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How to Keep Your Culture Alive while Working Remotely

How do you get teams working remotely as well as they used to? Here’s how to build a strong remote culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 1, 2020

How do you get teams working as well as they used to? How do you deal with issues that are being amplified by virtual distance? How can you support your people to adapt to working remotely?

Your company culture depends heavily on connection and collaboration, but we’re all facing the same disruption: forced remote work.

This once-in-a-lifetime health crisis has accelerated remote work on a grand scale. Most employees have little–to–no experience in doing so. The way your team reacts to this crisis is the difference between paralysis and adaptation.

Future success requires preparation. Business as usual is a death sentence. Thriving in the new normal requires redesigning how your team members work together while keeping your culture alive.

1. Assess Morale And Emotions

Make it okay for your team members to express how they feel. The fact that people continue doing their jobs doesn’t mean that they are not struggling deep inside.

It’s okay for people to feel anxious, sad, lost, afraid of uncertainty, and worried about losing their jobs or loved ones. The list goes on and on. In the past few weeks, I’ve facilitated tens of online sessions with teams and I observed a common theme: people are grieving.

As David Kessler tells Harvard Business Review, everyone is grieving on a micro and a macro level. Anticipatory grief is the feeling about what the future holds. As the co-author of On Grief and Grieving explains, anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.

Change is loss. Now, during a pandemic, anticipatory grief is even more confusing.

There are several types of losses associated with change (pride, control, belonging, competence, narrative, time, and comfort). Which one is affecting your team members?

The Reframe the Loss of Change Canvas is a powerful tool we use with teams every time they’re dealing with change. In this crucial moment, it can help you map the loss, understand how it affects the team’s rhythm and productivity,  and – most importantly – how to reframe it into a win.

The CEO of a large telco feels lost because he’s used to feel in charge. Now, instead of holding meetings at his large office, he’s just one of the tiny faces on a Zoom videoconference.

The Emotional Culture Deck is also an effective way to assess emotions. This simply card-based tool encourages structured face-to-face conversations about workplace culture and emotions. Of course, you can use them via Zoom video calls, too.

As the saying goes, name them to tame them. Uncovering the emotional loss associated with these uncertain times is crucial to regain collaboration and productivity.

2. Promote Psychological Safety to Thrive in Remote Work

We are hyper-social creatures who love to belong. 

Feeling safe is vital to feel included and build strong interpersonal relationships. Psychological Safety — where team members feel included, safe to share their ideas, safe to experiment, and safe to challenge groupthink — is now more necessary than ever.

You need everyone’s contributions to rethink and redesign how your team works together in a forced remote environment.

As Amy Edmondson told Work in Progress, “Distributed work is making us realize we have to be more deliberately — more proactively — open. We have to be explicit in sharing our ideas, questions, and concerns, because we can’t just overhear what’s happening in the next cubicle.” 

People now have to work harder to share what they’re thinking, to ask questions, or to challenge the status quo.

Consider what’s happening with many health workers. Doctors are putting their lives on the line, but hospitals are threatening to fire them if they speak out about a lack of medical gear.

Transparency is “job one” for leaders in a crisis, according to Edmondson.

People know many companies are planning layoffs or reorganizations. Be clear about what you do know, what you don’t know, and don’t hide crucial information from your team members — they’ll soon find out and collective trust will suffer.

Transparency is a great antidote to help people cope with fear.

3. Reframe the Situation

You can’t control a global crisis, but you can help your team regain control of how they respond.

Reset your expectations. Most teams are used to working synchronously, with clear rules, the same work schedule, and sharing a physical space. Your team must reset the rules of engagement and collaboration. Provide more flexibility; encourage your people to focus on the outcome instead of how and when they work.

In a forced remote work environment, your team will have to experiment and deal with personal issues, too. Parents are homeschooling their children; you can’t expect them to work regular hours or constantly check emails.

Start with a team retrospective. Collectively review how the team was performing before the crisis. What was working? What wasn’t working? Identify time-wasters and time-enhancers. Get rid of the first, embrace the latter.

Reflect on remote work best practices. It’s been a few weeks since your team has been working from home, so identify what’s working and what’s not. Some team members are more remote savvy than others (either because they were partially remote or did so at a previous job); leverage their expertise.

Use the following questions to uncover insights that will help design your remote experience.

What has enabled effective remote work?

What has hindered remote collaboration and productivity?

Regain your power. Most events are out of our control. Unfortunately, teams usually get stuck because they focus on what they can’t control. Coach your team to regain their power by focusing on what they can.

We also use the Cultural Tensions Canvas to help teams assess their emotions, mindsets, and behaviors, as well as understand how they drive positive or negative outcomes. For example, teams can identify limiting mindsets and reframe them into liberating ones.

Remember, people are grieving; it’s crucial to reframe the emotional loss and their mindsets rather than expecting things to settle on their own.

4. Design A Strong Remote Team Culture

I’ve already written a post that explains how to design your remote experience using the Remote Culture Canvas, so I won’t repeat myself. In this section, I’ll share some key insights to keep your team or company alive while physically distancing.

The downside of Technology: Tools overcome physical distance but can hinder relationships, too. Technology accelerates both the good and bad behaviors of your culture. Trust issues and misunderstandings can quickly become bigger problems.

For example, online communications can be a minefield for Psychological Safety, as Bill Duane told The Atlantic.

According to the former Google engineer, “Whenever we read a sentence on Gchat or Slack that seems ambiguous or sarcastic to us, we default to thinking, You f@er! But if someone had said the same thing to your face, you might be laughing with them.”

Stick to your core values. What does your company culture stand for, really? In times of crisis, your core values are put to the test. How your organization behaves now will have a long-term impact on how people perceive its culture.

As a leader, will you do the right thing? Will you stick to your long-term values, or choose the most convenient short-term path?

During the 2008 financial crisis, Patagonia’s business was suffering (just like everyone else’s). However, the outdoor company didn’t cut employee benefits as most companies did. Patagonia kept its onsite childcare and didn’t reduce health care or training and development. Currently, the company experiences the highest employee retention in their industry: 96%.

This week, PayPal joined Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Starbucks in adopting a “no Coronavirus-layoff” rule.

Team rituals are powerful to keep the culture alive. At BetterCloud, employees like to show off their dogs when they’re having a video call among remote teams. Some Facebook employees are playing daily trivia in the afternoon; it helps bring everyone together and have some fun, too.

Adjust your rules. How can you design norms that balance freedom and accountability? Review your current rules; which ones are hindering collaboration in a remote environment? Get rid of those ASAP.

Set expectations on communication methods. Most companies are struggling not because they don’t have enough tools, but because they have too many. People are confused about which communication channels to use and how.

Setting clear expectations will help your team be more productive and remove unnecessary frustrations.

For example, email can be used for formal communications or things that are neither urgent, nor require an immediate response. Zoom can be used for meetings and check-ins, while text message or Slack can be used for fast, immediate communication. Phone calls can be limited to urgent matters.

5. Embrace the Forming Phase of Remote Work

Forced remote work challenges the way a team operates; it pushes it back into the Forming Phase. Although most team members are usually excited when a new team is formed, the emotions are not so positive when it comes to our current reality. Many feel anxiety and wonder how they will adapt to a remote environment.

Leverage existing relationships; build on past successes. How did the team overcome other challenges? What approaches and learnings can be applied to this new one?

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. People will have a lot of questions. You won’t have all the answers and that’s okay. Ask how people are feeling — have 1-on-1s and group check-ins. Be patient and supportive as the team adapts.

Listen and observe. When having an important transformation, one of the skills most often overlooked is to listen. Managers tend to talk much more than they pay attention to others. Listen to what your team says and observe body language. What positive behaviors do you observe? Which ones are negatively affecting productivity?

Ask people to give you feedback. Listen and focus on adjuting your behavior to help the team adapt to the new normal.

Cultivate Connection: Loneliness, isolation, and burnout are very common among remote workers. Create touch base opportunities for team members to connect to each other and keep their personal connections alive. This could include a daily huddle or a brief check-in at the beginning of a call.

Video is a crucial element to fostering strong connections. Seeing your workers makes the conversation more human. Invite people to bring their personality to the call, like showing everyone where they’re working from.

Keep Your Culture Alive with Remote Teams

Virtual doesn’t mean distant.

You want to make sure your workplace culture is alive and well when people can’t work together face-to-face. Setting your employees up for success requires more than providing the right tech tools. Gauge morale, address cultural tensions, redesign your remote culture, and help your team navigate the forming phase.

Keeping your culture alive during a crisis will definitely prepare your team for success once things go back to the new normal (whatever that is).

PS: If you want to help your team thrive in this moment of forced remote work, we facilitate customized workshops to help team design how to work remotely while keeping the culture alive.

What do you think?



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