Culture is the bedrock of remote teams in times of crisis

Laura Butler Profile picture for user Laura Butler May 12, 2020
A successful transition to remote teams isn't just about technology. Fostering the right culture is crucial, writes Workfront's Laura Butler

Back view of female employee on video call with coworkers on laptop at home © fizkes - Shutterstock
(© fizkes - Shutterstock)

In early March 2020, Workfront transitioned our entire global workforce to fully remote working in less than 24 hours. Yes – turning fully remote on a dime did pose some challenges. But we were more fortunate than some organizations in making this transition so quickly, in part because we already had a robust tech stack that was primed to support remote work.

However, it wasn't just our tech stack that enabled our quick transition. Our culture, which we have painstakingly built and nurtured over many years, also played a critical role. I'm convinced that culture lies at the heart of true crisis preparedness, helping leaders avoid risk, capture opportunity, and exceed modern workforce expectations.

Without a doubt, getting a functioning tech stack in place was priority number one for many companies in the early days of this once-in-a-century pandemic. But now that we're a couple of months into our new normal, it's time to look beyond the tools and shine a spotlight on culture. Why? Because unless you have proactive plans for building trust and accountability within your workforce, and unless you have a robust digital infrastructure to tie individual effort to high-level business strategy, your tech solutions will only take you so far. As Chris Marsh, Research Director at 451 Research, said in a recent Workfront webinar:

It's tempting to think that conferencing and messaging tools can bear the brunt of remote working, but the reality is that prolonged and mass remote working changes the dynamics around work that remote conversation doesn't solve.

Here are four ways to create and sustain a culture that will set your business up to thrive, both in the short and the long term.

1. Prioritize visibility

Conference calls are great. But in today's digital, distributed, and increasingly borderless world, knowledge workers need robust technology that connects all aspects of their work — including processes, people, data, and content. According to Workfront's most recent State of Work survey, nearly 71% of respondents said they wished they had a single online destination to help them understand and manage work, while 69% said they don't have such a solution in place.

When every worker can clearly see how their daily work connects to company strategy, not only does productivity increase, so does everyone's sense of purpose and pride in their work. These are essential building blocks for a healthy, vibrant culture. As Phil Oster, IT vice president at John Paul Mitchell Systems says:

By elevating work to a more strategic level and platforming it, we are gaining the ability to align complex, cross-department projects around one common goal, [which] enables leaders to focus on results — not just being busy managing lists of tasks.

Greater visibility leads to greater alignment, which leads to empowered, connected teams that can adapt quickly, communicate more effectively, and make better decisions. Author David Niu gets at the heart of this concept when he said:

To be a good boss, you must be transparent. There’s a correlation between worker happiness and workplace transparency. Leaders and managers who offer transparency will earn the respect and devotion of their team.

2. Focus on communication and connection

Collaboration has never been more critical in getting the right work done, and regular, consistent communication is an essential part of that. Consistent and frequent messages are important, but it's also important to truly connect with folks to make sure the communication lands. One of my favorite quotes by George Bernard Shaw illustrates this point: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Working together in a shared space offers invaluable opportunities for spontaneous interactions, conversations, and check-ins throughout the day. Just like teams working together in-person benefit from those interactions, remote teams also benefit greatly from informal, unscheduled interpersonal connections, so look for ways to recreate some of these opportunities virtually.

Set up drop-in Zoom lunches; create Slack channels around shared interests; and block out time in senior leaders' schedules (maybe even via open Zoom sessions) for anyone to drop by, ask questions, and enjoy some virtual face time. You could even pick up the phone and call folks on your team for some old-fashioned, one-on-one conversation.

Especially in times of transition and crisis, make sure leaders are communicating more openly, honestly, and frequently than usual. And utilize every available channel — video, email, direct messaging apps, and whatever collaborative work management software you use to organize your work.

3. Cultivate purpose and meaning

People like to believe that the organizations they devote their time and talents to are making a difference in the world. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed in our State of Work research said that their work represents more than just a paycheck to them. They want to know they're working for a cause, and that their individual contributions matter. As Whitnee Hawthorne, director of strategic execution and technology at JetBlue explains:

Corporations will need to offer more than a paycheck and traditional benefits to attract and retain employees. They will need to drive personal investment in the work by championing innovations that align with corporate goals, and helping employees understand the ‘why’ behind the company by linking it to a greater good in the world.

Once you've set clear goals that connect individuals' work to the overall company strategy so they know their work matters, then it’s important to help contribute to the community. As H. Jackson Brown Jr. says, “Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.”

Promote volunteerism. Offer virtual service days. Be good global citizens. And make sure your people are aware of all the things the company is doing to support employees, customers, and the greater community. Here's the message we created to inform our internal team, partners, and blog readers of Workfront's multifaceted response to the challenges brought on by the global pandemic.

4. Return to bedrock values

In tumultuous times like these, leaders are being watched even more closely than usual. Our people will remember how we responded to the challenges before us, for good or for ill. This means there's no better time to practice, in as visible a way as possible, the personal and organizational values that form the core of who we are.

Show sincere gratitude and appreciation, both in interpersonal interactions and through formalized recognition platforms like Motivosity. Lead with greater empathy and compassion for the individual circumstances faced by those on your team. Be more flexible than usual about when, where, and how people work. Recognize that while everyone is being affected by this global pandemic, some are shouldering outsize burdens. Let them know that you see them.

Also, be as honest and forthright as possible about the challenges your company is facing. As management consultant Davia Temin writes in Forbes:

For now, it is best for leaders to admit that information is imperfect, and plans uncertain, but that they deeply care about the physical, financial and emotional health of their constituencies, are working as hard as they can and will update communications in real time… Communications [have] to be at a higher, more inclusive and caring level.

Culture will carry you through the next chapter of remote work

Culture matters. Especially now. The actions you take (or do not take) at this moment are building the foundation that will carry your organization into your next chapter of remote work. Make no mistake, the world won't be going back to the way it was before. We will all come through this crisis changed—as individuals, as organizations, and as a global community.

Whatever else happens in the months and years to come, I believe that remote, distributed workforces are here to stay. And the cultures we are building in the midst of this unprecedented challenge will play a significant role in the long-term enablement and empowerment of our teams.

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