It’s been more than two months since corporate America’s unexpected leap into the deep end of the remote work pool. Behind the backdrops of our endless video calls, we’ve been juggling unexpected incursions from children, pets, and other household activities. Despite the occasional drama, we’ve been largely successful at adapting to this new paradigm, answering the question of whether people can work remotely. Clearly, they can, but now companies are asking a new question: How does our culture work remotely?
Where Does Culture Come From?
Culture has always been a hard thing to define. We know a great culture when we see it. It drives engagement and innovation. It is the secret sauce that helps some organizations punch above their weight in the market. But when it comes to defining culture, it’s a bit more complex, because most of what drives great culture is invisible.
When organizations talk about culture, they often cite Apple and Google as their role models. They see visible success and hope that by adopting the stocked kitchens, game rooms, and inspirational slogans, they will be able to ignite that same success in their own environment. It doesn’t work that way. Culture comes with values, not cold brew coffee and karaoke. So the first question to ask is what you, your employees, and your customers value. If you can’t answer that question, anything you do to create culture will feel disconnected, inauthentic, and, ultimately, disengaging, no matter where your employees and customers are working.
So How Do You Make The Leap To Remote Culture?
Prior to the pandemic, workplace culture was expressed in a variety of ways, from the physical office layout to ways of working. If you think of your company as having a personality, that’s culture. Whether your culture was well established prior to the pandemic or you are starting to build something new, you can start with these five key activities.
- Listening. In normal times, listening is an important way that organizations gather data to drive decisions. We listen to our customers, survey our employees, and host town halls. In these very different times, the need to listen has increased significantly. The voice of culture is essential as organizations seek to understand the daily experiences and journeys of their employees as well as their customers.
- Caring. We know that consumers and employees alike are more concerned than ever about the social and environmental behavior of corporations. This has to come from an authentic place of caring about individuals and the global ecosystem, not from a cynical desire to gain publicity through virtue signaling. A strong culture of empathy stems from shared values and actions that are consistent with those values, both internally and externally.
- Responding. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.” It is not enough to listen and to care; culture flows from the way, intentionally or unintentionally, that leaders respond to what they hear from their employees and customers. As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we saw examples of organizations stepping up to the plate to support the health and well-being of their employees and customers. CVS provided paid sick time, bonuses, and embarked on an ambitious hiring drive rather than cutting staff, while others, including Amazon and GameStop, made headlines as they failed to act with empathy, placing their people in danger. Organizations that want to build trust in their brand must behave with integrity.
- Adapting. Culture is fluid, not fixed, and it evolves with each action and interaction that leaders take. This is good news, because it means that bad culture can be improved, but it is also a reminder that even the best culture can decay if there is no effort to sustain it. Each moment matters. As we make the shift to remote work, your corporate values should not change, but you may need to find new ways to express them.
- Communicating. While actions are the most important element of how culture is created and shaped, how you talk about your culture and your values matters, too. In the early days of the pandemic, we saw that organizations that communicated consistently and leveraged health professionals to provide facts built trust with their employees and customers. But this goes far beyond crisis communication. In an ideal environment, company culture and values are built into all corporate communications, from internal social networks to external marketing campaigns and beyond.
What About The Community?
Culture is, in a sense, a shared expression of our community at work. When we share values, we work together to achieve goals; a connection is formed that then becomes a part of our own sense of self. It’s why we feel personally ashamed when our company behaves badly or gets in the news for all the wrong reasons, even if we didn’t have anything to do with the situation. Prior to the pandemic, many organizations included rituals such as celebrating birthdays with cake or afternoon cocktails and social hours. With the sudden shift to remote work, employee experience professionals scrambled to find ways to incorporate these activities in a virtual setting.
There’s nothing wrong with offering online trivia nights or virtual cocktail hours. These activities may appeal to some employees, helping them to fill the social void that opened when physical offices closed. But it’s just as important to remember that these activities are not culture and do not appeal equally to everyone in the organization. Pool tables weren’t culture before the pandemic, and virtual paint nights won’t fill the gap now. You have to do the work that defines what brings you, your employees, and your customers together.