Workers are returning to work, but not necessarily going back to the office. The proliferation of remote work during the pandemic has pushed companies to expand the office walls beyond physical boundaries to include remote environments. In this redefined office, workers may be losing out on the cultural advantages of proximity and sharing physical space.
“What makes office life meaningful for many,” writes Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in organisation studies at the Cambridge Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, “is that it helps sustain organizational culture — the largely taken-for-granted beliefs and practices that underpin how people work together.”
As the workplace becomes less defined, organizations are faced with the challenge of providing that meaningfulness to employees outside of the office.
It can be difficult when workers are dispersed, but creating a collaborative and supportive culture is essential to employee satisfaction, talent retention, and organizational success. As such, it’s becoming a key element in defining the new “normal” for companies as they welcome back employees.
Office Culture Is More Important Than Ever
According to research from the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of employees want to keep working from home post-pandemic. With so many employees working remotely, building an inclusive company culture has become mission-critical for employers. It’s the glue that connects everyone in the organization. Without it, employees cannot build relationships with each other or form company loyalty.
That’s why building company culture must be a priority that companies commit to on a daily basis, writes Indie Bollman, VP of organizational development at shipping company Trailer Bridge. It’s the best way to meet the evolving cultural expectations of employees in a post-pandemic work environment. “A good deal of people will seek to work for companies that put their people first and demonstrate great culture,” she says.
The biggest challenge is that you may not be able to rely on the same tactics you used previously to foster a new remote or hybrid workplace culture.
When talking about how her company was managed, Audrey-Maude Côté, human resources manager at Diff Agency, says that “maintaining a positive and supportive company culture while everyone is remote has definitely taken some adjustments. Without the physical office space, we’ve had to come up with new and creative ideas for fostering community from a distance.”
The following tips will help HR teams and business leaders establish a culture that encourages employees working in the office and those working remotely to connect to one another and to the company.
Tips for (Re)building Company Culture in the New Workplace
After experiencing so many changes in the workplace over the last year and a half, employees need supportive workplace cultures that allow them to thrive at work, no matter where their “office” is located. Here’s how to deliver it to them.
1. Be Deliberate About Tech Use
It’s easy for remote employees to feel disconnected from the company and isolated from coworkers. Communication is key to overcoming disengagement and is essential for building your company’s culture.
As demonstrated through the proliferated use of communication tools such as Slack and Zoom, technology is the key to information sharing when workers are dispersed. But it may be time to change how tools are used in building culture now that remote work processes are more developed.
For example, Joshua Schnell, director of product strategy and development at Digg, suggests eliminating communication silos created by interoffice chat programs and sharing as much information as possible on public channels. “People can’t know what they don’t know,” he argues. “Get out of DMs and into public threads.”
Creating an understanding of company culture should begin at onboarding, and technology makes that possible, especially for remote employees. Use communication tools to foster a sense of community among all new hires by hosting remote culture workshops and onboarding programs that bring them together with veteran employees.
Technology can also be used to prevent virtual burnout. Company culture suffers when employees feel overloaded. This is especially a challenge for remote employees who may struggle to maintain the boundaries between home and work life. Small practices like using digital calendars to guide meeting planning can help. Employees in different time zones, for instance, won’t be made to feel like they have to always be available.
Being deliberate about how you use technology can help you build a positive company culture that prioritizes community.
2. Create Committees to Engage Employees
Anything you can do to bring workers together will contribute to stronger workplace culture.
One way to facilitate connections between workers outside of the office with those inside the office is to create committees that are run by employees to address issues within the company. Forming committees provides work-from-home employees with an opportunity to participate in discussions and decisions that directly impact the company. This gives them a sense of belonging in the workplace even though they are not physically at the office.
“Creating committees has been helpful for us,” says Sara Slusarski, HR business partner at Oxford Companies in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “This year we added a Diversity & Inclusion Council and a CREW Connection Committee, bringing various staff members together from throughout the organization to solve problems and discuss issues. It’s been a great way to stay connected and work toward common goals.”
3. Enlist Leaders to Connect With Employees
“Culture and leadership are inextricably linked,” write Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng at Harvard Business Review. Employees look to company leaders to communicate and demonstrate culture through their words and actions.
Connecting with leaders is even more important for dispersed employees because it provides them with the sense of belonging they are often denied by not being in the office to participate in impromptu hallway chats. Those conversations play a vital role in building company culture. That’s why you need to encourage senior management to make time to casually connect with employees both in-person and virtually, advises Julia Austin, the senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.
Austin suggests managers schedule open-door time either at the office or on Zoom where employees can drop in for informal conversations. By facilitating these types of connections with leaders, you create a bridge that helps off-site employees connect with the company and its culture.
4. Solicit Feedback and Implement Suggestions
Remote employees should be active participants in rebuilding company culture, especially as it evolves under the new definition of the office. As those working within the new normal, they have a unique perspective about creating and communicating a culture that is different from employees in the office.
As you work to create a culture that encompasses remote workers, solicit feedback from them about how best to accomplish it and implement those suggestions. “By hearing firsthand from your workforce and applying their feedback, you can create a remote company culture that is empathetic and engaging,” explains Patrick McGarrity, a chief fun officer at health tech company bswift.
Electronic surveys are a great tool for gathering information from all employees no matter when they are located. If you want a more personable approach, business journalist Michele McGovern suggests hosting virtual town hall meetings to conversationally survey employees on company culture.
However, you gather the information, embrace the insights and let them inform your culture-building efforts.
5. Host On-site and Virtual Company Networking Events
Networking is another important part of building a company culture. To connect with each other and the company, employees need to be able to develop camaraderie outside of work hours. But when they are working from home, they may not be able to join in for team-building activities or after-work gatherings.
That’s why you need to get creative about finding ways for employees to get together virtually.
Brian McLaughlin, CEO at CRM solutions provider Redtail Technology, says his company has encouraged culture building for all employees by hosting virtual events for “trivia and karaoke nights, pizza parties, and holiday get-togethers. Using a mix of available technologies, we’ve given our employees the opportunity to ‘meet’ outside of work and maintain connection with one another in a hundred different virtual ways.”
6. Send Out Regular Newsletters
The more employees know about what is going on with the company, the more they can connect with it. Newsletters are a proven way to keep employees informed on a wide variety of happenings within an organization.
Newsletters can be used to summarize important news, share updates from leaders, celebrate company and employee victories, and allow all departments to provide project updates. Most importantly, a newsletter can be used to share culture-related content that helps employees feel included.
“View all content as employee-focused and look for ways to shape it so that it is as relevant as possible to company culture and values,” advises Johannes Marlena, senior digital marketing and communications manager at a business management firm NKSFB.
Ideally, these should be sent out regularly, whether that’s weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly. The objective is to consistently communicate with all employees so that everyone, no matter where they are, feels a part of the company and its culture.
Rebuilding company culture in a post-pandemic environment where the “office” has taken on a more flexible meaning requires organizations to think outside the box. With more employees working remotely, you have to find ways for them to connect to the company and feel like they are part of the culture even though they are working off-site. It’s how well you do this that will determine your success at rebuilding your company culture.
“Companies have a choice about their culture: They can allow it to be defined by unspoken actions or they can proactively shape their culture in order to succeed,” writes Bethany Klynn, Ph.D., president and owner of Insight Leadership Consulting. “As they bring their people back together, many companies will find themselves at an inflexion point where they have a real opportunity to create the culture they need for the future.”
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