Building an office culture without the office

Author: 
Paul Nolan

The healthy snacks manufacturer KIND LLC holds two to three virtual water cooler check-ins a week in which all employees are invited. Many of the New York-based company’s 320 employees stay for only about 15 minutes. The company has tried to bolster team spirit and camaraderie while its employees are working remotely with virtual interoffice competitions, including a recent challenge to see who could hold a plank the longest.

While it’s clear that many workers in the knowledge economy are able to be equally or more productive working from home, company leaders are nervous that the corporate culture they feel is vital to their recruitment and retention efforts is not as successful in the current WFH environment.

“It’s the foremost concern. None of us really knows how this movie will play out if it continues like this for much longer,” KIND founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky told The Wall Street Journal recently.

Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security under President Barack Obama, feels she has a good sense of where corporate culture is headed in the short-term, and it’s not hopeful. Writing on the subject for The Atlantic, Kayyam states, “Any return to work before a vaccine is available will have employees distanced, possibly masked. Many offices will operate with reduced occupancy. The places where people normally gather – conference rooms, the break room, the watercooler – may be off-limits. The corporate culture that so many employers prize is based on a level of interaction that will not be regained simply by being in the same building, let alone being in the same building with only a fraction of the workforce present. Until a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, corporate culture is over.”

Others feel that building a corporate culture among a virtual team can be accomplished. Here are some recommendations:

Take your culture thoughts public

A number of companies have started to publish their company values or thoughts on their company culture in the public space. Company leaders should feel strong enough about their corporate culture mission to post it online for all to see, states a blog post at 6Q, an Australian-based provider of employee engagement efforts through surveys. An early and well-known example is the list of 10 core values that employees of online retailer Zappos helped create and that was posted online in 2006.

Build a sense of shared leadership

Defining deliverables and tracking commitments provides “push” to keep team members focused and productive; shared leadership provides crucial “pull,” says Michael D. Watkins, cofounder of Genesis Advisers, in a blog post for Harvard Business Review. He suggests finding ways to involve others in leading the team, such as assigning responsibility for special projects or getting members to coach others in their areas of expertise.

Send snail mail

Don’t underestimate the power of sending your team something (the old-fashioned way) that shows them that you truly care, value their work and have their best interests and well-being at-heart, Shama Hyder, founder and CEO of Zen Media, told Inc.com. If you don’t already have an ongoing recognition program in place, what are you waiting for?

Get things done — and report on it

The COVID-19 outbreak has proven that remote teams can be productive, but it’s important to show them they are. Remote teams build trust in each other by seeing what was completed. Set specific goals and report on your progress toward achieving those goals frequently. Find something each week to report on, advises Wade Foster, writing for Zapier, a provider of work automation software, and a company which itself has 250-plus employees spread across the U.S. and in more than 20 countries.

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