Managing Culture in the New Remote Work Environment

By David Friedman
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You’re proud of your culture.  Maybe you’ve won a few Best Places to Work Awards.  People tell you that one of the main reasons they came to work there is your culture.  And it’s a big part of why people stay.  There’s a vibe, a positive energy that’s almost palpable.  It’s a fun place to be.

And then – the pandemic hits.  All of a sudden, your people are all working remotely.  At the beginning, you were doing weekly Happy Hours by Zoom, and monthly Town Hall meetings, and you were so proud of how your people all demonstrated that “can do” attitude.  “We can make it through this,” you thought.

But after nearly a year, it’s getting tiring.  How many more Zoom calls can you do?  Some of your people are fried, stressed out from working in their living room, breaking up fights between their kids who still aren’t back to school and constantly need help with their homework.  That culture you were so proud of? Well, it’s starting to fray around the edges.

So how do you get back in control of your culture, and preserve, manage, and even grow it in this new remote work environment, when your people aren’t together every day?  I’ll try to shed some light on that question here and give you 4 specific things you can do.

The challenge of growth

First, let me describe a pattern I’ve seen in most small companies as they grow.  In the beginning, culture was mostly established by example.  You didn’t have to talk about culture.  As leaders, you modeled the way you wanted people to work with customers, with each other, and even with vendors and suppliers.  It was “just the way we do things around here.”  And that was good enough.  People got the message.

But then you start to grow, and you go from 10 or 20 people, to 50 or 100 or 200, or maybe you open another location, or you make an acquisition or two.  People aren’t seeing you anymore, and so your example is no longer enough to carry the day.  If you don’t have some more systematic way to drive your culture, you become at significant risk of losing what made you special before.

Well, the pandemic has forced the exact same dynamic on all of us.  If we were relying on sheer physical proximity, leading by example, as the primary way to drive our culture, we’re in trouble now.  Instead, we’ve got to be far more intentional and systematic in our approach.  In fact, we should be as systematic about our culture as we are about our sales, our finances, our operations, or any other important part of our business.

Four steps to being more systematic

Here are 4 things you can do to create a more systematic approach:

First, define with more clarity than you may have ever done before, exactly what you want your culture to be.  While you may have some vision and mission statement and a set of core values, that’s not enough.  More than anything, culture is about behavior.  Where values tend to be abstract, behaviors are actions.  And because they’re actions, they’re much easier to teach, coach, and give feedback about.  They’re easier to operationalize.  You need to clearly define the behaviors that you want to see.  Everything begins with that clarity.

Second, create a structured way to teach those behaviors over and over again. We all know that the only way you get behavior change to stick is through lots and lots of repetition.  It’s not enough to post your behaviors on the wall or on the website.  Nor is it enough to talk about it at your quarterly company meeting.  Repetition is king.  You need to create a way to talk about those behaviors at least every week, and better yet, every day.  By the way, the best way to do that is to build it into a routine like talking about it at the beginning of every meeting.

Third, build a curriculum around your behaviors so that your leaders, managers, and supervisors are all teaching the same thing.  It’s one thing to articulate the behaviors that are most important, but if your managers don’t know how to teach those behaviors, or they’re all teaching them in different ways, you risk confusing people instead of helping them.

And fourth, make maximum use of technology.  Thankfully, there are so many tools today that allow us to communicate with our teams pretty darn effectively, even when they’re remote.  Between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Yammer, and a variety of mobile apps, there are lots of ways to engage your people and to teach your culture.  The sooner you get your entire team embracing these tools, the more effective you’re going be at having people feel connected to your culture.

So, let’s review those 4 things again:

  1. Define your culture in terms of clear behaviors. It all starts with clarity.
  2. Teach with repetition. You won’t change behavior without it.
  3. Build a curriculum so that your leaders can teach with consistency.
  4. Use technology to connect people to your culture.

Here’s the bottom line:  While the pandemic will eventually be behind us, the trend toward remote work is here to stay.  If your culture relied mostly on leadership by example, and people being physically together, you’re going to be at serious risk in this new world.

Those who succeed are the ones who up their game on culture by becoming way more systematic.  I think of it as building a culture operating system.  In the new world of remote work, it’s an absolute requirement for success.

 

David Friedman, is founder and CEO of High Performing Culture. Using lessons learned while building one of the largest employee benefits and consulting firms in the country, David has authored two books to guide business leaders on practical ways to operationalize their culture. His latest book “Culture by Design” became the cornerstone for forming High Performing Culture and their business model.