With companies shutting their offices and workers going remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders like you have been instrumental in clearing logistical obstacles to get your team back online. Your next challenge is to keep your company culture intact while staff are working outside their regular environment, as well as living in a way that’s outside their norm.
Learn lots more about how to build and manage a remote team in our new guide.
What is company culture, exactly?
Company culture is a pattern, made up of a thousand actions and decisions that play out every day. Each team has its own culture as well.
In business, you can think of culture more or less as your company’s personality. Sometimes, it’s the same as your brand, but often it isn’t. Your company might be buttoned-down and hierarchical to a fault, or it might be agile and egalitarian. It might be young and scrappy or established and refined. Whatever your company’s personality, it’s usually modeled from the top, and managers are expected to not only exhibit company characteristics but enforce them. When hiring, you look for cultural fit, right? That’s one way you maintain company culture as a manager.
Unlike company values, culture is sometimes unwritten and unacknowledged. Company culture is a pattern, made up of a thousand actions and decisions that play out every day. Each team has its own culture as well.
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Social distancing has the power to break that culture.
Some teams have had a dry run of working from home for short periods, through an extreme weather event or another major incident. This coronavirus pandemic is different. Not only are we working from home en masse, with all the chaos of partners, kids, and pets, but we’re also socially isolating during the rest of our lives.
The nature of the pandemic itself adds a level of fear and uncertainty we haven’t seen on this scale in the modern workplace. People are scared, stressed, and uneasy, and that’s naturally spilling over into their working lives. Team leaders need to be especially patient and conscious of how their team is doing and what they need to thrive.
How you can maintain company culture in a pandemic
Even at the best of times, working from home is a major change in the way people communicate. With the loss of incidental communication, such as overhearing someone’s conversation or chatting in the hallway, your staff is working with less information.
Human Workplaces Culture Designer Jamie Notter says managers should be mindful of three cultural elements when managing a newly remote team:
- Proactive transparency
- Company hierarchy
Firstly, conflict. Did you just flinch? It’s OK, we’ve got you. Notter says companies that have a healthy approach to conflict will fare better in a remote world. He says distance tends to escalate conflict because “people fill in the gaps of information with stories they tell themselves in their head, which are typically much worse than the truth.” One solution is proactive transparency, which is a practice of sharing information before you’re asked. It also means putting in place systems and processes to make information more available.
Notter says newly remote managers are sometimes surprised by how much their physical space reinforces lines of power. “People in the cubes tend to talk to people in the cubes, but what if it suddenly was just as easy to message a Director on Slack as it was to message a coordinator – because it is? Can your culture handle that?” he asked.
Be intentional about maintaining a great culture
Your aim should be to replace the watercooler chats, one-on-one check-ins, bowling night, and team retreats in a digital form.
Managing a remote team requires vigilance to make sure you’re recognizing and trying to replicate all the benefits your teams get by working together in a physical space. This is not the time to ditch individual or team meetings – in fact, you might need to schedule more of them! Actively cultivate opportunities for team members to connect on things that aren’t directly related to the work. This can mean establishing recreational activities like games or happy hours over video chat, or creating a Zoom event that people can log into while they work, so that casual chat can continue. It can also mean enabling self-expression on workplace chat services like Slack with custom emojis and #jams channels. Your aim should be to replace the watercooler chats, one-on-one check-ins, bowling night, and team retreats in a digital form.
Some parts of maintaining company culture will feel like policing. But mostly, it should feel like community-building. As a manager, you are responsible for creating an environment where your team can thrive, confident and ensconced in company culture – even while they’re physically distant.