All Aboard: Company Culture & Remote Working

Post by
James Quinn
All Aboard: Company Culture & Remote Working

Company culture is the tracks your company runs on

Just as the culture of a North American country is distinguishable from a Scandinavian or Asian culture, a company culture is a fingerprint, a brand, and something that binds people together. Traditionally, a central way to create and express culture has been through shared physical space and objects. With many employees shifting to remote working, finding ways to build and maintain company culture through other means has never been more urgent. 

It’s a relief, then, that the key to keeping culture in top gear is easily identified: employee engagement keeps everyone onboard the same imaginary train, and that train profitably running. Company culture is the tracks your company runs on.

Clear the Tracks

A significant minority of college-graduates would take lower pay to work in a company with an admirable culture. Nearly half the workforce leaves or is fired within eighteen months, and poor cultural fit has a lot to do with that. From engine to caboose, culture matters: multiple studies show how essential culture is to engaging employees.

So before companies think about engagement, let alone engaging remotely, they should audit culture itself:

  1. Culture can be boiled down to ‘how we do things around here’, which includes values. Is it clear what that culture is, how it looks and feels?
  2. Are your culture and business goals aligned?
  3. Is that culture real, or just window dressing? Company culture is more than just a mission statement or occasional party.
  4. Is culture thought about occasionally, or does it run under everything the company does, however large or small? Does it have KPIs?
  5. Are employees clear about culture, and the part they play in creating it? Is their relationship to culture part of performance reviews?

Stoke the Engines

If your company has operated from one location and is shifting to remote working, there’s one more question: what part of the culture that attracted employees was connected to the physical, and how can that be replicated in a remote setting? You might want to survey employees about it.

Let’s say the rails of your culture are now sparkling clean and well-oiled, with no disconnections. How do you keep employees on board the train that runs on those rails when they’re working remotely, perhaps in different parts of the world?

Ticket to Ride: 7 stops to a successful remote team

  1. Make work meaningful. Perhaps the fastest way to disengage an employee is for them to be unclear how their work is of value, and valued. They should know exactly what to do and when, how that fits into the company’s overall goals and successes, and of course fits in with company culture and values.
  2. Acknowledge employees’ efforts. Too many employees feel like no one notices the great work they do 99% of the time, and that only the 1% is picked up on. Be sure they’re thanked and/or rewarded for keeping the trains running, one-to-one. Share this with other employees if you want them to see a specific model of great work. Have clear channels for employees to acknowledge each other's work, formally and informally. Hierarchical and peer recognition should be key components of company culture.
  3. Don’t offer incentives. There’s loads of research showing these are only effective with mechanical tasks. If a task has any cognitive aspects at all, incentives actually damage performance. Constantly explore ways to make tasks intrinsically satisfying to do.
  4. Be thankful. Gratitude is related to but different from acknowledgement. It’s increasingly recognized as something that can change the quality of someone’s day for the better. Show employees that you are thankful for them and their efforts, find ways for them to audit their own gratitude, and check whether they feel gratitude for working where they do.
  5. Streamline communications and analytics. Too many tools can make everyone feel overwhelmed and confused. Stick to tools that achieve what you want in terms of work tracking and measurement, motivation, satisfaction, collaboration and communication, and check in with everyone now and then to ask whether the tools are helping or hindering. As Einstein is believed to have said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’
  6. Everyone wants to be seen and heard. A solid company culture is one in which everyone feels they’re a valued human being, not a number. Build real connections into working days. Let employees not feel guilty about having one-to-one chats which grow connections, but use tools to facilitate those. Company culture used to grow in part by people running into each other by the elevators. Give them ways to still do this.
  7. Everyone hates meetings. Can you revolutionize how meetings work, and make that invention not just part of your culture but one other companies admire and copy? Instead of delivering news or training via a standard video call, why not deliver it as a live online quiz or other event. Make it fun and competitive, perhaps have teams.
  8. Zoom in, zoom out. Look at whether culture is cohesive and inclusive through both big picture analyses and granular, employee by employee review. Perhaps you have an employee who loves the culture overall but is an introvert who dreads the ‘fun’ team-building activities. How can you make culture- and team-building more engaging for them?

Enjoy Your Trip

If company culture is baked into remote working arrangements, employee engagement is almost assured: there will be a sense of belonging, connection, and purpose. But you have to keep your eye on it so it doesn’t veer off the tracks. With every change, process and tool you consider, always ask: is this in keeping with our culture? Will it retain and increase employee engagement? Automatic systems may work for trains but with people, keep looking ahead with your hand on the gears.