Does company culture thrive in a virtual workplace?

As one might imagine, a global pandemic can and did throw corporate work culture’s norms that we’ve followed for the past 30 years out the office window. We’re convinced that corporations and the traditional workspace haven’t witnessed a shift this impactful since the invention of the internet and its subsequent incorporation into every company’s way of life. Covid hit us, and corporate culture has had to embrace work-from-home policies for their team members and collaborate virtually in ways and on a scope never seen before. These giant and global transformations beg the question: Can remote working cultivate a thriving similar virtual company culture?

Working remotely can increase productivity. Within an office, employees suffer distractions that they may not encounter at home from chatty colleagues. They sacrifice the comfort of home for fluorescent white lights often installed in corporate spaces, and an office chair just isn’t the same as a chaise lounge.  However, virtual teams may lack some of the essential elements of in-person interaction vital to the connections that create company culture. Without office conversations and impromptu water cooler chats, in-person communication between team members is nonexistent. The resulting misunderstandings can stifle progress and slow down decision-making processes, as emotions are harder to gauge through video calls. Team leaders are likely to find it more difficult to foster strong bonds among their colleagues and build camaraderie in a virtual setting. 

The digital transformation brought on by COVID-19 forced companies worldwide to adapt quickly or fall behind. As we transition into the new normal, many companies are permanently adapting to a hybrid work model. Some continue to be fully remote, while others are back in the office full-time. With all of these options, we want to know: Is remote work a crucial part of long-term strategy? 

Thriving in this new era means that all businesses must reconsider how they structure their teams and motivate employees. Combining technology with empathy to bring out the full potential is essential. Finding success means that fostering strong workplace relationships without sacrificing the convenience or flexibility that comes with remote working is non negotiable. With a thoughtful and balanced approach, any organization can create a close-knit culture within its virtual environment.

People create culture

Culture is the collective sum of people’s behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. This collection of factors produces the norms and expectations shared at a company. While some norms are often explicit and form part of official documents like employee manuals and job descriptions, most importantly they’re spread directly and indirectly from leaders. 

Official documents, rules, or instructions create a culture known as ‘the culture on the walls’. They’re the formal description of expectations and standards. In contrast, ‘culture in the halls’ refers to the shared experiences and daily contributions made by employees. Unspoken but highly influential nonetheless, they guide teams through shared experiences in a way that explicit cultural rules do not. To know our company’s culture we must understand both sides of the corporate coin. Less important is what is officially prescribed by an establishment; how interactions play out in practice among employees is most crucial in how we understand our company’s cultures and inner workings.
As leaders, we must gain insight into our own company’s organizational culture so as to determine where we stand in terms of shared value. This is a transformational turning point.

Profiling your company’s culture

Understanding the impact of a change, or how the existing company culture affects a change, is the first step to creating a description or analysis of current culture. This research process is creating your company’s ‘culture profile.’

A culture profile researches in-depth the beliefs, values, and behaviors of the individuals that make up an organization. It includes any unspoken rules that exist. Instead of providing an evaluation of the quality or alignment of the culture, it honestly represents facts about what is currently true for the company. This profile isn’t about where you want to be, or where you should be. It is instead a reflection of where your company is, here and now. 

A comprehensive culture profile is carefully constructed to take into account all elements that help shape culture; from its mission statement, core values, and procedures, to more subtle elements such as language used, tones, and attitudes towards communication.

An accurate culture profile should include a review of the following:

  • Management and leadership styles
  • Approach to employee development and performance
  • Communication styles 
  • Employee engagement
  • Quality of products and services provided
  • Approach to sharing knowledge
  • Approach to solving problems
  • Approach to managing risk
  • Reactions to changes 
  • Decision-making styles 
  • Approach to rewarding and recognizing employees
  • Approach to process

To invite accuracy while creating a culture profile, it’s best to  survey employees at all levels within the organization and compile specific data such as gender identity breakdowns or tenure. The results should be supplemented with interviews and observations by experienced professionals so that any nuances in behavior and attitude can also be captured. In addition, corporate documents, for example internal memos, can offer further insight into how decisions are made, what beliefs are upheld, and which processes are actually followed within the organization. Combining these elements will help create an honest representation of the current company culture which is used to plan transformations going forward.

Your company’s cultural compatibility with the virtual world

Culture profile is a starting point to understanding and managing the relationship between a necessary change and company culture. It’s understanding what your current virtual workplace is like and what areas could use some improvements. Then, it’s time to consider what organizational scheme is necessary or desired based on your culture. 

Reflecting on these questions to create a vision for your change: 

  • What does our ideal company culture look like?
  • What company culture will guide us to success with our goals?
  • How do we want our employees to describe our organization and culture?
  • How do we want our clientele to describe our organization?

Comparing your culture’s current profile and ideal culture vision will highlight the gaps between the two. These gaps are your guide! Bridging gaps is often making one of three changes:

  1. Stopping unwanted behaviors, beliefs, and rules
  2. Continuing the desired behaviors, beliefs, and rules
  3. Introducing new desired behaviors, beliefs, and rules 

An abundance of suggestions and business guidance are available from business leaders, HR professionals, and workplace consultants meant to remedy gaps that are the result of recent and rushed work-from-home policies. In order to tailor their suggestions to your own company, a clear understanding of your company’s culture and its ideal future should guide the choices you make regarding transformation strategy.

Here are some examples of cultural strategies that we’ve been part of:

Employee engagement and virtual work 

Current culture: A team that relies on face-to-face interaction (both formal and informal) to nurture relationships.

Desired culture: Relationships nurtured even while employees are working from home.

Strategy: Scheduling a 15-minute virtual “coffee time” within the workday for employees to have casual conversations with peers.

Communication styles

Current culture: Big decisions are communicated after they are made by leaders, resulting in employees who feel out of the loop and taken by surprise.

Desired culture: Decisions are communicated live throughout the process, so the decision-making process is transparent and employees have a say. 

Strategy: Train and support leaders to communicate and update with transparency, even when they may not have all the answers. 

Approach to sharing knowledge 

Current culture: Employees tend towards withholding their specialized knowledge, often facilitating the creation of closed communication styles, mistrust, and gatekeeping.

Desired culture: Employees share their specialized knowledge and experiences with other employees. Strategy: Employees are recognized and rewarded for sharing their knowledge.

Company culture can thrive in a virtual workplace, the question is what can we do to make sure company culture flourishes? While creating a virtual culture with remote teams is new and somewhat complex, like many big transitions that the corporate world has survived before, it is absolutely possible and realistic.

Company culture will inevitably fluctuate and transform during the lifetime of an organization. It’s up to an organization to put the appropriate building blocks for success into place. Cultural changes should always actively support initiatives that promote inclusion, diversity, and collaboration across the organization. It’s also crucial to ensure that all members of the team are able to access the resources needed for success, like training opportunities and tools for effective communication regardless of their location or other external circumstances. By fostering an environment that embraces these ideals, companies can create an atmosphere of trust and respect even when teams are separated geographically.

If you are interested in how to build company culture remotely, our business transformation experts are here to help guide you. We understand why quality company culture is so important for success and how to help your team thrive, anywhere in the world. Contact us today to begin crafting a strategy customized for your business.

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