With about half of the U.S. population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, many companies are pressured to decide if they are going to continue working remotely, require their employees to come back into the office, or compromise with a hybrid model.
Employees across the country have adapted to remote work for the last 16 months and many have embraced the newfound flexibility and work/life balance. According to a FlexJobs survey of 2,100 individuals who were forced to work from home at the onset of the coronavirus, 65% now want to remain fully virtual post-pandemic. Moreover, 33% of participants want a hybrid model, and only 2% would like to return to the office permanently.
While working remotely certainly has its advantages, some organizational leaders fear that the absence of in-person meetings and office camaraderie will dismantle the intentional culture that they’ve created for their company. How do you maintain any sense of company culture through video conferences and instant message chats? How do we onboard new employees remotely and make sure they understand our culture without ever visiting our office? As employees started working in sweatpants and slippers, folding laundry during conference calls, and taking midday breaks to walk their dogs, it’s understandable that executives feel like they’ve lost the culture they worked so hard to build in the office.
In March of 2020, your company might have been part of the large segment of the workforce that had to start working from home for an indefinite period. Your employees packed up their laptops, chargers, monitors, and maybe some post-it notes, thinking it was just going to be a few weeks and they could make-do with the minimal supplies they had at home. But what you probably didn’t notice was that your employees brought your company culture home with them, too.
Sure, you’ve missed ~16 monthly happy hours at the dive bar down the street from the office, and no one decorated the kitchenette for Halloween this year. But the team did continue to feel supported in the inclusive environment that was created in the workplace. Managers still maintained their “open door” policies (although now it’s their personal meeting rooms on Zoom), and your workforce still received their annual performance reviews. You and your colleagues had to learn how to collaborate on presentations virtually, but the sense of teamwork and strategic processes remained.
Your company’s culture is not housed in the four walls of your corporate headquarters. It’s not free catered-lunches, birthday celebrations in the conference room, or open-concept floor plans. Organizational culture is the values, beliefs and behaviors practiced in an organization formed over time because they are rewarded or punished by formal and informal rules, rituals and behaviors.
In order for culture to successfully translate to a remote setting, leaders must learn how to create one in the first place. For 15+ years, I have worked with global, national, Fortune 100 and other organizations on how to create intentional cultures that accelerate performance. My roadmap can be applied to any company, whether it’s in-person or virtual.
Step 1: Define and Communicate Your Strategy
Global studies show that only 5% of employees understand their company strategy. This is because strategy creation has traditionally been an absent or insular habit – companies continue to operate without a real plan, or a small group of leaders meet in a boardroom to create one. Then, leaders demand that the frontline execute these plans that they may not be aware of, understand, or feel committed to. As a result, strategy execution fails.
All leaders should communicate their strategy to their workforce, regardless if they’re in-person or virtual. However, it’s especially important to be transparent with a remote workforce to ensure that everyone is on the same page, working toward the same goals. Executives need to create a realistic company strategy that everyone can clearly understand, buy-in to, and act on. Furthermore, each employee needs to have a strategy execution plan that empowers him/her to align daily performance with the company’s overall strategy. In this way, no matter what your rank is in the company, or which time zone you’re working in, you understand what the company is aiming to accomplish, and how your department and individual role contributes to the achievement of the enterprise goals.
Step 2: Assess Culture
Now that you have a clear strategy in place, it’s time to ask yourself, “what kind of culture would we need to achieve our strategy?” For example, if a company’s strategy involves innovation, then its culture needs to support it. Innovation typically requires some risk taking, creative thinking, and a budget that allows for failure. If the leadership team fires an employee for taking a risk that doesn’t work out, then your culture is working against your strategy and therefore not producing the desired results.
Similarly, if the company is looking for a fresh take on its marketing approach, then leaders should ensure that all employees feel comfortable to share their ideas in department meetings. Reward the outside-the-box thinkers and support them with the funds and resources they need to execute their visions. Push the reluctant employees to throw all of their ideas against the wall, no matter how ridiculous they might sound. By identifying the type of culture needed to support the company strategy, rewarding the necessary behaviors and coaching up the incorrect ones, and enabling employees with the tools they need, leaders will eventually create an intentional culture that drives accelerated performance.
Step 3: Accelerate Performance
The final step is modifying the organization’s infrastructure so that each system is fully tailored to the company’s strategy. The key is to create an environment that facilitates performance aligned with your objectives. For example, if the company’s focus is on innovation, then they should modify any structures that prohibit creativity. Instead of strictly tracking if employees are logged on between the hours of 9:00am and 5:00pm, leaders should empower their employees to work during their optimal schedules.
Other systems that must be considered are: recruitment, onboarding programs, internal mobility/growth opportunities, skill development programs, compensation, benefits, performance appraisals, knowledge sharing plans, etc. If the qualifications for a promotion at your company require advanced knowledge of a specific editing software, you should ensure that there are ample training and mentoring opportunities available. If the salesmen at your company are asked to focus their efforts on retaining current customers instead of bringing in new ones, then their end-of-year bonus structure cannot be tied to their number of new sales. All of these internal processes and systems affect your employees’ behavior and culture and must be fixed to power the desired results. By ensuring the proper infrastructure is in place across the board, leaders can maintain an intentional culture inside or outside of the office. If your organization cannot properly build its infrastructure to support the desired culture, then you need to go back and set more feasible expectations.
Transitioning from a company that only functioned in a traditional office setting to a completely virtual organization is undoubtedly a big adjustment. However, if leaders properly craft an intentional culture that aligns with their company strategy, it should be no less challenging to maintain it in a remote setting. Instead of focusing on team-building activities and office perks to build a sense of employee morale, leaders should outline their company strategy, communicate it to all employees, ensure each department and individual understands how their roles contribute to the company’s goals, define the type of culture needed to power the strategy, adjust internal systems to enable the culture, and provide employees with the tools they need to properly do their jobs. In this way, executives are creating an environment that fosters and empowers the exact type of behaviors, values and rituals that drive results.