Can company culture thrive in a virtual workplace?

Culture is an element of change that can be nurtured to align with the goals of a change, project or organization.

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If people are not at work, can a corporate culture thrive? Should we expect a shift in company culture with the rise of work-from-home routines? Or even a collapse?

Organizations are facing a seemingly endless list of questions as the COVID-19 pandemic transforms the way we work. Even for temporary changes, there are still questions over potential long-term impacts.

For decades, the understanding of corporate culture was established on direct interactions with people within and connected to the physical workplace. COVID-19 accelerated (and at points mandated) working from home.

The question over the potential impacts of virtual work on company culture have been explored well before COVID-19, but the insights focused on a progressive shift in workplace habits or mixed at-work and at-home teams. Pre-COVID suggestions included:

  • “It may seem paradoxical to say in a post on virtual teams, but face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, an essential foundation for effective team work.” (Harvard Business Review, 2013)
  • “Remote workers often miss the feeling of company culture, so management must make an extra effort to cultivate trust and involve remote team members.” (Harvard Business Review, 2015)

We are living in an experiment. Even if the best practices for remote teams has been outlined, no one was expecting such a swift and universal change (even if it is temporary).

The effects of virtual work on an organization will surely be a major theme in research for years to come, but that doesn’t mean we have to passively wait. Culture is an element of change that we can assess and nurture, even – and perhaps especially – as we undergo live changes. 

For any change (including the permanent or temporary shift to virtual work), identify the impacts and influence of culture by reviewing the profile of an organization’s culture. Define what an ideal company culture would look like, and then consider what is necessary to achieve the preferred culture. 

Culture

Culture is the people, not the environment

The culture of an organization is the culmination of people’s behaviors. The behaviors are informed by an individual’s beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. Together, these behaviors develop a set of rules that define the company culture.

Some rules may be explicit, whether in employee manuals, job descriptions or directly from leaders. This is the culture on the walls – the official definition of the organization’s culture, whether through rules, goals or instructions.

And there is culture in the halls – the true culture that employees experience and contribute to. These are the norms, and it may be aligned to the official definition or it may be completely different.

Culture is both the product and input of the actions and contributions of employees. It can be difficult to analyze and even more challenging to change. 

Profile

Profile the company culture

Whenever considering the impacts of a change to culture (or the effect of company culture on a change), the first step is to describe or identify the nature of the company culture.  

A culture profile is a snapshot of the beliefs and behaviors of the people within the organization, in addition to the written and unwritten rules that exist. The culture profile isn’t an assessment of the quality or alignment of culture, but rather it is an overview of what the culture is. There is no good or bad profile – it is simply a description of the culture.

A culture profile often includes a review of:

  • Management and leadership styles
  • Approach to employee development and performance
  • Communication styles
  • Employee engagement
  • Quality of products and services provided
  • Approach to sharing knowledge
  • Approach to solving problems
  • Approach to managing risk
  • Reaction to changes
  • Decision making styles
  • Approach to rewarding and recognizing employees
  • Approach to process

It can be difficult to review and categorize a company culture, so some of these typical factors may be irrelevant or there may be additional aspects that you’ll have to consider. 

When reviewing a company culture profile, start simple and remain guided by the factors that drive behaviors of people within the organization. 

Arch

Architecturally designing the company culture

The profile of an organization’s culture describes the beliefs and behaviors of the people and the written or unwritten rules. It is the starting point for understanding and managing the relationship between a change and the company culture.

With an initial culture profile complete, the next step is to consider what organizational culture is required or desired. Describe the vision for your organization’s culture:

  • What does the ideal company culture look like?
  • What company culture is necessary for us to achieve our goals?
  • How would we want our employees to describe our organization and culture?
  • How would we want our customers/clients to describe our organization?

Comparing the culture profile and culture vision will (most likely) confirm there are gaps. Strategies to resolve these gaps typically fall into one of three types:

  1. Stop unwanted behaviors, beliefs and rules
  2. Continue the desired behaviors, beliefs and rules
  3. Introduce new desired behaviors, beliefs and rules 

Developing and implementing strategies to design a company culture are often specific to the gaps that you want to fill, so it is necessary to know what the gaps are.

For culture gaps that are the result of work-from-home policies, there is an abundance of suggestions available from business leaders, HR professionals and workplace consultants – but a clear vision of the culture your organization wants to nurture will guide the strategies that you select.

Here are some culture strategies that we’ve been part of. 

 Employee engagement and virtual work 

Current culture: Rely on face-to-face interaction (both formal and informal) to nurture relationships.

Desired culture: Relationships are nurtured if employees are working from home.

Strategy: Schedule 15-minute virtual “coffee time” for employees to have a casual conversation with a colleague.

 Communication styles 

Current culture: Communications are delivered after decisions are made, so employees feel like information is being withheld.

Desired culture: Communications are delivered during the process of making decisions, so the decision-making process is more transparent. 

Strategy: Support leaders so they can communicate with transparency, even when they don’t have all the answers. 

 Approach to sharing knowledge 

Current culture: Employees tend to withhold their specialized knowledge.

Desired culture: Employees tend to share their specialized knowledge with other employees. 

Strategy: Employees are recognized and rewarded for sharing their knowledge.

 Approach to solving problems 

Current culture: The goal of sharing bad news is to determine who is at fault. 

Desired culture: The goal of sharing bad news is to collectively learn from the experience and reduce the risk of the same problem in the future.

Strategy: Train managers and leaders on methods of delivering bad news.

 Approach to process 

Current culture: Project leaders are hesitant to identify when a project is not on track.

Desired culture: Project leaders will identify when a project is not on track.

Strategy: Shift the method of reporting to a progressive scale for project status.  


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