Trying to build a company culture remotely is an extremely difficult thing to do. How do you replace the personal meetings and face-to-face contact that all organisations need to innovate, motivate, and generate a thriving culture? Can you create a sense of belonging in a virtual environment?
According to a survey published by management services company Deloitte in May 2020, 93 percent of people agree that a sense of belonging drives organisational performance.
However, a recent Achievers Workforce Institute report finds that one in three employed people have felt disconnected from their company and peers during the COVID-19 crisis.
Remote working has kept businesses functioning, but to what degree has company culture suffered?
Bruce Daisley, author of number one Sunday Times business bestseller The Joy of Work, gives his advice for maintaining a thriving workplace culture – wherever your team may be.
1. Build something 'intentional'
An energetic company culture takes daily commitment and effort to maintain, especially when teams are split across locations, explains Bruce.
"For a lot of organisations, company culture was a casual thing. It was the way that companies felt rather than necessarily something that they actively put effort into," he says. Lockdown has presented an opportunity to reflect on current practices and what's needed to build something stronger going forward.
Rather than simply relying on the natural team rapport generated by conversations across desks, Bruce suggests it's important to actively monitor and assess the way your organisation "feels". This means conducting staff surveys to assess team performance and cohesive working practices.
Advertising agency Creature, featured on Eat Sleep Work Repeat, has taken what Bruce calls an "inspiring lead" on building an 'intentional' culture. Founder Dan Cullen-Shute uses staff surveys to tune into his team's desires. Now, he's trialling a new working pattern for six months – so-called "energised Wednesday and Thursdays in the office" says Bruce.
This is what Creature has dubbed a "3:2 model". Dan asked his team to be in the office two days a week to enjoy what he calls, "the impossible-to-replicate buzz of being surrounded by other brilliant, fizzing people." Through experimentation, he's hoping to build something that is genuinely exciting for everyone moving forwards.
2. Encourage casual interaction
"Professor Sandy Pentland from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that discussions that happen outside of meetings are often the most powerful," says Bruce. These unplanned moments allow us to "decompress" our thoughts and form valuable connections with others.
Bruce continues: "When we're having a discussion, and the boss isn't there, we're often able to engage in a more honest conversation with colleagues about what's going well, and what's going badly. We talk about a nightmare meeting we've just had, both start laughing, and the bond between us is forged more tightly."
This is easy to facilitate within an office environment, but on remote days, a virtual space in which teams can speak casually may go some way towards replicating physical social interactions.
Engineering company Babcock, also featured on Bruce Daisley's podcast, uses digital platform Hive Learning to hold virtual 'fireside chats'. This is a relaxed place to share bite-sized content that people can 'Like', add comments to, and engage in discussions about. The platform helps keep their team connected despite different working patterns and locations.
3. Time your introductions well
Many CEOs have faced the challenge of taking on new team members remotely and have struggled to embed them into their work culture comfortably.
"Someone taking you under their wing, offering guidance and support or inviting you to meetings – all of these cues aren't there when working remotely," says Bruce.
Scheduling an employee's induction process for a day when your team is in the office will help them integrate into your culture far more effectively. Virtual introductions can lack the personal feel and substance needed to engender a sense of 'belonging'.
4. Keep experimenting
There is no existing blueprint or definitive answer for maintaining and nurturing company culture amidst a pandemic.
"Variety seems to be the recipe," says Bruce. "Some companies are holding outdoor gatherings for their teams and others are getting people back to the office for a couple of days a week to try to bring back a degree of normality."
Being responsive to what works and what doesn't, and listening to your employees, will help your culture grow and flourish until normality returns.
Check out Bruce Daisley’s latest series in the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast here where he explores the next hot trend in work, community managers.
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Read more about how COVID-19 is reshaping company culture and the trends that we can expect to see emerging in a post-COVID world.