How Do I Maintain Culture in a Remote Work Environment?

October 13, 2021 Jamie Notter

How do I maintain culture in a remote work environment?

I get this question a LOT. Many people have adjusted to the logistical challenges of a variably remote workforce, but as we think about culture, it feels like it is slipping away a little. Without the regular, human contact, it almost feels like the culture isn’t there, and it definitely feels harder to manage and shape.

I will tell you why this is true in a minute, but first I have a question for you:

What were you doing to manage and shape your culture before the pandemic?

Did you manage your culture? Did you measure it and pinpoint the parts of your culture that were causing a drag on results, and then change those parts of the culture so you’d be more successful? Did you have rituals and artifacts that communicated your culture to everyone? Did you consciously draw attention internally to words or behaviors that were either reinforcing your culture or contradicting it, in order to keep everyone on the same page?

If your answers were mostly “no” to those questions, then you don’t have a remote culture problem, you simply have a culture problem, because you’re not actively managing it. Culture management is as important as financial management, and just like finance, it’s something that should happen all the time, even if a lot of it is in the background.

But if you were actively managing culture before the pandemic, or even if you just answered yes to that last question (you call people out when they are either living or not living the culture), then you probably are feeling a bit of a void—that culture is out of reach, and it’s changing in ways that are out of your control.

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Here’s why. Culture exists primarily in the words and behaviors of your people. There’s a bit more to it than that, but for now let’s focus on words and behaviors because they have the biggest impact on culture. When more of your people are remote, a lot of the words (communication) and behaviors (the way people collaborate) have become invisible to a lot of people. You used to absorb a lot of that passively in the office, and now you are not. You don’t see when people are reinforcing or contradicting the culture, so you’re not calling it out. Yet those words and behaviors exist, so they are impacting (and changing) the culture.

So here are my tips for adjusting your culture management practices to work better in a remote environment:

Convert your rituals and artifacts to digital. Many did this in the form of those virtual happy hours and coffee chats early in the pandemic, but zoom fatigue is real, so you have to keep innovating that. And if core culture concepts were up on your walls before, then how do you get them up on people’s screens now? If you aren’t continuously communicating what your culture values and why that is important for success, then people start making up their own stories about that, and your culture starts to slip.

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Learn how to work out loud digitally. Working out loud means people can see what you’re doing even before the final product is delivered. Since we can’t count on that to happen serendipitously in the office, we have to create it. Have digital spaces where you can post drafts, ask each other questions, and share in-process metrics (rather than end-process). Instead of reporting OUT what your team has done, let others IN to your zoom meetings as observers. Just because we’re remote does not mean we can’t share all this. Arguably it’s easier now, but instead of being proactive about it, we just lament that it’s not there any more.

Talk about culture and culture change more often. If you can’t do culture management in the background, then start doing it in the foreground. Devote time in all your meetings to explicitly talk about how the culture is growing or changing, rather than wondering about it. Measure the culture more frequently. How are people experiencing your culture patterns? If you don’t devote attention to it, the culture will still change on its own.

If you don’t have the bandwidth to take these proactive steps to manage your culture, then call us because you can outsource the coordination of this to us.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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