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Sonata Notes: Can Remote Teams Have Strong Cultures?

Culture is an intangible yet invaluable asset for any organization.  When people feel a sense of shared identity with their coworkers and commitment to the organization’s mission, it improves day-to-day performance and long-term talent retention.  But what happens to an organization’s culture when people work remotely, instead of side-by-side?

Maintaining culture is one of the most commonly cited concerns for executives worried about the impact of remote work on their organizations.  Only 5% of executives in a PwC survey thought it was possible to maintain a strong culture in a 100% virtual environment.  Tim Cook of Apple, a company that has made remote work permanent for three days per week, said “For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other.” 

Workers are less concerned.  54% of respondents to a Gallup poll felt their organization’s cultures won’t be adversely affected by long-term remote work, while 33% worried it might get worse. 

So what’s the reality here?  Are executives right to worry or do organizations simply need to be more imaginative about how culture can be sustained among a remote workforce?  

While it is admittedly a challenge, our experience suggests that it is entirely possible to maintain a strong organizational culture remotely.  Here are a few suggestions as to how:

  • Double down on the intangibles.  Asking “how can we keep a strong culture working remotely” is an opportunity to reflect on the health of your organization’s culture, generally.  What is your mission and how does it manifest in people’s day-to-day tasks and interactions?  What are your values?  What distinguishes a member of your team from other organizations in your field, apart from the sign in front of the office where they work? 

    If you are a meditech company with a mission to “transform patient outcomes globally through the power of digital technology” – is that something that your software developers and engineers think about daily or do they view their job simply as grinding out lines of code?  

    If you claim your organization values environmental sustainability, is that limited to an end-of-year donation to some nonprofit or is it something you incorporate into all of your project plans?

    These sort of deep, substantive cultural commitments shouldn’t require a physical office to perpetuate.

  • Recognize the positive influence of remote work on culture.  Effective remote work requires deep commitment to things like radical transparency, inclusion, and creating personal connections among team members.  

    For instance, one Fortune 500 tech company we spoke to had a culture where engineering teams valued technical expertise so highly, employees were afraid to post technical questions in public chat channels, because they didn’t want a written record of their ignorance.  Addressing this required the organization to work on creating a sense of “psychological safety” that would promote transparency and knowledge sharing among their team. 

    Similarly, one IBM executive said that, before the pandemic, people in the company worked hard to project a persona of cool, competent professionalism in the office.  However, months of remote working and seeing colleagues in their homes made interactions “a little more human” which helped to counter the sense of social isolation. The executive said she hoped this newfound humanity would continue after returning to the office.

  • Promote social interaction.  Often, organizations take such a pessimistic view of remote work productivity that they set unreasonable expectations, discouraging people from having social conversations via online collaboration platforms.  But while discipline and focus are important, a lot of organizational culture is transmitted during informal social interactions, which can get lost online.  

    At minimum you should designate a channel on your chat platform for team members to have social conversations and post things like movie recommendations or photos of children and pets.  

    Beyond that, examine any activities or rituals that depend on physical proximity, identify their underlying intangible value, then find other ways to capture that value virtually. 

    Does everyone look forward to the annual holiday party?  Help people express their holiday spirit by organizing a (voluntary) gift exchange and offering to have the company pay for shipping.  Do you have a team that plays against other organizations in a local sports league?  Maybe do a monthly trivia contest so people can flex their competitive instincts.

    You can also create communities of practice/interest.  For instance, create a social network for women managers in your company or encourage people to set up things like after-hours online book clubs or even cooking classes, which can be promoted via company platforms.

  • Take a formal approach to onboarding and mentoring.  For some reason organizations tend to invest less time in onboarding remote team members than in-office team members.  While new hires would traditionally be given a tour of the office and get assigned to follow a more experienced colleague for their first few days (or even their first few weeks), remote workers are too often left to figure things out on their own, or given a task and told to get to work.

    As with most aspects of remote work, a more formal and deliberate approach to onboarding is usually better.  Create some standard introductory videos or presentation decks, and ensure managers feel comfortable going through and discussing them with new hires online.  And make sure the materials explicitly address your mission, values, and culture in an authentic and meaningful way.

    Formal mentoring programs where new hires are paired with experienced colleagues can also help transmit and sustain culture.  Especially since remote workers have fewer opportunities to connect and develop mentoring relationships with senior colleagues, informally.  

The above are just a few suggestions.  One last idea to consider is appointing a “Remote Work Champion” to advise leadership on virtual  work policies and actively support culture-building activities.  Even if it’s just a part time assignment, creating accountability for remote culture is a good way to get results. 

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.