Guided Insights

How many times have we heard employers claim that their organization’s “culture” may be irretrievably lost if people continue to work remotely?

We don’t buy it, and we’ll explain why here. But first, let’s explore what’s really behind this questionable claim.

Joining me in writing this edition of Communique is Pari Namazie, Managing Partner at the boutique consulting firm EUNEPA (Eurasian Nexus Partners). Pari and I met when we were both on a panel for the @Global Case Study Challenge, and we’ve been exchanging ideas ever since.

Here are notes from our most recent conversation, where we explored what “culture” really means, who’s responsible, and why so many organizations fear it will be lost when people work from different locations. (Download a “to-do” list for assessing and defining culture for your organization – See link below)

Let’s start with a working definition

We see culture as a reflection of the shared values, beliefs, customs, practices, and social behaviors of its members. It is the personality of the organization and defines how things are done within the company. Elements may include values, beliefs and principles, norms, customs, symbols, language and shared assumptions.

Who’s responsible for an organization’s culture?

While senior leadership is responsible for defining and preserving an organization’s culture and setting the tone and direction through their actions and decisions, all employees play a key role in creating and preserving it, as they are the ones who live the culture on a daily basis and are responsible for upholding the organization’s values and norms.

What are employers really saying when they insist that culture will be lost if people don’t return to the office?

While we believe that many employers honestly accept this as truth, we also think they’re making assumptions that may be unfounded. For example, they may not realize that many employees either can’t easily define their organization’s current culture as it is, or they see the current culture as unhealthy or undesirable.

Many leaders concerned about the loss of “culture” aren’t really clear on what will be lost, apart from their ability to more closely supervise the work of their employees. Even when they suspect that preserving “culture” may be possible in a virtual world, some leaders may be daunted by the prospect of having to reassess and redefine their culture. Mandating a return to the office may seem like an easier option.

How much does work location really matter when it comes to preserving culture?

For an existing team, not very much. We believe that culture is about how people work, not where they work. It’s about their shared beliefs, principles and team norms; what they see as acceptable and desirable behavior; how they treat each other, work together, and communicate; how they respond under pressure; what behaviors and attitudes they recognize and reward; and what behaviors and actions are seen as unacceptable. None of these are dependent upon location.

For a newly-formed team, or when new members join, bringing people together in one location (whether it’s a company office location or somewhere offsite) can help develop relationships, build trust, jumpstart the onboarding process, and make the new team member feel more included.

What steps can organizations take to create, maintain and preserve a healthy culture in a hybrid remote world?

▶️ Assess how employees, managers, partners, customers and other important stakeholders view the organization’s culture today, using a combination of focus groups, online conversations and interviews. Probe for values, behavior, attitudes, policies and other manifestations of culture. As part of this assessment, ask what these same people see as the “ideal culture.” Consider asking job candidates how they’d describe the culture of an ideal employer for an additional perspective.

▶️ Identify the gaps between what stakeholders see as your organization’s current culture and what they see as the ideal culture. For example, stakeholders who place trust high on the list of “ideal culture” attributes may describe your current culture as low-trust.

▶️ Brainstorm actionable steps your organization can take to move closer to the profile of the “ideal culture.” Clarify definitions; for example, trust might mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another. Start where the gaps are greatest.

Actions may include skill-building, new processes, redefined policies, revised metrics, performance measurements, management accountabilities, and clear and compelling communications. Go for a combination of low-hanging fruit — initiatives that will have a high impact and can be done relatively quickly — and longer-term actions that may take longer to implement and absorb.

▶️ Use existing forums and tools to assess culture periodically, including embedding relevant questions in employee engagement or client satisfaction surveys.

What steps can managers and leaders take to maintain an organization’s culture regardless of where people work?

▶️ Communicate clearly and consistently: Communicate the organization’s values, mission, and goals to make sure that all employees are on the same page and understand how their actions contribute to the shared culture.

▶️ Encourage team building, social events and other opportunities for employees to connect and build relationships to foster a sense of community. Continue initiatives that were popular when your team was all-virtual, such as a virtual coffee break or cocktail hour, quiz night, cooking classes, book clubs, etc.). When you can bring people together in one location, build in time for social activities and informal conversations.

▶️ Conduct regular check-ins to discuss progress, challenges, and feedback.

▶️ Lead by example and model the behavior and values that the organization wants to promote, creating a culture of accountability and integrity.

▶️ Provide employees with the tools and resources they need to stay connected and collaborate effectively. Poll employees to discover what additional apps or tools would be most helpful. Agree as a team how and when new tools can best be used.

▶️ Continuously evaluate and adapt the culture to ensure it remains relevant and effective in a virtual world. Encourage employees to give feedback and suggestions and incorporate their ideas into the culture.

Maintaining an organization’s culture in a virtual work environment requires clear communication, connection, engagement, leadership, and adaptation. The leaders who embrace this mindset can preserve the culture of the organization effectively, regardless of work location.


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