When people ask HR leaders how to maintain company culture when employees are working remotely, they’re usually wondering how you replace happy hours, ping pong tournaments, and inspiring posters in conference rooms.
Culture is not only about office activities. Culture is how we treat each other. Culture is not just the things we do. Culture is how our company makes us feel.
While it’s much easier to strengthen your culture in-person, it is possible to do it in a remote work world. Face-to-face conversations, side-by-side problem solving, and even team lunches are powerful and efficient ways to get to know each other, connect, create community, and build culture. I’m a strong proponent of face-to-face connection. And although building a culture face-to-face and in-person is preferred, it is absolutely possible not to lose culture without it.
This article is about how to keep your culture active when you’re not together.
If you practice your company values from anywhere and prioritize the employee experience from anywhere, you will be able to preserve your company culture—from anywhere.
Uphold your values and elevate the employee experience to maintain culture
Start with a strong foundation of your values and a focus on employee experience. At Citrix, respect and unity are two of our values—and I suspect your company may share a version of these. Assuming that your culture is one that wants employees to feel connected to each other and your company’s vision, here are some tangible tips for preserving it across distributed teams.
1. Check in with each other and really listen.
If you’re a manager or leader, take time to understand what your team members are experiencing and identify their needs. Simply by asking considerate questions, you’re showing that you care. And when you really listen, you’ll also be better equipped to anticipate what may help them be more successful.
You may be surprised at how little it takes to start a conversation that makes you feel connected:
- “How are you doing … really?”
- “How is working from home going for you?”
- “What have been the most challenging parts of this pandemic for you?”
- “How’s your family doing?”
- “What do you miss most about how things were before COVID-19?”
The power of these questions isn’t any magical phrasing. It’s showing that you care enough to ask.
Give yourself and your team members the freedom to not talk about work during work. In the absence of hallway conversations and lunch chats, it’s OK to use email, phone calls, or virtual meetings to talk about our lives. Especially now, when COVID-19 caution is curtailing a lot of our social activities, we can connect through conversation.
2. Be creative in how you work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all in many ways. But it has also opened the doors to opportunities for us to learn and grow by pushing us outside our comfort zones and requiring us to try new things.
It has allowed us to connect in more personal ways with our colleagues and have meaningful conversations that enable us to better understand what they need to be successful. Now is the time to seize these opportunities and find innovative ways to meet those needs—and work more collaboratively and creatively to solve problems together.
One way to recharge your team dynamic, if conditions allow, is to gather your remote team in person at least once per year. It may be awhile before we feel comfortable with high fives and hugs, but it’s important to reconnect. Make eye contact without a digital divide. Hear voices and laughter unfiltered by microphones and speakers. Even a couple of days of in-person interactions can give your relationships a boost that every team member can take back to their workspace.
3. Make recognition a habit.
Recognition and appreciation are powerful culture carriers. In a shared office, you would probably celebrate a product launch with the team. There would be cake. Or when you fix a pesky bug or close a big sale, you might raise your arms in victory and know that someone nearby will say, “You got it? That’s great!” Where’s the cake and the “woo hoo!” when you’re working in physical isolation from your teammates?
Recognition can help your colleagues feel seen even when you can’t give them a high five in the hall. When you recognize people for behaviors or achievements aligned to your values, that supports your culture, too.:
- Send an email to the person celebrating their achievement and copy their manager or, if you’re their manager, your leader. Describe why it matters to the business and anything special that the person did to make the achievement happen.
- Design virtual events for major team milestones. Mail cookies to the team members and schedule a virtual meeting to celebrate together or let them expense a lunch.
- Schedule recurring time on your calendar to send at least three people a thank you, recognition, or positive feedback.
Recognition tells people that what they’re doing matters. It’s also a great way to reinforce the behaviors you like to see and the priorities of the business. It says, “Yes, more like this.”
4. Find new ways to communicate “on” and “off” work.
When you go to ask a colleague for help in a physical office, you may walk to their desk. If they’re not there or are visibly on a call, you see they’re busy and walk away. When you go to ask a colleague for help in a remote work environment, you may email them, send them an instant message through Slack, Teams, or Skype, and then text or call their mobile phone to get their attention. It’s more difficult to distinguish working from not working time.
In fact, according to a study conducted by Quartz, 67% of employees say that being “always on” has a significant negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Protect your culture by not turning it into an always-on environment.
Create team norms around working hours, communication, and being “on.” Agree to use one online platform to communicate your availability status. Create guiding principles for your team about when you can send instant messages or texts. If you’re a leader, demonstrate that it’s OK to be offline at certain times.
Without our visual cues in the office—just like working with colleagues in different time zones—it takes a little more coordination to show consideration to each other.
5. Include fun in your digital transformation.
As you accelerate all things digital in your business—data and analytics, artificial intelligence, internet of things, cloud—don’t forget about your culture. Digital solutions can drive insights, efficiency, customer satisfaction, and cost savings. But they can also connect employees around the world in rich ways and allow them to have fun together.
Culture is not defined by office activities. Rather office activities reflect culture. When people enjoy collaborating together and feel like they belong to something special, they treat each other as friends.
And while not a replacement for face-to-face interactions, technology has advanced to the point that many activities can be done just as effectively online—onboarding employees, training, or hosting customer meetings and trade shows, for instance. When you can’t be in person, invite your team to brainstorm ways to have fun online. Ask, “How might we have a great team offsite at all of our different sites as once?” Try virtual pizza lunches, trivia games, karaoke, virtual scavenger hunts, parties with your pets, fitness classes or challenges, virtual volunteering, and employee photo contests.
Work is no longer only a place people go to. Companies that recognize this and work to create a culture that transcends physical boundaries will give their employees the space they need to explore, create and succeed.