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How Remote Working Changed Company Culture and What to Do About It

January 28, 2021 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The move to the remote workplace saved many businesses and employees from going under during the pandemic. But at what cost?

Workplace culture, to start. Many companies are now struggling to maintain and improve it.

This is important because culture defines the organization's values, informs its goals and shapes its identity. A strong workplace culture creates employee advocates who espouse those values and identify with its message. They are more engaged, productive, satisfied and emotionally healthy, and much more likely to stick around.

But culture is tricky to build. It is created from the inside out and represents an organization's core values to internal employees and external customers alike, said Janine Yancey, CEO and founder of Emtrain, an online HR and compliance and training provider. 

“It can be tough to reach, hard to maintain and easy to lose," she said. "And now, more than ever, internal culture can have a serious impact on external perception. Disgruntled employees are just a few clicks away from sharing their negative experiences, whether real or perceived, on social media."

So how has the pandemic affected company culture? Here are some of the ways remote work has changed culture and what companies are doing to maintain and improve it even as leaders and employees work remotely. 

The Ripple Effect of Remote Work on Culture

During the pandemic, communication and transparency from leaders played a large role in how employees evaluate culture. High-quality communication was the most meaningful thing employers did to support the transition to remote work, according to half of the 400 HR leaders surveyed by MIT Sloan in April 2020.

Culture begins with open conversation and transparent dialogue, said David Gorodetski, co-founder and COO at Sage Communications, an integrated communications agency. For many organizations, the early days of the pandemic were spent adjusting the meaning of organizational culture because of the newly remote workforce. “What culture meant before and what it means now have two different connotations," he said.

As the result of lockdowns, many employees had to work from home offices, often with their children at home due to school closings. The use of collaboration platforms, video conferencing and communication platforms increased exponentially. Companies had to be flexible and adapt to changes on the fly, learning as they went. Even so, with no water cooler and no face-to-face meetings as an outlet for casual conversations with fellow employees, culture began to take a hit. 

The pandemic significantly affected the way employees relate to leaders and one another, Yancey said. According to an Emtrain survey on workplace culture there was a 15% drop in the likelihood that employees would say “no” to an inappropriate request from a manager. The study also revealed a 9% decrease in employees who say their workplace culture is healthy and a 7% increase in employees who said they have had to minimize their heritage or personal identity to fit in at work.

“As the new normal becomes just normal, it’s critical that companies work to shore up the weaknesses in culture that the pandemic exposed,” Yancey said. 

Kindler, Gentler Employee Reviews

One place companies can started is the employee review. The remote workplace changed the way managers, team leaders and employees work together, and it has also affected the way they do performance evaluations.

Recognizing the impact the pandemic had on the lives of its employees, Cambridge, Mass.-based Wistia, a video software company, changed the review process to lighten the load on everyone involved.

“Wistia typically does 360 reviews, but this year opted for a lighter lift cycle consisting only of a self-review and a manager response — not a full manager review, but rather a focused response to what was written in the self-review,” said Jane Jaxon, the company's vice president of people. 

Not only was the process better for those employees who participated, it was optional, Jaxon said. Further, employees were able to opt out of specific questions. The result was that employees interested in hearing feedback so they could work on their growth and development were able to do so.

The flexibility also included managers, who like everyone else, were dealing with the pressures of the pandemic at work and at home. “Managers with more than five direct reports got extra time to write and share their responses,” Jaxon said.

Related Article: Why Resuming Performance Reviews Now Is a Bad Idea

Meetings Get a Makeover

For good or bad, meetings are often the place where company culture is most apparent. And the pandemic also changed the way companies handle meetings, changing the way people connect with one another and in some cases it facilitated a more conscious approach to scheduling meetings.

“COVID interrupted our regularly scheduled programming for how we interact with one another, but it also opened new communications lines like our all-hands meeting," said Gorodetski. Once just an annual meeting to touch base, the entire agency now meets every Friday morning to discuss internal and external happenings.

But it's also important to not just fill time with meetings, particularly when it's never been easier to set up and organize a video meeting with just about anyone in the company. Recognizing that employees often get burned out on video conferencing, Gorodetski said his company made an effort to set aside time for employees.

“Recognizing that ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real, we also designate time in between meetings to inspire creativity, encourage employee engagement and have some downright fun,” he said.

Related Article: 8 Ways to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging

Pay Close Attention to Flexibility

Companies that are not flexible in light of the challenges brought about by the pandemic are hurting their organizational culture, Yancey said. Every employee is dealing with the strain in their own way. 

“Managers need to make their focus more on the individual in a one-on-one manner, with an understanding that each employee is wired, motivated and inspired differently,” said Yancey.

Building connections and keeping culture and morale high is challenging in a virtual environment, said David Rabin, vice president of global commercial marketing at Lenovo, a computer manufacturer. "Everyone has had to adjust to working remotely, juggling families and adjusting to small working spaces which means different work schedules,” he said.

One way to make it better is to focus on productivity over hours spent in front of a computer. “I’ve been encouraging my team to be more outcome vs. hours focused and take some time during the day to themselves as well to work how they work best and be creative where they work,” Rabin said.

Being flexible means understanding what's working and what's not, said Jaxon, and being open to feedback and communication. She advises managers to regularly check in with employees and directly ask for their feedback.

“This may mean more frequent but shorter 1:1s for some folks because you aren't co-located where they can ask questions as easily between meetings, or organically bounce ideas off of someone as you could when you're physically together," she said.

Flexibility should also extend to management style as well, and managers should be open to evolving their approach. “2020 has mixed home and work in a way that is beyond anything we've experienced before," Jaxon said. "We need to learn to manage through it. That means being open to understanding, coaching and adapting to the home challenges, which now are more acute and direct business challenges, in a way that is really new to almost all of us as managers.” 

Related Article: Flexible Work Is the Future: Is Your Organization Ready?

Focus on Being Human-centric

Companies have to find unique methods to strengthen company culture and traditions when many of their employees are working remotely. At Sage, Gorodetski said they replaced their Thanksgiving potluck event with a virtual version and provided every employee with a $50 DoorDash gift certificate.

“This virtual potluck also included corporate games and charitable giving along with other events like continued company happy hours, surprise virtual baby showers for our soon-to-be parents, and birthday celebrations with themed virtual backgrounds,” he said. 

It’s up to managers and employees to focus on the issues that damage workplace culture and create an environment that brings together the best aspects of both the physical and virtual workplace culture.

“We’ve found that managers and employers who highlighted employee mental health, worked towards being adaptable to change and truly listened to their employees' concerns were better able to maintain a bridge between the physical and remote workplace culture and diminish the toxicity that could arise from being behind a screen instead of face to face,” Yancey said.

Jaxon advised leaders to always remember the human element of business and remind themselves that each person is going through the present crisis in their own way. 

“These are unique circumstances and everyone is doing the best they can with wildly varying circumstances,” she said. “There isn't a playbook for this and we're more than ever having to meet people where they are and manage every person differently.” 

Undoubtedly, the move to the remote workplace affected company culture, but agile companies are able to maintain their culture and even improve it by being flexible in how they relate to employees, establishing a gentler approach to employee evaluation, and remembering that this is all uncharted territory that we're in together. 

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