Do you prefer to work in the office or at home? Or a bit of both? The debate over the benefits and downsides of working in the office versus working remotely has always existed, but it’s intensified since the pandemic.
No matter on what side of the debate you sit, one thing is clear: remote work is here for the long haul. A survey we released in June 2020 found that 75% of organisations said they will operate more virtually after the pandemic. A year later, this prediction is playing out in home offices around the globe.
Organisations and their people have realised exactly what’s possible when it comes to remote working. And it turns out it’s a lot more than we imagined pre-pandemic. Knowledge workers probably made the simplest transition, but there were also doctors offering telehealth consultations, call centre staff and financial traders all finding remote ways to do their traditionally in-office jobs from home.
But while organisational processes and systems were quickly adapted to service new business models and dispersed workforces, one thing became very clear very quickly: traditional workplace cultures were built for a time when the office was the primary – or only – place to run a business.
Zooming in on culture
Office fitouts, casual social interactions and even the snacks in the shared kitchen, have been key signals of culture in the past. MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edward H Schein calls these signals “artifacts” and they often act as a kind of cultural shorthand to individuals within the culture. But these and many other cultural touchstones disappeared overnight.
In the absence of the office, the erosion of company culture has rightly emerged as a big concern for many leaders. With many organisations now making a permanent shift to a hybrid model of remote and onsite working, leaders are asking how they can preserve their corporate culture when cultural norms are no longer supported by physical proximity.
The challenge now is for organisations to reimagine their company culture to match the new rhythms of work. While the pandemic has shifted the focus away from the office as a physical common space, it hasn’t eliminated the need for a shared hub. The culture needs to evolve to find cultural commonality in other ways.
One of the golden rules of culture has always been that it starts at the top. Author and professor Richard Boyatzis positions the importance of leadership in building culture, saying leaders – and the way they lead – are important cultural building blocks. And they are the same, no matter where leaders and their people are situated.
The shift all leaders need to make is from ad hoc leadership to intentional leadership. There are few if any opportunities to read body language. Nor are there impromptu chats over coffee.
Instead, leaders must intentionally connect with their people, both individually and collectively to recreate a common cultural foundation that crosses virtual boundaries.
Leading the culture for a dispersed workforce
Professor Boyatzis’ “building blocks” are the competencies, attitudes and behaviours leaders can deploy to engage their people. But they are just the starting point. These base elements must be translated into virtual systems and practices that can strengthen culture amid a dispersed workforce.
Leaders can start with these four actions:
- Emphasise purpose
Our data has long shown that purpose-driven organisations perform better. During COVID, these organisations have also maintained higher levels of engagement.
In more dispersed workforces, purpose persists as a kind of cultural glue that can energise a community in the same way that real-life shared spaces and activities can.
Emphasising purpose can help galvanise the workforce around their broader contribution while engaging their intrinsic motivation to trigger more creative, efficient and effective work.
Leaders can intentionally create opportunities to experience purpose-led work both externally and internally.
Externally, purpose-driven outreach may guide the organisation’s social responsibility efforts. While internally, a purpose-driven approach often means a deeper consideration of the impact of actions and decisions: will this choice have negative consequences for society? Will it change our customers’ experience for better or worse?
- Create connective environments
Leaders have a critical role in creating environments that energise their people, that encourage and enable experimentation and the open sharing of ideas.
These connective environments are cultural hotspots for your people. Not only are they more likely to engage your people, but they’re also more likely to spark innovative thinking, increasing the collective potential of the workforce’s capability.
Finding ways to create these connective environments requires an inclusive approach that welcomes all viewpoints from all people. It requires new team rituals – like a team leader running virtual office hours for drop-in calls – and it requires investment in the tools that make online connections work, starting with quality webcams and microphones.
Nurturing employees' social wellbeing is another opportunity to grow connections and bring people together. For example, during the stickiest periods of the pandemic lockdown, many people were only allowed outside for exercise and to purchase essential goods.
A group of Korn Ferry employees set up a running group online, and all members were encouraged to go out for a run every day, even just a short one. The group exchanged messages and photos via WhatsApp showing their challenges and accomplishments. It created a sense of camaraderie and belonging even though many in the group had never met face to face.
- Set up centres of excellence
Leaders also need to recognise how new routines developed through the pandemic can positively affect culture in a business-as-usual dispersed workforce.
These lessons can be spread organisation-wide by setting up centres of excellence to capture and share them, embedding them into the culture formally.
It might mean speaking to the manager who recognised she doesn’t need to physically monitor performance and has instead found new ways to build trust with her team. Another leader might share how they’ve halved the number of formal meetings they’re involved in, making more and better use of Slack or WhatsApp instead. Still, another might explain how he’s identified and eliminated unnecessary interdependencies to enable his remote team to work more efficiently.
These simple things can make a big difference to culture, making work easier and better aligned to purpose. But they need to be woven into the organisation intentionally.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
Our research shows that communication is the most used strategy to improve culture in an organisation. It’s no different in a remote or dispersed work environment, although of course communication happens over a greater distance. And as such, there’s no doubting it requires more and better effort from leaders.
Leaders need to peel back as many layers as possible from their communications so that their message is received undiluted by their people despite the distances and screens between them.
It means radical transparency in how messages are delivered and an open and encouraging approach to two-way communication. Structured ‘listening’ initiatives are an important cultural signifier that leaders are invested in their people. And they also open up informal avenues for respectful two-way feedback.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for change in the way we work. With intentional leadership and action, culture can step up and make these change work for the better.
To learn more about remote challenges and opportunities, read: Evolution or Revolution: Re-imagining remote work.