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Strengthening Company Culture in a Remote Work Environment

Today, more and more employees are staying away from the office and carrying out their daily tasks from home. In many instances, this is not out of choice but out of necessity. Even before the global pandemic, this trend was on the rise. And even after the global pandemic, it is highly unlikely that we will see a major reversal in this new approach to office work. This change in the workplace dynamic has its pros and cons. Undoubtedly, it comes with certain challenges that, depending on how we address them, could end up being one more for the ‘con’ side of the list, or we could turn it into a serious ‘pro’. Just like a chef cannot make a good dish if they are using spoiled or low-quality ingredients. The first step in strengthening company culture in a remote work environment is to start with a strong company culture.

What does a strong company culture look like?

Company culture is a set of priorities and values that serve as a cohesive force among the company members. These values and priorities then translate into demonstrable or quantifiable value to the company’s clients or customers.

Strong company culture is:

  • Precise – Platitudes work well on greeting cards; They are less effective in building strong company culture
  • Kinetic – There is nothing static about the successful values (or Virtues) and priorities that bind the company. In fact, the values should serve to propel the company forward
  • Mission-focused (or Passion) – Similar to a non-static, or kinetic, set of values when the values and priorities of a company are mission-focused, they become actionable. Not only are we able to act on them, but we can also monitor them and measure their effectiveness
  • Communicated Clearly – Both internally and externally. Company culture should be a source of pride for the company and its employees. There is nothing secretive or clandestine about it.

Strong company culture is:

  • An integral part of the hiring process

Company culture, as it is the set of values and priorities that binds the workforce, is only as strong as its weakest link. Avoiding weak links starts with the recruitment process.

As a starting point, here are 5 questions to ask in a remote interview, paying special attention to:

  • Identifying the candidate’s ability to overcome adversity, to learn from their mistakes, and to grow
  • Ascertaining the candidate’s ability to self-assess and self-motivate
  • Determining whether the candidate is made out for remote work
  • While many workers work from home out of necessity, there are some who have the personality traits and the disposition that favors remote work.
  • Identifying the tools and techniques the candidate uses in order to prioritize their tasks.
  • Do these tools and techniques translate well to remote work?
Strengthening Company Culture in a Remote Work Environment - Interviews

When conducting an interview for a remote position, you have the difficult task of not only determining whether or not this particular candidate is a good fit for your company but also if they will be effective at doing their job and contributing to the company culture from a remote context.

By examining the 9 tips for hiring remote workers, we can avoid some of the problems incurred when we hire the right person for the job but a person who is not effective at doing the job remotely.

When conducting the interview, lay all your cards on the table. Openly discuss with the candidate:

  • Your standard operating procedure
  • Do they see how the methodology reflects the company culture?
  • Have they had experience in similar processes?
  • Will they be able to adapt to the specificities of the procedure?
  • Continuous education requirements or opportunities
  • Having the possibility (or even the obligation) to continuously learn on the job should not only stimulate the candidate, make your job offer more appealing to them, but it should also convey to the candidate your dedication to company culture and your dedication to the big picture, the long-term success of both the company and its employees.
  • The candidate’s personality
  • By paying special attention to the candidate’s personality you accomplish two important things: you convey to the candidate that you are looking for individuals, not robots. You are expressing an interest in the employees and respect for their individuality. Secondly, you are getting pertinent information that will help you determine whether or not this particular candidate will fit with the company culture.

Most problems are easier to avoid than they are to solve. Avoiding potential problems starts with the recruitment process.

Strong company culture is:

  • A collaborative effort

When the employees feel they have contributed to, not only identifying and defining the company culture but also in maintaining it and strengthening it, they will become more invested in its success. They, to an extent, have contributed to its creation, therefore they will want to work hard to ensure it is maintained and strengthened.

Ask your employees and potential employees:

  • How does the successful execution of your job contribute to the company culture?
  • What specific, individual talents do you bring to the job and its responsibilities that lead to a stronger company culture?
  • What are some of the pitfalls in working remotely you can foresee that may negatively affect company culture or may potentially weaken it?
  • What remedies to these potential risks do you possess? 
  • What remedies to these potential risks can we provide you with?

These questions should be asked and answered early in the employee’s tenure with the company. In this way, when expectations are clearly established, when potential problems and their solutions are clearly identified ahead of time, employees are then, justly, held accountable for the success or failure of the company culture. And they have a clear idea of what success is. And they are armed with the tools to succeed.

  • Clearly understood by all employees
  • The responsibility of all employees
  • As expectations are clearly defined and clearly understood, so then should employees be held accountable

The virtual watercooler and office politics 

As company culture is meant to solidify bonds among employees and act as a driving force that collectively moves everyone together toward the same goal, strong company culture does not ignore Workplace politics, but instead accepts the reality of it and uses it as a tool to further solidify the company’s stated values and priorities.

In order to successfully navigate the often troubled waters of workplace politics, we need to examine some potential sharks in the ocean, the most formidable of which would be elements that lead to the creation of division among the workforce.

Elements which are potentially divisive in the workplace include:

  • Cliques
    • A close-knit group of people who are restrictive to outsiders serves to alienate others and causes resentment, jealousy, and frustration.
    • Ensure that different projects do not always have the same select few contributors working on them. Make sure every member of the team collaborates with the other on one or more projects or tasks. 
  • Gossip
    • Respect people’s privacy. When gossip starts about clients or customers, it almost always continues into gossip about coworkers.
  • Appropriating credit
    • To encourage teamwork, to create a healthy team atmosphere, the work should be shared as should the credit for success or achievement.
Strengthening Company Culture in a Remote Work Environment - Virtual Watercooler

The proverbial watercooler, the place or object around which employees gather for a break or for a chat, is a long-standing staple of the traditional office workspace. While it can be subverted for negative ends, it is in and of itself not a bad thing. In fact, it has stood the test of time because it is essential.

The watercooler gives employees the chance to connect on a personal or individual level. It can also be where employees show their personality, where they feel they can be themselves at work. 

Employee surveys confirm that for the remote worker, the absence of a watercooler type environment is one of the biggest regrets they have. 

Depriving remote workers of the watercooler experience could potentially have negative consequences on company culture. This could lead to the remote worker feeling like he or she is not connecting with the other workers. They could end up feeling isolated. And they could feel like they are not being themselves, they are not bringing their personality to work with them.

As a remedy, there are many platforms, chat rooms, and apps that cater to this need for a virtual watercooler. I have seen them used effectively and to a great benefit both for the employees and the company as a whole. 

  • They encourage comradery
  • They encourage the employees’ self-expression
  • They allow employees to vent out frustrations
  • They strengthen bonds among employees, which leads to happier employees who are more likely to stay longer and become more invested in the company and its culture

Although I have seen countless examples of the above rewards, I have also seen some abuses that we can learn from and avoid.

  • Resist the temptation to over-monitor

Unlike with the physical ‘real world’ watercooler, a virtual platform that facilitates non-work-related conversation is hypothetically easy to monitor. However, I have seen too many instances where monitoring employee conversation does more harm than good.

  • You are allocating resources (time and energy) to something that has very little bearing on the work at hand.
  • You are potentially creating an atmosphere of distrust among the workers.
  • You are pushing potentially divisive behavior further into hiding, whereas in a virtual watercooler environment, at least other employees will become aware of it and can potentially put an end to it without your needing to intervene.

Part of strengthening company culture comes with letting your employees be themselves. That’s why, supposedly, you hired them in the first place. Give them a space, virtual or physical, for them to vent and express themselves, and stay out of that space. 

Strong company culture meets the basic needs of the employee

Since the remote worker is, more often than not, working from their home, there could be a temptation to assume that they are in an environment where all their basic needs are met. However, that is not always, if rarely, true.

You want to show the remote worker that you value their contribution and that you are aware of or concerned about their specific needs, the specific challenges they face when carrying out their functions in a remote context.

Make sure the remote worker has:

  • Reliable devices: computer, headset, etc.
  • A comfortable, safe desk and chair
  • Easy ways to reach their coworkers and their managers

Make sure you respect the remote worker’s time.

  • Separating home life from work life is a challenge all workers face. However, for the remote worker, most often working from home, it is particularly challenging to keep those two aspects of their lives separate. There needs to be a clear distinction between the time when they are at work and the time when they are not. 

Accountability: the key to a strong company culture

Strong company culture is the responsibility of every employee.

  • Ask the remote worker what they can realistically do to ensure the culture stays strong.
  • Ask them to identify potential risks to company culture that may be particularly susceptible in remote work.
  • Identify potential remedies or methods that could be employed to avoid those risks.
  • Set realistic expectations. Make those expectations clear and agreed upon.
  • Give the remote worker the tools they need to mitigate potential risks.
  • Give the remote worker the means to verify and monitor the strength of the company culture.
  • Hold remote worker responsible, to an agreed-upon extent, for the strength of the company culture
  • Maintain a feedback loop

In today’s ever-shifting workplace landscape, more and more employees are being asked to work remotely. While this does present advantages to both the employee and to the company, there are potential risks to the strength of the company culture that could come about, if they are not predicted, planned for, and monitored.

Strong company culture is:

  • Precise
  • Kinetic
  • Mission focused
  • Communicated clearly

Strong company culture is:

  • A collaborative effort

Strong company culture is:

  • The responsibility of each and every employee. 

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!

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