There’s no quicker way to expose problems in a working culture than shifting it online.
It’s easy to hide in plain sight in an office, where people can busy themselves with irrelevant activity and many businesses make the fatal error of equating bums on seats with engagement.
In that sense, remote work can be a blessing, making it immediately obvious if purpose and goals are clear, if people are comfortable collaborating, and what value is actually being created.
It’s also an opportunity to reset unhelpful habits or practices and forge a sense of solidarity that will benefit the workplace for years to come.
Culture is always designed — by intent or, more commonly, neglect. So how do you go about building an intentional culture online?
State your purpose
It all starts with purpose. If you can’t clearly articulate the ‘why’ of your organisation, and how you fit into that bigger picture, you won’t be able to work remotely.
Make sure everyone is clear on what we do and why we do it. A fun and helpful way to frame this question is: what’s our superpower?
When this purpose is internalised, people can plug into it ambiently in the background while getting on with the work of the moment. Motivation is specific and authentic, and everyone feels a sense of ownership.
State your expectations
It’s critical to set expectations from the start, and return to them periodically as a reminder.
What behaviours are encouraged or discouraged? What’s the tone of our ‘place’? What outputs are expected? What do we expect from each other? What does urgent actually mean? (This one’s extra important).
State guidelines, codes of conduct or rules of engagement for different contexts upfront and ensure everyone’s on the same page.
As we move from command and control to trust and track, shared expectations form the basis of the trust structure we need to operate peacefully and effectively.
Work out loud
Working out loud is the popular practice of working together in networks, openly sharing what you’re doing, and collaborating transparently. Done well, it creates a strong, vibrant peer culture even in remote work — and as an added bonus, does away with the need for superfluous meetings.
Narrating and sharing doesn’t have to be too formal. It might be regular updates on a chat stream, posts in a company wiki, or short recorded clips of updates via video or audio.
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Once you get used to it, openly sharing what you’re working to achieve, the things you’re learning and any help you need strengthens relationships and promotes a culture of sharing honestly and respectfully.
Add some rituals
Building constructive and sustained engagement means helping the team form meaningful habits. Online you’ll need to forge public rituals that give people a touchpoint and sense of consistency. Rituals can serve the mundane or a milestone, and can be built up over time to work toward an aim.
A simple ritual might be a morning roll call, or a ‘how are you feeling’ check-in. Start with existing rituals — birthdays, celebrating project kick-offs or wrap-ups — then experiment. Host a virtual happy hour, a regular ‘solve my problem’ brainstorm, or a ‘show and tell’ with an in-house expert.
Rituals are especially useful in times of upheaval and uncertainty, and offer comfort when things feel out of control or remote work has colleagues feeling isolated.
Embrace the asynchronous
The traditional 9-5 working day has long been largely arbitrary. Things are done a certain way because ‘tradition’, or even worse, because of the whims of individuals with power, regardless of whether those are the best ways to achieve the organisation’s purpose and goals.
Connecting in real time has value, but that connection doesn’t need to be always on, or fit into a 9-5 box. Much more valuable is the flexibility to let your people do their work when they’re at their best. Few roles genuinely demand on-call accessibility.
Create your scaffold of clear expectations, then let your people work asynchronously around those to deliver. This is more true than ever in this moment of crisis, where families are juggling at-home schooling and a lot of competing demands.
Build ‘zones’ in your online office
A common failing of online workspaces is poor organisation. You’re building a digital house. Ensure people know where to find what they need (co-workers, tools, resources) and that architecture is clearly signposted. You’ll reduce frustration and those endless ‘where is XYZ’ questions.
Some of our best work gets done in hallways, walking between meetings, or over a lunch break. You don’t want to lose these propitious moments of exchange when going digital-only.
As well as creating official space for functions and projects, carve out ‘zones’ for general socialising or non-specific activities. These virtual water coolers let you retain valuable serendipity and embed a culture of relaxed sharing.
Include everyone’s unique style
Literacy and fluency are diverse things. Some people aren’t the best at writing or typing. If their entire working world suddenly depends on the written word and a lot more typing in public, that’s confronting. Likewise, people might become unnerved sitting in front of cameras for a variety of reasons.
Don’t mistake these reactions for attitude or apathy. Work with your people to understand how they can be comfortable communicating online, and accommodate them wherever you can. Look out for things getting lost in translation. A culture of transparency can help by making respect and compassion the social norm.
Change takes time to settle in, and culture doesn’t set overnight. Go easy on yourself and others. Remote work is new to many people, so focus on the lessons that can be learned together and work out loud on the journey.