Work From Home — Engaging Virtual Employees Through a Vital Corporate Culture
Among the many shocks and adjustments of Covid has been the near-total virtualization of the office workplace and the subsequent shift to full-time working from home (WFH). At first, the initial transition focused more on mechanics — how does Zoom work, where’s the best location to set up a desk, how to minimize distractions and interruptions with kids underfoot — but now many individuals and organizations have come to the somewhat unexpected realization that WFH is, well, working for them.
If WFH is here for the long-term, organizations need to learn how to replicate or even improve on a corporate culture when coworkers are physically distanced. For corporate cultures based around spending time with colleagues in a physical office setting, new techniques, tools and tactics will need to be developed and deployed to keep a far-flung workforce connected and imbued with a sense of Shared Purpose, even if the only thing they’re literally sharing is screens.
BrandCulture’s Culture Framework provides six actionable interventions that can:
- help leadership set the tone for the new normal
- introduce structures to facilitate culture-building
- up the game with two-way communications
- modify the physical WFH environment to ensure safety and collegiality
- leverage symbols to support a workplace culture, as well as
- continue to recognize and reward successful employees
Taking Leadership Seriously
A workplace culture isn’t something that spontaneously materializes; it’s a process that requires thoughtful hard work and constant nurturing, starting in the executive suite. While current leaders recognize the importance of culture vs. previous generations in the C-Suite, now more than ever leadership must dedicate time and resources to nurturing a sense of Shared Purpose and belonging in a remote workforce.
Executives should develop and explain clear strategies to implement and extend their culture. Creating a corporate culture strategy and parking it in a drawer doesn’t work. When culture is low on the list of priorities and relegated to HR or Internal Communications as an afterthought, mediocre results follow. It’s most effective to designate a specific executive-level individual to be the culture champion of the organization. An executive with both a strong organizational culture background and a solid digital toolkit can facilitate culture-building development and sustainment mostly online and back it with budget and authority required to execute on the strategy. Warner Media Studios, for example, has a Senior Manager of Culture & Experience.
Calabrio, a contact-center and customer service outsourcing technology organization, even has a “WFH evangelist” responsible for developing WFH organizational culture and thought leadership. For CEO Mike Greene of insurance customer service chat platform Hi Marley WFH wasn’t good enough; he has challenged his team to “WOW From Home,” extending their customer-first culture into the remote work context.
Executives should be prepared that some team members invariably will *not* like WFH. For many reasons — a small space, noisy leaf blowers next door, an inability to concentrate without the exogenous influence of peers in an office — some employees will miss the routine and amenities of an office. Reluctant WFHers must be included as a priority as ignoring the challenges of WFH can have an outsized deleterious impact on culture and morale.
Structuring Processes for the New Work Environment
By a certain stage of maturity, most organizations have instituted formal and informal protocols and workflows to smooth out the everyday routines required for employees to focus on the bigger tasks at hand. In normal operations these procedures help define and reinforce the organization’s culture. Now many common workplace behaviors are irrelevant or at least less functional due to WFH, providing a source of worry and confusion for employees that can distract them from essential work.
To help compensate, first define and clarify what’s changed and what hasn’t and document changes in easy-to-access repositories. Routine questions that can be addressed and resolved in seconds in person can spiral into time-sucking monsters when addressed digitally without the benefit of context and non-verbal cues. Make extra sure to think through potential pitfalls: where should people go if they have an HR question? Will employee scorecards change as a result of WFH, and if so, how? Answers to all of these questions may not be immediate, but the developing responses is a culture-building process in and of itself.
Buffer develops social media tools for audience engagement. The company has committed to sharing high-level processes and revenue transparently, with the intention of establishing a sense of shared accountability across the whole team. Everyone working remotely remains aware and abreast of the overarching strategy and goals of the organization.
Different businesses (e.g., professional services vs. manufacturing or hospitality) require different approaches to migrate to WFH, so patience and tenacity remain paramount as the organization readjusts its structure to a new reality.
Building Trust and Quality With Two-Way Communications
Businesses can’t assume that their traditional communication strategies will be effective or understood by a WFH workforce. More frequent communications are better than fewer, and complementary tools and technologies provide multiple ways to facilitate the exchange of information among colleagues, with supervisors and across departments. People ultimately comprise and create organizational culture. Helping them communicate easily is the very first step in successful WFH bonding.
Businesses need to check in with remote employees both frequently and formally. It’s important to balance accountability and focus in a distributed workforce with avoiding making employees feel crushed or disempowered by too much oversight. Set expectations and enforce them. On conference calls, for example, setting an expectation that everyone should have their video on, and make best efforts to limit extraneous noises helps everyone show up with their “A” game. Global professional services firm Aon completely revamped the company’s communications plan to support the WFH context, establishing new guidelines and procedures for internal, external and third-party communications based on stating facts and breaking down fears among employees.
When possible, managers should be liberated from less people-focused tasks, allowing them to spend more time facilitating communication with their teams. Informal channels such as Slack, WhatsApp groups or other platforms — perhaps with a new set of fun, branded icons for team members to use — can go far in keeping teams communicative, responsive and connected. Karen Yamamoto, CEO of insurtech platform Decision Research Corporation, sends out a simple letter to employees at the end of each week providing them with updates on the business and future plans — as well as words of encouragement to reinforce the stability of the company’s financial performance and bright prospects for growth and new opportunities.
Sustaining a Workplace Away From Work
WFH requires employees to make physical workspace decisions normally outsourced to organizational design experts, ergonomics consultants, architects and engineers. It’s one thing to catch up on a few emails from the dining room table, but an entirely different situation to translate the physical office experience to an employee’s residence.
Far more than just figuring out the quietest place for a Zoom call, WFH connotes a physical separation from a work culture, and the onus is on organizations to support their employees’ transitions. Some companies have designated budgets set aside for employees to kit out their home spaces, while others ship an entire modified office to employees’ homes. Google gives $1,000 to each employee to set up an adequate home office.
Not all employees have the same baseline options to set up their WFH space. Some may have the luxury of a fully functional home office, while others, especially younger employees, may be in smaller, shared living spaces with few places to hide from embedded small children and pets.
Helping employees feel connected to a physical workspace culture could also take the form of sending out company-branded WFH swag, deploying a common video call background image, delivering standardized office furniture materials or replicating shared culture spaces like conference rooms by giving people individual whiteboards for shared virtual brainstorming sessions.
Sustaining Engagement Through Symbolism
So much of organizational culture runs on formal and informal cues and symbols — the clothes that people wear to work, if employees eat lunch together or do errands separately, a physical object that represents an important metaphor for the organization and so much more. For many organizations, these symbolic touchstones vanish in WFH.
Symbolism refers to developing significance in quintessential hallmarks of the organization’s Shared Purpose. Symbolism is arguably the most important influencer in the Culture Framework because it engages both hearts and minds in shared experience and tradition. Symbols embody emblematic value for a corporate culture and capture compact but profound themes not immediately articulated through language. Ceremonies and celebration accrete almost imperceptibly over time to bring employees together. A physical icon such as the table that company founders worked at together, or the first product completed on a new assembly line are imbued with symbolic meaning for a company, their significance extending across an organizational culture.
For particular projects or teams working together, tech company Palantir sends out specific custom t-shirts to instill a sense of Shared Purpose and responsibility about striving towards a common goal. Marketing consultancy Element Three goes a step further, distributing notebooks to employees with the company’s values printed directly on them.
Traditions and activities that bring people together help form the interstitial glue that connects people across organizations. When they’re physically absent or impossible, for example, if a team always went out to eat together on Thursdays, or had a weekly happy hour or a monthly all-hands town hall with senior leadership, attempt to continue that tradition, or a representative variation, even if virtually.
T.J. Leonard, CEO of video production assistance company Storyblocks, challenged himself to keep his weekly all-hands meetings entertaining after they’d moved online, with the aim of keeping his 100-plus employees engaged through otherwise mundane updates. For the meetings, Leonard has an official MC, shows video clips, has team members do skits and generally uses motion and energy to keep his team laughing and paying attention — a symbolic gesture that builds unity and culture across a distributed workforce.
If the symbolism is physical — a totem that represents meaning for the organization — distributing a smaller version or even a framed picture of it to employees can remind them of its significance and link them back to the culture of the organization.
Keeping Rewards and Recognition Fun
All organizations use rewards and recognition to acknowledge and celebrate a job well done. They’re even more essential in a WFH context.
Set aside time to share successes in the team, as a team. Since remote working can lead to drops in emotions like enthusiasm or empathy, encourage employees to regularly celebrate each other. Leadership should be extra-vocal about promotions, positive client feedback and broadly congratulate sales teams for winning an important new client.
Something as seemingly inconsequential as a quick Slack “Thank You” to a group for pulling a late night to finalize a project, or more elaborate like a “virtual awards program” that sends gift certificates to local restaurants or coffee shops serve as both public recognition and intrinsic rewards. MuseumHack, a museum tour company, sets up “virtual campfires” for its company celebrations, sending employees a tealight candle “campfire” and s’mores materials like mini marshmallows which everyone makes together on a video conference.
In their “real” lives, people are often more playful and fun than the personas they adopt at work. Create avenues for your team’s sense of humor to shine through. Regular competitions like photo contests, or a most creative waffle or pancake competition during a virtual team breakfast, or best-dressed pet all add an element of whimsy to the day-in, day-out routine. Share calendars to celebrate everyone’s birthday with gusto and don’t be afraid to be creative. Recognize that the new normal of WFH is a challenge, but, as they say, we’re all in this together.
Six Tenets, One Culture Framework
The transition to WFH has been a tremendous challenge on many different levels, not the least of which is building out the virtual extension of a hard-earned corporate culture. Keeping employees engaged, stimulated, productive and happy without physical interaction requires substantial strategy and thoughtful execution.
Leveraging the Culture Framework to break down culture-building into component blocks and areas of responsibility can be a practical tool to help execute on next steps. Culture starts at the top of the organization with leadership, facilitated by freshly-revised structures and processes and supported by clear and frequent communications in an appropriately-designed physical WFH environment.
Understanding and extending significant organizational symbols as well as recognizing and rewarding employees for great work will encourage everyone to continue to bring their best selves and put forth their best effort into creating a solid shared culture, even under difficult circumstances.