How To Enhance The Company Culture In A Remote Work Setup

Andreea Băloi

21 minutes read

The world – as we used to know it – has changed. We have changed.

This process that affected the entire world and was brought forth so abruptly by a microscopic creature has split work history into BC and AC (before and after COVID). We adapted so fast that we did not even have time to stop and think about what we were doing. It was necessary to continue working full-time, find solutions fast, and make them stick, all this while keeping productivity levels high.

And in this process of looking for ways to adapt to our new work life, we are finding new versions of ourselves. For most of us, our remote work version is one of them.

Communication and our remote jobs

I feel like we are learning that our remote jobs do not automatically turn our real-life person into a similar work avatar. Haven’t you had amazing face-to-face conversations with people that – when using text messages – seemed to be a lot less spontaneous or communicative? Or the opposite?

Of course, work life is not personal life, so we can get away with less. But it is a little frustrating feeling like you cannot bring your whole true self at work, especially in a virtual setup, and knowing that the small details of your personality get blurred out, just like your Zoom background.

So how can we enhance company culture in a remote work setup? How do we handle remote teams in this new era of home office and work from anywhere? I’m sure I don’t have all the answers, but here are the things that I believe we should all start with. And the best thing about them is they can be applied to any company, irrespective of its culture.

Start with trust

In one of my previous roles, I came face to face with a situation that I had not encountered before: I could not find a communication channel and form a good relationship with my new direct supervisor. It was not my first job, actually, I already had 13+ years of work experience and had found my way in and out of all sorts of work predicaments.

However, this situation was creating such a high level of stress that I was becoming incapable of performing in my new role, all the while knowing I was qualified to do it. It was making me feel unprepared and an impostor most of the time.

In the few instances I was getting random feedback from my manager, it was either very appreciative or very critical, in different areas and for different reasons, an inconsistency that was only creating more setbacks to our already difficult relationship.

Unfortunately for that relationship, I could not find a solution but rather found a new manager. The relationship crumbled and we did not stay in touch. And this situation really stayed with me for some time, until I found the answer in one of the Harvard Leadership programs that I attended as part of that – despite this experience – wonderful company.

I learned that the first thing you need to do in any relationship, either face-to-face or remote, is to build trust.

It may seem obvious now that you read this, but it really dawned on me that in order to be able to work well with someone, start giving feedback, fail together, learn from mistakes and grow, I needed to have already built a solid trust “account” between ourselves from which we can make periodic withdrawals.

The more time and patience I invest in this initial period, the more I make space for getting to know the person, and listening to them in different scenarios means the more deposits we both make to this trust account that we can later rely on.

Trust is not just something that is nice to have on the company values board, this is the backbone of getting anything to work and endure in any company. In fact, I would go as far as saying trust should not even be a value in the company deck. Because putting it out there as a forced feeling may create a fake impression that we have actually achieved it.

In a traditional office, where we get to experience the office space to the fullest, we get to see all of our colleagues from day one. Without even having a conversation, we can quickly realize who is the funny one, the activist, the hipster, the one who loves art, and the one who loves dogs.

We make quick connections and assumptions that become stronger or weaker with each second we spend with our colleagues, sometimes without even having conversations with people, just by observing them. So our trust is built not just based on our own relationships with them, but also on the relationship we see them forming with others. And this aspect is essential for getting to know, trust and form our own connection with that person. So in order to be able to really build one-to-one trust, we also need a lot of group gatherings.

When done remotely, employees work from home or from wherever they feel most comfortable. In this particular case, employers work harder to build it. It means making space for talking to each other, listening to each other, and understanding how our colleagues’ minds and hearts work.

We talk a lot about how to be better humans, but somehow at work, we’re still looking at ways to be better robots. Because being productive to the point of no failure is still a requirement in most companies, although not a very humane thing to aspire to.

So instead of investing in ways to become efficient work machines, the first thing to do when dealing with virtual teams is to make time for free chat and find ways to get people together in smaller groups and have them talk, listen and enjoy each other’s company.

And I know that for some of you, this might sound like losing time, money, and the respect of those who sign their emails with the quote “This meeting could have been an email.” And you’re probably questioning whether having more meetings isn’t really the wrong way of approaching our newfound free time that we just got when we stopped commuting. But I am not talking about setting up 1-hour meetings when you could have done it in 15 minutes.

What I recommend is creating actual opportunities and situations where people can discuss general topics, share their views and contribute to conversations, such as cultural differences, learning from failures, or work-life balance. Or anything that gives people a chance to show their whole selves in the workplace.

Continue with safety, especially in a remote work setup

The second most important aspect when dealing with remote workers is safety. No matter what is your company culture, everybody should feel safe. Safe to voice their opinions, share their views and discuss any work topic openly. This feeling of being seen, heard, and appreciated for who you are is also a great way of enhancing the company’s values.

But how do you create safety in a remote environment?

The good news about working remotely (no matter if you work from home, from a coffee shop, or a coworking space) is that the opportunity for gossip and unfounded rumours is so diminished, that you save a lot of wasted time, unnecessary stress, and concerns.

The flip side is that a different type of uncertainty creeps in: the unknown. Not all people are anxious in this situation and some have no need to be kept in the loop about everything that is going on. So here are three simple steps that are critical for any employer that wants to build a safe environment remotely.

Talk numbers. Yes, numbers do wonders. It does not have to be complicated or look pretty, but on a frequent basis, every person in the company should know how their department/group/division/you name it is doing and how the company is handling money.

Make 1to1s mandatory for anybody with a manager (meaning everybody). There is no way for people to share their concerns if all they have is team meetings, status reports, QBRs, all hands, week closures, etc. As a manager, you might think you are giving away a lot of your time to your people, but what they need is 1to1. They can choose not to use it, but they should always have it.

Have C-level engage in the conversations. The daily ones. There is nothing worse than having no visibility, feedback, or input from the company’s management in regard to what is happening every day. If the C-level input is a perfectly crafted monologue, then chances are people are not feeling seen, heard, or trusted, therefore not feeling safe.

Seal with feedback and see what the future holds

Feedback is the spider web that holds everything together because it is at the same time so thin that it could break (a relationship) at any point, but so strong that it holds so many things together at the same time.

The level of feedback that each person gives and gets inside the company really shows the amount of trust that has been built and how much people can rely on each other and are confident in their work relationships.

And although it may never be an actual company value, how you offer and handle feedback will contribute immensely to your company culture. Especially in a remote work environment.

While most companies treat feedback as a part of the performance management process or create elaborate steps that – by the time you’re done with them – you don’t really remember what the feedback you wanted to give, the actual process of having a culture of feedback is an organic thing that is driven by the leadership of the company.

There are a lot of books, ideas, tools, and apps out there that want to teach you how to give better feedback, but the basics of it are still simple: if our leaders build trust and safety and deliver timely and actionable feedback all the time, pretty sure the rest of us will follow promptly.

So instead of investing money and time into making a tool do the job for you, invest time in building better leaders that understand what means to lead teams remotely and use feedback as a steering tool.

Most likely, everything I said you’ve already seen somewhere else, like in this Forbes article. For that, I apologize. My intention was to keep it really simple and get personal. And if you’ve made it this far – my guess is that you are interested in this topic and you are trying to figure out how to approach it. And – while my thoughts aren’t new or magical or controversial – they are absolutely critical for being able to navigate remote work times.

There are many tools and ideas out there that promise you that once you start using them, all your problems with the remote workforce will disappear. And it is easy to believe in that because we are always looking for that quick fix, right? In reality, for many of us, this is the beginning of a major shift and we would be naive to think we’re experts after three years.

However, if we start putting in the work now and begin laying the right foundation, in a couple of years’ time, we will find ourselves not just better equipped and ready to face whatever other work challenges are being thrown at us.

A great company is capable to preserve and enhance its culture when we all take the time to get to know and trust each other only to create a safe environment in which everybody can speak up and feel valued.

In the greater scheme of things, if we do these simple (but extremely essential) things, people will have a stronger connection with the company and will remain loyal.

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Written by Andreea Baloi

I have always been passionate about the business world. The process of bringing together people that have never met before to give birth to an idea and grow it to become a global phenomenon is nothing short of a miracle. I always want to be close to those who have the courage, determination and vision to do it. In almost 20 years of work, I never stopped learning. I started with customer care and continued with program and project management, loved to work in business operations and did plenty of people management in all these roles. So I learned a lot about people: what motivates us, how work shapes our lives, what is good leadership, how we create teams that thrive and communities that endure. I realized that no matter how ambitious our goals are, at the end of the day, what is most important is being part of a company that we enjoy working for. And I decided that, wherever I find myself, I want to contribute to this feeling. So here I am, writing about it, hoping to make a difference in how we work. 

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