General Electric used to run a performance management system whereby everyone was appraised once a year. They would rank all employees' performance and sack the bottom 10%. This became known as the ‘rank and yank’ system.

For a long time, it worked and helped Jack Welch earn the title of ‘manager of the century.’ It quickly lost favor after 2010 when it only served to instill fear and create negative competition where everyone worked for themselves.

Sometimes norms have an expiry date or change depending on the conditions. It has to be understood that many practices and demonstrations of your values will change over time especially if you have switched to remote work.

For HR leadership, assess the performance management systems, policies, standard operating procedures, and customs regularly. Do they align with your values? Are they amended to suit remote or hybrid work?

Try New Approaches

My career in HR has spanned some 20 years and 4 continents. I have seen some exceptional approaches to company culture and some not so exceptional. Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Form a Culture Team: Forming a team dedicated to instilling, progressing, and fostering accountability to your culture can really work. Of course you need to take care to avoid creating an internal affairs department but when decisions are honestly held accountable to your values, rapid improvements tend to follow.

2. Highlight Value Examples: Ask leadership and employees to provide examples of how they used a value or number of values to guide their actions and decisions in the past week. Highlight these in meetings or internal communications. This intertwines the value set actively and keeps them on top of everyone's mind.

3. Recognize Individual Performance: Create a system of recognition whereby employees are rewarded for performance that exemplifies your values. It is a little carrot and stick but it is one more tool that helps create consistency in personifying positive culture.

4. Run an Engagement Survey: Companies are consistently in a VUCA (Volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous) state. Things change so fast it is hard to keep a finger on the pulse with how engagement and culture are affected. Is everyone still on board? Run an employee engagement survey to find out.

5. Social Engagement: Create events and celebrations that acknowledge the performance of your remote employees. Recognition and appreciation is a huge driver of positive company cultures and can often be forgotten when the employees are not immediately in front of you. This may take the form of virtual team-building activities, sending out vouchers so the team can dine out on you, happy hours, or even coffee morning calls. Simple gestures make big impacts.

6. Virtual Open Door Policy: What happened to your open-door policy? Replacing in-office open-door policies is essential. Create ample opportunities for staff and leadership to connect 1 on 1. Whether you have an open dial-in, ongoing audio call, or internal instant messenger, communication lines need to be open in remote offices.

7. Recurring Feedback: 65% of employees actively look for more feedback and 50% struggle with expectations clarity. Make time to meet with employees on a regular basis so that they get the support and feedback they need. Regular feedback meetings reduce the isolation often experienced by remote teams.

8. Enlist Outside Help: Assessing your culture and enacting remote culture building solutions may never have been part of your managerial remit before so if it doesn’t come naturally, consider coaching. Coaching has the power to unlock and repurpose your potential in a more remote-suitable way. Furthermore, professional business coaches can recognize cracks and areas of concern without bias where management may be too close to a problem to see.

In Closing

HR and leadership teams were dealt a difficult hand with the sudden shift to remote work life but now is the time to prioritize company culture. It takes concerted effort and attention to the little things but it can be done because company culture matters more now that teams are staying remote or switching to the hybrid model.

If you have found it difficult or frustrating to guide your team in line with your culture, perhaps it is time to try something different and consider coaching. At Session, we meet HR, employees, and company leaders every day who have struggled to adapt and need guidance on how to thrive once again.

Reach out and explore your avenues to nurture an amazing company culture. Learn how to play and thrive in the best possible way under new (remote) work conditions!

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Meet the author

Mirjam Buitelaar

Mirjam Buitelaar

Business Coach, Session

Mirjam Buitelaar is a 20-year veteran of Human Resources Consulting. Hailing from the Netherlands, she has worked with small local companies and world-renowned brands like Unilever, American Express, Hill-Rom, and Novo Nordisk. She is an established and sought-after e-coach providing expert guidance on company culture from her new home in China.

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