Overcoming the challenges of maintaining a united company vision in the age of remote work
The traditional office environment has been changing fast in recent years, as companies start to recognise the efficiency gains of working with remote teams. This trend, combined with the global rise of the freelance gig economy, has meant remote work has established itself as the new normal in many organisations.
The restrictions and recommendations introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year have greatly accelerated the rise of remote work. These sudden and unprecedented events have also underscored the major challenges many companies face when working with remote teams.
One of the biggest of these challenges is the need to build and maintain a positive company culture across distributed workforces.
What is company culture, and why does it matter?
In society, culture is usually something that develops organically when people come together under shared values and other characteristics. Similarly, company culture refers to the shared set of attitudes and behaviours of a business and its employees. In a business context, culture is about bringing people together under a shared vision through a combination of leadership styles, goals, and expectations.
Company culture can also arise organically, and it’s much more likely to in remote teams. But without active management, there’s a far greater risk of culture incorporating poor habits and ineffective communication. Culture matters for remote teams, just as it does in the traditional workplace, since it helps employees understand what the company values as a whole, beyond their individual contributions alone.
Teamwork and company culture have more influence over business success than almost any other tactic. Culture is a key driver of employee engagement and productivity, and it creates a sense of belonging that improves loyalty and wellbeing. It’s a major competitive advantage as well, not least because only 15% of the entire global workforce consider themselves actively engaged with their jobs.
What are the long-term advantages of remote work?
Over the past year, many organisations have been forced by necessity to adopt remote work strategies. Having had minimal time to prepare for such a radical change, the inherent benefits of remote work have yet to be realised for some. Some organisations also see remote work as a temporary solution, as they try to work with the restrictions currently in place across much of Europe and beyond.
That said, the long-term benefits of remote work are without doubt. Indeed, many companies have already been enjoying those benefits for years. On top of that is the increasing multitude of innovative startups that were fully remote to begin with. Although people will undoubtedly start returning to the traditional workspace eventually, at least providing the option of a flexible working environment provides many long-term benefits.
Here are some of the most important:
Greater flexibility for employees
According to the State of Remote Work 2020 report by Buffer, 98% of employees claim they would like to be able to work remotely at least some of the time. Almost a third say the biggest benefit of working remotely is the ability to maintain a flexible schedule. This gives employees a better work-life balance and makes it easier to work around other commitments, such as balancing school schedules, errands, and appointments.
Better support for diverse teams
The average one-way commute is almost half an hour, significantly decreasing the amount of time employees have to themselves. However, many commute times are even higher, leading to increased stress and other associated health issues. Ditching the daily commute and giving employees complete location independence makes it easier to support diverse teams with a wide range of individual needs and lifestyles.
Access to global talent pools
In the old days, organisations were largely restricted to local talent, while specialised positions often had to be filled by bringing in people from further afield and supporting costly relocations. Remote work provides access to a global talent pool. This is highly important in the case of IT, where the widespread shortage of skilled workers has led to more than 3.5 million unfilled positions globally in cybersecurity alone.
What are the biggest challenges facing remote teams?
Despite the clear advantages of supporting remote teams, some challenges remain. However, many of these have been tackled successfully many times before by experienced managers who incorporate the optimal blend of people, process, and technology into their strategies.
The ability to build and maintain a strong company culture is perhaps the biggest challenge of all, not least because it has a knock-on effect on a multitude of other business operations. For example, without culture, collaboration and communication won’t be nearly as effective. Hiring new members will be harder too, and employees won’t be best positioned to manage their work-life balance optimally.
Most business leaders have a reasonable idea of how they want to operate, what they value, and the general vision for their companies. But without strategy, it simply won’t be possible to overcome the challenges of maintaining culture in remote teams. Working alone and remotely undoubtedly makes it harder to keep company culture going strong, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The importance of evaluating culture during hiring
Building and maintaining company culture starts with the hiring process. It requires a strong foundation of trust and transparency that starts at the management level. Company culture requires a top-down approach, whereby managers and hiring leaders lead by example. After all, if decision-makers aren’t themselves leading examples of company culture, they can hardly expect others to follow them.
The process of creating a strong culture starts even before a remote team is formed, but that’s not to say it can’t be applied later too. That said, leaders cannot afford to underestimate the role of culture in hiring and onboarding processes. In much the same way that a unique brand image is designed to attract a certain type of customer, your employment brand should attract a certain type of candidate. For example, if your organisation espouses professionalism and traditional values, then it might not be the best fit for candidates who are motivated by newness and innovation – and vice versa.
Ensuring the right cultural fit for remote team members requires special attention, since a lack of face-to-face interviews means it’s inherently harder to ensure conformity. Video interviews can help overcome this barrier, and HR leaders shouldn’t take any shortcuts. That said, there are some traits that are universal in any successful remote team: people who work well in such an environment tend to be self-motivated and able and willing to solve problems themselves. Remember, that despite the benefits of remote work, it’s not – and never will be – for everyone.
The roles of onboarding, communication, and technology
In the traditional workplace, company culture is often absorbed by new hires as they work with the rest of the team. Unfortunately, in the case of remote teams, that’s not something leaders can rely on. Remote teams don’t have the luxury of working together, unless they have strong onboarding processes and the right mix of people, process, and technology. Thus managers must incorporate culture into their remote onboarding processes.
If culture is the environment you want to achieve, then communication is its primary enabler. Once you’ve set your company values and defined a shared vision, there needs to be a way to communicate those concepts. Fortunately, technology has come a long way to make that possible, whether it’s team meetings on Zoom, channel-based instant messaging on Slack, or co-authoring documents on Google Docs.
Finally, managers shouldn’t make everything about work. For around 20% of remote workers, loneliness is their biggest struggle, while 18% struggle to find the optimal work-life balance. Leaders should always make time for team-building and other social activities, even if it’s just a regular virtual get-together.
If leaders can overcome the challenges of building company culture in remote teams, they can establish a healthier and more resilient company. Moreover, the ability to attract remote talent gives you access to a global talent pool and creates an influx of knowledge that permanent employees can benefit from too.
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