It could be argued the pandemic-fueled shift to remote work is the greatest societal change since the end of WWII, and it is here to stay. Researchers from Ladders, a career site for jobs paying 100k or more, have been tracking remote work at North America’s largest 50,000 employers since the pandemic began. Ladders’ researchers project 25% of all professional jobs in North America will be remote by the end of 2022, with a continuing increase in remote work opportunities through the end of 2023. In its 2021 State of Remote Work Report, Owl Labs reports that 16% of companies globally are fully remote. It’s remarkable to think that many companies have no offices or headquarters at all. The Owl Labs’ report further stated 90% of the 2,050 full-time remote workers surveyed said they were as productive or more productive working remotely, compared to when they worked in the office. Another 74% said after the pandemic, working from home would be better for their mental health, and 84% reported that working remotely after the pandemic would make them happier, even if it means taking a cut in pay.
Despite the benefits remote work offers and its popularity among employees, it isn’t without its problems, one being the challenge of building and/or maintaining a positive corporate culture for remote teams. The most effective teams feel trust, camaraderie and cohesiveness among team members, attributes more difficult to attain in a remote work. Other barriers to building a positive corporate culture among remote employees are the feelings of isolation and lack of engagement sometimes experienced by remote employees. Because team culture is a core appeal for top talent and essential for high performing teams, team leaders must create opportunities for team members to connect using technology and other means. Here are five ways to improve corporate culture for remote teams.
Onboard with Purpose
When cultivating team culture, it’s important to start at the very beginning with hiring and onboarding new employees. This is a make-or-break opportunity to convey to new hires the company’s most important values. “Onboarding” and “orientation” are often used synonymously, and, while they complement each other, they have very different purposes. Orientation is an important part of onboarding during which new hires are formally introduced to the company, complete mandatory paperwork and are familiarized with corporate policies and procedures. Onboarding is “ongoing” and a process by which an employee is acclimated to a new work environment and doesn’t end until that employee is a fully functioning member of his/her team and is integrated into the social and cultural fabric of the company. The process could last weeks or even months.
Every step of the hiring and onboarding process is an opportunity to promote the “why” and “how” of a company’s operations. Recruiters, hiring managers and HR staff should clearly explain to new hires the company’s mission and vision, which get to the heart of corporate culture. Even a carefully crafted offer letter can communicate the company’s culture with authentic language representing the company’s values that gets employees excited to get on board and learn more. It’s a mistake to assume new hires know the answers to common questions, and HR staff should provide information ahead of time about core office hours, parking, security, building access, lunch plans for the first day, office or cubicle location, technology and equipment provided, restroom locations, appropriate office attire, the availability of snacks and coffee/soft drinks, and first day contact person. Proactively addressing logistical questions before an employee’s start date alleviates anxiety and uncertainty and kick starts building the trust inherent in positive corporate culture.
A simple and effective way to welcome a new employee into a team is to have a designated team member walk the new hire around the company to introduce him/her to all other team members. In a remote work situation, this can be accomplished by scheduling brief video conferences with team members throughout the new hire’s first day or week. Mentors also play a key role in quickly acclimating a new hire to a team’s culture.
Build Psychological Safety
One of the strongest proven predictors of team effectiveness is the presence of psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’ Ms. Edmondson goes on to explain, “Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content.” Psychological safety is critical for team performance.
Google wanted to determine what makes its teams effective. Over the course of two years, Google’s People Operations (HR) conducted over 200 interviews with Google employees and examined more than 250 attributes of over 180 Google teams. Based on data analysis, Google found that teams work best when members are comfortable taking risks, have clear goals, can depend on each other and believe in the importance of their work. The research identified five key dynamics that set successful Google teams apart from other teams, the number one being psychological safety.
Many of the same tenets of psychological safety apply for onsite and remote teams. Establishing psychological safety starts at the top. If leadership expects employees to be candid and open about their experiences, leadership must be willing to take the first step. Managers and corporate leadership must show their own vulnerability by sharing their challenges, constraints, successes and failures. Leaders should model behavior that reflects curiosity, normalizes vulnerability and accepts mistakes. Psychological safety takes time to build and become ingrained in corporate culture, but one tiny misstep can destroy it. One team member abruptly shooting down another’s idea or comment can cause a ripple effect where no one feels safe speaking up and contributing. Team leaders must be vigilant about keeping a watchful eye on employees’ actions and comments that could prove harmful to carefully cultivated psychological team safety.
Solicit and Provide Regular, Meaningful Feedback
Team leaders should teach team members how to give constructive feedback focusing on specific actions with no personal blaming. In a remote work situation, feedback is best given via video meetings where the subtle nuances of eye contact and facial expressions can be used to establish a more personal and safe connection among team members. Delivering negative feedback can be particularly difficult in a remote situation without the benefit of comforting personal interaction. One approach is to start by asking open ended questions about the project or assignment such as, “How do you think the project went? Do you think the client was pleased? Were there any particularly difficult challenges you encountered?” Next, provide a nugget of positive feedback such as, “You certainly have a mastery of the concepts involved.” Follow with a statement about the desired outcome contrasted with the actual outcome that didn’t meet performance expectations. For example, “The team faced a tight deadline of projection completion by X, and, unfortunately, the team missed the deadline by a few weeks. As project manager, can you think of ways in which the team can better meet its deliverables? Is there any way in which I can help facilitate that outcome in the future?” End the video call by asking the employee to summarize the main takeaways from the conversation. Reframe any negative comments the employee makes in a more positive way, and follow up with the employee to “check in” in a few days or weeks.
Prioritize Regular Rituals
In the workplace, rituals are repeated actions that strengthen bonds among employees and teams. Rituals focus on what’s important to the organization, and in time, they lead to cohesion, engagement and increased morale, all important components of corporate culture. Team rituals serve a particularly important role in a remote work situation where employees may not feel a sense of belonging or connection to other remote employees. Team rituals can be woven into workdays bringing team members together in fun and natural ways while simultaneously reinforcing the values at the heart of the company’s culture.
Some creative ways to form emotional connections among virtual team members are to have a weekly virtual lunch on the company’s tab via Doordash, start a weekly meeting with a new icebreaker question and lead with it, conduct virtual coffee chats among team members or challenge team members to have the most creative or funny Zoom background that changes monthly with meeting time to explain why the background was chosen. Some companies build remote team culture by creating specific “social-only” channels or threads in the company’s preferred communication tool like Slack. Team members can share photos from their daily lives or special occasions like birthdays or vacations. The threads are great vehicles for sharing book club recommendations, binge-worthy tv shows, recipes or podcasts. Another vehicle for establishing regular rituals is implementing co-working streaming sessions in which team members can virtually work together by signing on and off throughout the day. These streaming sessions mimic a real in-person working scenario that fosters brainstorming and collaboration.
Schedule Some Real Facetime
Let’s face it, there’s no replacement for real “facetime.” Even the best virtual meeting technology has its shortcomings. Most Zoom calls have at least one awkward moment where participants talk over each other, there’s an annoying lag that disrupts the flow of the call or poor wi-fi cuts off a participant entirely. Gauging body language and picking up on subtle interpersonal cues can also be difficult virtually. If possible, remote teams greatly benefit from some in person facetime. Depending on the proximity of team members, weekly, monthly or even quarterly facetime where employees interact in person is valuable for any team. It’s easier to clearly communicate, brainstorm, read social cues and interpret facial expressions when everyone is in the same room. These in-person meetings also give new team members an opportunity to meet the team and personally connect with employees with whom they will mainly work remotely.
Get Smart HR
The face of work is changing, and Smart HR can help keep you ahead of the curve by sharing emerging workplace trends and implementing best practices. Smart HR has always approached working with clients using a hybrid work model with consultants spending several days onsite and the others working remotely. In this manner, our seasoned consultants create visibility and provide critical in-person availability to staff and the client’s management team. Because we’ve mastered the hybrid work model that has now become the norm, we can seamlessly integrate into your workforce, even providing guidance on successfully making the transition to hybrid or fully remote work. If you’ve been wondering how to navigate the new workplace landscape, call Smart HR today.