Many of the strongest company cultures were established within physical offices. Employees built rapport with each other in the hallways, kitchens, and conference rooms, and found an identity in their professional community.
There are exceptions, of course. But for those who built grassroots office cultures that their employees came to expect and love, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially tough. Indefinite remote work has forced many to reexamine what exactly that culture entails beyond free coffee, ping pong tables, and gym memberships. These companies have had to ask: How do we maintain our culture while everyone is suddenly remote?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but to transfer culture to the virtual workspace you need to:
- Know and define your values.
- Go all in on transparency.
- Keep your people strategy and your business strategy aligned.
If most of your people have never worked remotely before, that’s easier said than done. Maintaining culture also means evolving it as needed. Let’s walk through each of these priorities with that in mind:
Know and define your core values.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, there are two types of remote companies: those who entered the socially distanced workplace with a firm identity, and those who didn’t.
Being part of the latter group isn’t a knock. Your culture can be a work in progress for any number of reasons: You’re a young organization; you recently merged or were sold; or perhaps you’ve repositioned yourself within the market and had to remake your internal identity as a result.
The good news? When it comes to full-time remote work, everyone is in some stage of “figuring it out.”
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First, it’s important to understand what “company culture” entails. In a nutshell, it’s the core values that sustain and guide you through both good times and bad. Values may vary from company to company, but establishing them upfront is mandatory. As you do, you’ll need to ask:
- Do we prioritize stability or change?
- Are we doing the most important work first?
- Do our existing processes still make sense in a remote environment?
Even if you have these questions figured out, that doesn’t mean maintaining your values through remote work is easy. For one, a company that’s primarily in-office (like PI) sees stability rocked when everyone packs up their things to work from home for an undetermined length of time.
This is where a tool such as PI’s strategy assessment can help crystallize things. It will help you determine what type of business strategy you’re currently pursuing—so you can identify whether your current culture and core values are hurting or helping you.
Go all in on transparency.
Remote communication is complicated because different people have different communication styles and needs. But no matter how someone is behaviorally-wired, they’ll find comfort in feeling like they’re on the same page as leadership. And this team synergy makes for a stronger remote culture.
Ideally, you’ve always been relatively transparent in explaining major business decisions to your people. If so, they’ll expect you to continue this practice—and then some.
Transparency doesn’t have to mean sharing budget minutiae or recordings of your executive meetings. But you should promote an understanding of where you’re trying to go—even if the vehicle for getting there is undetermined, or might be swapped out mid-trip. When so much is uncertain and beyond your control, being transparent in internal communications is that much more important.
Maintaining virtual transparency might include:
- Regular all-company webinars or meetings
- Sharing highlights from executive meetings
- Posting updates on company intranet or Slack channels at regular intervals
- Using email selectively, to ensure messages aren’t missed
Think about the mediums you’ve traditionally used most. Are they still effective? If yours is an email culture, then that can probably remain consistent. But if your teams frequently make pivotal decisions during off-the-cuff office conversations, you’ll need to take a hard look at how to replicate that so that important updates are relayed without employee morale suffering.
Without fly-by brainstorms, more extraverted people could struggle to connect or feel stimulated creatively. It’s incumbent on their managers (or leadership in general) to fill this void through impromptu video calls, shared documents or collaborative tools such as Miro boards. Meanwhile, team members with higher formality will appreciate the consistency of your updates, as they could feel totally in the dark and disengaged without them.
Some trial and error is inevitable. But if clear, upfront communication is a priority, your people can rest assured that—even when remote—they know what to expect, good, bad, or otherwise.
Keep people and business strategies aligned.
As an HR leader, you should arguably always be at the decision-making table. In the words of PI SVP of Product Matt Poepsel, PhD, to have any success, “you need to get good at the people stuff first.”
If you haven’t aligned people and business strategies in the past, now’s the time. Remote work—particularly when it’s brought about by a global pandemic—presents serious morale challenges. It means understanding what makes your employees tick, but also promoting broader self-awareness and empathy.
This naturally starts with HR (or People Ops). No one will be better equipped to anticipate how business decisions impact people. Ultimately, you can derive the answers from your established values, but also an understanding of your people. As a respected HR leader, you can offer insights and reminders around each.
It can be easy to lose sight of your company’s culture, or even feel the need to change it dramatically, when circumstances are in flux. But the most resilient organizations know who they are, and while they will adjust as needed, they don’t deviate from the things they hold most dear.
Be willing to evolve for business reasons, but not at the expense of your people’s workplace happiness. After all, that culture you built or are building is probably what brought them there in the first place.