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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 |

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 when teams do not necessarily meet physically on a regular basis - what happens with 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 and people no longer meet at the office on a regular basis. Internal branding might be pushed to the side and employees and leaders might drift away from the values and norms which the company might have worked hard to instill. How do you as a company create that sense of belonging and shared company culture, when people might no longer run into each other and together co-create a shared sense of identity?

Let’s first take a look at what company culture is and why it matters to have a strong company culture in our modern worklife. Then we will take a look at how the fact that we are working (more) remotely might influence our company culture, and what we can do as a company to nurture, maintain, restore or refind a collective feeling of identity with the company’s purpose, brand, vision, mission, strategy and with the people working in the company.

What is company culture and why should we care?

“Company culture eats strategy for breakfast” - Peter Drucker

A strong company culture is not something we get by just putting a set of values or Maxims on the walls or by championing our values and mission statements in front of potential clients. It seems like many believe this to be the case, though. Which is a paradox, since most people actually do not remember those values hanging on the walls - at all. In a study done by Lucy Kellaway, with 24 British companies, she found that only 5 of their top executives knew their values! They are merely words on paper for many. And to be honest, yes, values are great - but do they make it or break it for the 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 is a result of the internal branding that has taken place, and what the company values, promotes 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. And the company culture will influence and guide the employees, not only in terms of how they treat one another, but also your customers.

If it is not managed, employees may become disengaged from work or start behaving in a way which is not in accordance with your company’s best interest, which lowers productivity, quality of work, and innovation. And that will eventually cost your company money.

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

The majority of companies went through the pandemic with their fingers crossed hoping things would work out. Significant investments were made to provide teams with the infrastructure to operate remotely. The main focus here was on productivity (how to maintain a high level), and little attention was paid to the distinct difference between in-person and remote company culture. In fact, we very often fail to distinguish between what makes a team productive and what makes a company culture great when the debate unfolds whether remote or hybrid “works or not”. In this article, our main focus is on how to nurture and sustain a great company culture, also when people work remotely or in a hybrid model. Acknowledging that if we succeed with this, productivity will be impacted positively.

Now, let’s get three things straight when it comes to nurturing, building or restoring a great company culture, when most of your employees are working remotely or in a hybrid model:

1. Remote Culture Requires More Attention

To actively sustain a company culture when employees are mainly 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, where culture traditionally gets reinforced and built, like at the coffee machine, in between meetings or at lunch. To build a shared identity and feeling of belonging, leaders need to facilitate discussions on a frequent basis which helps the employees get the sense of belonging to the workplace which goes beyond productivity. They can organize social events, bring people together face to face every once in a while or make sure informal talks and bonding can happen at the online meetings through a well-facilitated setup making room and space for this too.

2. New Hires Can Struggle

As a newly hired employee it is important to be able to see, feel, and sense what company culture your work-place has. Whilst in person, the window they get into culture is gleaned consciously and subconsciously from their peers and the environment. When onboarding exclusively remotely, employees 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. To succeed, one thing that works well is to give the new hires a buddy - a colleague that checks in with the new hire frequently, beyond just talking about work, also ensuring the new hire feels included and understands and knows how to positively contribute to the culture. Also, speak about the culture explicitly at team meetings.

3. Production may Become the only Focal Point

For some managers, mainly focusing on the production part of work, the obvious culture costs is the chit-chat with colleagues, and the barriers to collaborative work, which happens by itself when you meet face to face. The isolation and human side of working remotely can easily get overlooked by managers who are focused merely on achieving results. Human emotions and feelings, however, play a large role in performance management, and managers thus should pay attention and make sure they are encountered and taken into consideration at meetings.

Signs Your Company Culture is Struggling

When humans struggle with identity issues, they might buy Harley Davidsons or walk the Camino - but what does it look like for a company? Company culture might be somewhat intangible at times, but disengagement has real impacts, so let's take a look at what signs there might be that your company culture is struggling - so that you can do something about it!

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? And if they move on you seriously need to consider: What caused them to consider looking elsewhere so quickly after joining your company?

High churn rates are a good indicator that your company culture is suffering. 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 and give your leaders the much needed leadership development program that you might have thought of as unnecessary or “nice-to-have” rather than “need-to-have”. This brief guide and this webinar may also give you some further insight into how to keep great talent onboard.

Employees do not Chip in with Suggestions in Problem Solving & Idea Generation

Google ran a study (known as Project Aristotle) to find what factors impact their teams the most in terms of high performance. 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. If your employees don’t feel safe to admit mistakes and suggest ideas, the business as a whole suffers. If you want to learn more about how to create psychological safety at the workplace - read this article and watch this webinar to learn more.

Negative Internal Communication

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 and do something about it. Building up a culture of continuous, positive and constructive feedback, is paramount in the process of restoring a great company culture.

Employees Frequently Work Late

A willingness to work late is often a misnomer of a positive culture, especially in the remote environment. If employees are put under pressure to work late or through breaks, though, 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 and say no are the result of a concerning company culture lacking mindfulness and a healthy work-life harmony (not balance).

High Absenteeism and Lateness

Absenteeism costs $2,660 annually per shift work employee in the US. Among the main reasons for 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 among your workforce, it is time to do something about it. Talk about it, don’t shy away from the difficult conversation, and be mindful about whether the high absenteeism and lateness could potentially also have something to do with the mental health of your employee.

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.

Make it clear “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. Values are nothing when they are not tied to actions - as also stated in the beginning of this article.

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. Make it Clear 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 skill set 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. Think Global - Act Local

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. 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 and 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 and thus, the values will no longer be just posters on the wall.

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. Encourage Social Engagement: Create gatherings, 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 physical offsites where everyone gets together “in real life”, virtual team-building activities, sending out vouchers so the team can dine out locally, happy hours, or even coffee morning calls. Simple gestures make big impacts.

6. Have a 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. Ensure 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.

In Closing

HR and leadership teams were dealt a difficult hand with the sudden shift to remote work life during the pandemic, but now is the time to face the benefits of working remotely, beyond being forced to it. But, you need to prioritize proactively building your company culture when people are working remotely for your company. It takes concerted effort and attention to the little things but it matters, because company culture is what makes it or breaks it for your company

If you have found it difficult or frustrating to guide your team in line with your culture, reach out and explore your avenues to nurture an amazing company culture.

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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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