Building Organizational Culture in a Virtual World

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As the world adjusts to a new normal post-COVID-19, there are a lot of intriguing ideas and concepts for employers to explore regarding employees’ work arrangements. One of the big question marks will undoubtedly be whether businesses can ensure their employees maintain the same level of productivity while operating in a virtual work environment. I’m sure the idea of downsizing in real estate and saving potentially tens of thousands of dollars per year (for some employers) is indeed an enticing possibility. However, another question that needs to be considered is “How can the organization maintain its culture in a virtual working environment?”

Culture needs to be top of mind for every organization, but it can get lost in the shuffle sometimes when there is an important business decision to be made, whether it’s a multibillion-dollar merger, a change in organizational structure, or a pros-and-cons evaluation of migrating to a remote work environment. How many times during these decision-making processes have profitability and productivity been the centre of attention? Not to downplay the importance of the bottom line, but culture is thankfully starting to enter the discussion about many of these important decisions. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a business decision is made and the HR team is not engaged in the process, but is then relied on to handle the communication piece and the aftermath. (End of HR rant.)

Can a shift to remote work be a culture killer?

While many of us have already been working from home for over a year and it may seem that we’re none the worse for wear (generally speaking), I recommend we take a collective moment and analyze the situation from a few different perspectives. On the employee side of things, there are proponents and opponents of remote work. For myself, I initially thought, “This is great—no more dealing with construction at 8 o’clock in the morning, no more long commutes to get downtown…” However, I started to actually miss that time in the car after work when I could decompress a bit and listen to a podcast. On the employer side of it, some businesses are chomping at the bit to reduce their real estate and utilities expenses.

If you stop and think about your time back at the office, is there something missing from your daily routine now that you can’t quite put your finger on? The void you’re experiencing was likely previously filled by your company’s culture and identity. It’s easy for a company to say, “Our culture can survive in a remote work environment because we have a strong corporate vision and shared company values.” That is, no doubt, a great place to start. However, words on a wall (or an intranet page) are normally just that—words—if the people of the organization can’t come together to collectively deliver results. As much as we want to believe it can, this level of collaboration likely can’t happen on a virtual platform.

There’s something to be said for the importance of those impromptu conversations in the lunch or copier room, the team huddle at a workstation or in a conference room to solve a complex problem, or just the literal sound of things getting done. Culture forms and is established when like-minded people come together in a shared space and have a common goal (the “why”). People, place, and purpose are three major ingredients you need to fulfill a corporate vision and bring values and shared beliefs to life. Real culture is that unique “something” you can’t always articulate, but you know it’s there, you know it exists, and in a lot of cases, it’s usually what is driving you to do your best work.

While I won’t say outright that you can’t maintain your current culture in a remote work environment, an organization must deliberately plan to do so and consider new ways to engage, motivate, and communicate with employees. The many software solutions out there that enable a virtual work environment are great for a variety of reasons, but they are just tools. We need to figure out what is most important for employees and then deliver that in a virtual world. Otherwise, the culture will become transactional, not transformational.

Let’s consider the word transactional for a moment as it relates to culture. Think back to the earlier question of what is missing from a virtual environment that you can’t quite put your finger on, and then tie that to the pillars of culture. What happens to purpose in a remote environment? It almost seems like we lose a sense of the “why” and what drives us. Leaders can’t really rally the team and create a shared purpose in the same way they can in person. To create that sense of urgency, leadership must be visible. And it must feel a little strange not to see your manager walk by your desk or down the halls on a regular basis.

The same goes for having regular human connection with others in a shared space. It seems the more we work remotely, the more a name becomes just a name and we lose that connection to the person we know. When you start to feel like there’s less of an emotional attachment in the virtual workplace, that’s when you know the culture is starting to slip away and is becoming more transactional.

What can you do to maintain or build culture in a remote environment?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question. The secret lies in being able to replicate in a virtual environment what you had before at the office. I would argue that you can’t easily do so. But while there may be no magic-wand solution for continuity of culture in a virtual world, there are some best practices that will help businesses find some form of normalcy.

It comes down to being flexible and adaptable, promoting teamwork, communicating, more communicating, and promoting visibility. Maybe a 100% virtual work arrangement is not the answer for your organization. Perhaps a blended model (split time between office and remote work) will help you take some expenses off the books while allowing your people to establish and maintain the workplace culture (people, place, purpose). When there is regular visibility of leadership, consistent peer-to-peer interaction, constant communication across the organization (not just top down), and a proven ability of the company to evolve, there is a fighting chance of maintaining a culture and allowing it to evolve.

There are two established models I would encourage business leaders to consider as part of the planning process if they are moving to a virtual work environment: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Kotter’s eight-step change model. In a virtual environment, it’s easy for a person to lose that sense of belonging, to lose their ability to maintain esteem when there is a lack of communication or recognition, or to feel that their potential cannot be maximized due to limited growth opportunities. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great reference point for keeping these things top of mind (whether in a virtual environment or not) and enabling an organization to achieve optimal engagement.

Kotter’s change model is a great process for leading transformational change and can come in handy for a critical project like establishing a virtual work environment. Key points in leading this type of change are creating and communicating a vision and removing obstacles for the team. Part of building a corporate culture (or leading a project) is engaging and enabling the members of the organization. They need to feel that they are part of the solution, their voices are heard, their concerns are taken seriously, and any roadblocks are removed.

The main takeaway here is not to take your people and culture for granted. I think everyone can agree that an engaged team of motivated people is what makes the engine run and a company successful. When considering whether to permanently establish a remote work arrangement, engage your people in the decision-making process and enable them to succeed.

About The Author

Greg Hussey is a human resources professional with over 11 years of progressive, diverse experience. He has a passion for helping organizations develop their people, working closely in building a culture of high-performance through the successful deployment of people and culture initiatives.

Greg is the president of Impact HR, your dedicated outsourcing solution for human resources. We are your “fractional” people-and-culture department and help ensure you have a strong foundation to support your business goals. Impact HR helps drive sustainable business success by leveraging and engaging the people of an organization, maximizing their contributions.

Keep an eye out for our future blog posts, where we’ll address relevant and current trends in the field of people and culture.

References

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Maslow, A. H., & Frager, R. (1987). Motivation and personality. 3rd ed. / New York: Harper and Row.

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impactHR is your dedicated outsourcing solution for human resources. Think of us as your fractional HR department. Whether you need us on an ongoing basis, for a one-time consulting project, or just need an occasional resource to ask questions when you’re dealing with an employee issue, we help ensure you have a strong HR foundation that will support your business. We work with any type and size of business, from startups, to small and medium enterprise, to multinational corporations.