Remote doesn’t work unless there is a great culture in place

Culture change expert Colin Ellis

Culture change expert Colin Ellis. Source: supplied.

Remote working should have been something that all organisations offered to their employees (where appropriate to do so), regardless of whether there was a pandemic.

Family commitments, medical appointments and home deliveries are all part of people’s lives now, so being able to offer flexibility is something that all people-focused companies should do.

It’s never been easier to work remotely, thanks to fast internet connections, collaboration tools and a more relaxed view of when people need to be in the office to undertake focused work.

However, without a well-defined culture where everyone understands what’s expected of them, productivity will dip, engagement will be low and people will blame the flexible working policy rather than looking at the conditions created for success.

For years now, senior managers within organisations have been great at talking about culture being the most important thing, which, according to the research, it still is.

In short, how people bring their best self to work and work together to get things done is still the biggest contributor to an organisation’s success.

Yet many have consistently neglected a structured approach to culture definition in favour of quick-fix responses, and these were the organisations that found it hard to stay productive when COVID-19 reconfigured work.

What these organisations found was that when people were forced to work away from the office, there was nothing to anchor them to the culture. No sense of empathy, compassion, togetherness, prioritisation, innovation or social interaction.

Results suffered and many organisations waited (or continue to wait) for a vaccine that they hope will restore the working status quo.

It won’t. While a vaccine may safeguard a large proportion of the world’s population, the world of work has changed forever.

Over the course of this past year, I have spoken to many senior managers and teams from around the world about how they’ve responded to the pandemic. Many practices — good and bad — have revealed themselves through the response to the virus, with most realising they hadn’t done enough work to define their culture, so that people could remain connected to it, regardless of where they worked.

Where this well-defined connection doesn’t exist, it’s very easy for employees, who aren’t in the same space as each other, to feel removed from the organisation or the team and, as a result, productivity suffers.

Additionally, it can give rise to a sense of loneliness, anxiety or frustration when people and the activities that bind people together aren’t as visible as they were before.

The recent ‘Living the Future of Work’ survey, conducted by Prudential and Morning Consult, bore this out, with 55% of the people surveyed saying they feel less connected to their organisation as a result of working remotely.

On the face of it, this may not seem like much of an issue. ‘Of course, they don’t feel connected, they’re not in the office’, you may think.

But this is to make culture all about location when it is much more than this.

Culture should be prevalent whether a person is at home, in the office, in the field, on a plane, or at an event.

This is something that Wade Foster, the co-founder of technology company Zapier, is always at pains to emphasise when he talks about the fact that Zapier has a 100% remote workforce.

In a blog about how the management team goes about establishing and maintaining their culture, Foster talks about trust and transparency and the things that underpin both when working remotely.

“Being public and transparent about your company’s values and culture goes a long way towards establishing trust in a distributed team,” Foster wrote.

When your people are based in different places it’s harder to maintain a cultural status quo, unless you’re deliberate about its definition in the first place.

Foster again: “With co-located teams, it’s easy to ignore culture building with the expectation that it will naturally happen. In 99% of situations (made up number), this is simply not true, but by the time a co-located team realises it, it might be too late to repair their culture.”

I’ve had a steady stream of work with teams that have recognised this.

They have the tools, they have the skills, the intent is there, but there is no cultural glue to bind them all together. There’s nothing that they collectively believe in, nothing to create a sense of belonging.

Nothing that they can hold themselves accountable to, take pride in and celebrate when things go well. And nothing to learn from and evolve such that the organisation and its people can grow together. 

Writing a flexible-working policy and providing employees with the opportunity to work from anywhere is a recipe for success, but only if the culture keeps them connected to each other and ensures that productivity remains high in order to achieve the organisation’s goals.

Anything else just doesn’t work.

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