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Why It’s Time to Reset Your Remote Team Culture

Rebooting your remote team will fix slow responses, incompatibilities, communication problems, and more. Restart your team operating system and make it work properly again.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 22, 2021

The culture that got you here won’t get you there

For many years remote working had a stigma associated with it. The global COVID-19 pandemic has quickly shifted work dynamics. Not only has it debunked most of the myths about working remotely, but it also increased productivity at unexpected levels.

Organizations had to improvise and experiment to adapt to the new way of working. People had to juggle their work responsibilities with homeschooling, new technologies, burnout, and isolation, all while trying to survive a global pandemic.  

As companies reopen their offices, they must face a new challenge. Organizations need to adapt – once again –  to an uncertain environment. If leaders weren’t ready for rapidly shifting to WFH, designing the right hybrid workplace will be even harder.

Now that your team has been working remotely for a while, it’s time to pause and reflect.

Rebooting your remote team culture can help repair slow responses, personality clashes, incompatibilities, communication problems, and more.

By conducting a reboot, you can make your team work properly again.

In this post, I will provide a framework and questions to help you upgrade your team operating system.

How to Reset Your Team Culture

Like it or not, a hybrid workplace is here to stay. But not every company is equally ready.

Companies with a more individualistic culture are adapting better than those that have tribal or controlling company cultures.

Adapting to the reality of work requires a new mindset, not just remote collaboration tools – default to asynchronous collaboration.

The first step is to get rid of labels that get in the way. As  David Barker, Paddle’s chief people officer, said: “We’re trying to move away from labels right now; we like the idea of digital first, rather than being hybrid or remote teams or fully in the office. So however we operate, we want to operate in a digital way, meaning we capture things digitally and we’re able to circulate [information] asynchronously.”

To succeed in the new environment, you also need a roadmap. You need a framework to facilitate the right conversations with your team.

The Hybrid Team Canvas is a framework designed to map and design your remote culture. This tool is adapted from our proprietary model: the Culture Design Canvas.

The framework has seven building blocks: Purpose, Unique way of collaborating, Priorities, Psychological Safety, Rituals, Decision-Making, and Rules & Norms.

To learn more about the model, how to facilitate it, and download a copy, go here. I will use the structure of the Hybrid Team Canvas to help you reflect on your own remote culture.

Plan a remote team reboot session. Here are the key steps for you to address.

Start by revisiting your team purpose: What impact do we want to create together?

1. Remote Team Purpose: Why does your team exist?

Your purpose is the glue that brings your team together. People don’t just want to work on a project – they want to make a difference, to do meaningful work.

Does your team have a purpose? Is it meaningful and still relevant? How has the pandemic redefined the impact your team creates in your organization?

The pandemic has turned the workplace upside down. The great resignation shows that people want more than a salary: they want flexibility, a more balanced life, and to prioritize their health over their job. Organizations need to craft a new social contract with employees.

In this reset workshop, ask your team members to capture all the things they do. List all the stakeholders – both internal and external – that are affected by the team’s work. Categorize the list of activities into groups. What’s the end benefit of each cluster?

Now move to craft multiple alternative purpose statement. For each, define one audience and one benefit. You can use the Team Purpose Canvas to help you guide the conversation.

Avoid clichés or being pretentious. You want to inspire your team, not deceive them.

Having a clear purpose makes work more meaningful. Use this opportunity to rethink the work that really matters. This activity will help renew the energy and align all team members.

2. Define Clear Priorities: What Are You Willing to Sacrifice?

When everything is important, then nothing really is. Prioritization is the art of sacrifice: What are you willing to get rid of in order to focus on the most important things?

Use the reset session to discuss conflicting criteria when it comes to prioritizing. What’s more important: short-term wins or long-term goals? People’s wellbeing or productivity?

Invite the team to write down all the conflicting priorities, contradictory directions, or lack of clarity. Give each team member a turn to share theirs, capturing all the answers on a virtual whiteboard.

Now ask the team to list all the things that are important to the team. From core values and how they want to feel to what they want to achieve and what type of work they love doing.

List them in order of priority – from most to least important.

Use even/ over priorities statements to capture the trades-off your team is willing to make. The goal of this activity is to identify the sacrifices when push comes to shove.

Amazon has three top priorities:

Long-term value creation even over short-term results (a year is definitely short-term in Amazon’s playbook).

Speed even over perfection

High performance even over harmony

It’s vital to limit your priorities to three. When everything is a priority, it’s impossible to make tough choices. The selected statements should guide decision-making and provide autonomy – clear priorities guide everyone’s energy and time.  

3. Increase Psychological Safety to Promote Courageous Conversations

Psychological safety is the willingness to expose yourself to risk, knowing your team has your back.

Research by Google shows that psychological safety is the number one factor to predict high-performance teams. It’s the belief that people can belong, think differently, and share ideas in the open without fear of judgment or retaliation.

Building rapport and collective trust is more challenging in a remote environment. Many team members join without having met their colleagues in person. Several teams have been formed with all their members being distributed. Accelerating psychological safety is vital to forming an effective team.

Creating a sense of belonging is the first level of the psychological safety ladder.

Relaunch the team by allowing time for personal introductions. Most leaders don’t realize that strong interpersonal relationships are key to build a strong team. You don’t just need to trust the professional (head trust), but also the person (heart trust).

Although research by Google and Atlassian recommends that virtual teams meet in person at least four times a year, there’s a bigger opportunity.

Recent studies demonstrate that meeting team members face-to-face is more effective when you’re launching the team. Whether you are starting a new project or creating a team from scratch, an in-person meeting right at the start will help accelerate trust, cohesion, and collaboration.

Monitoring your colleagues’ moods and emotions can uncover opportunities to support each other. People are more edgy, stressed, and frustrated than ever. Keep that in mind. Regular check-ins can help identify tensions before they escalate.

Increasing participation, making sure people feel included, and benefiting from diverse perspectives, is the second level of the psychological safety ladder. Check in with your team to see how they feel and how they can improve participation.

The pandemic democratized work by making everyone work from home. Research shows that introverts and minority groups feel safer now compared to working in the office. However, the shift to a hybrid workplace can penalize lower-level employees or drive women out.  

Map the different participation styles and discuss how to protect introverts from extroverts – and vice versa.

Lastly, to increase innovation, the third level of the psychological safety ladder requires democratizing conversations and brainstorming. The best way to achieve that is by using digital whiteboards like MURAL or MIRO.

Have team members lay out their thoughts at their own pace, removing the pressure to look smart or act more extroverted. This allows everyone to reflect on all the ideas before reacting. Also, people can build on each other’s thoughts by adding comments or questions to take them to the next level.

By providing everyone with the opportunity to reflect before discussing ideas in the open, you avoid loud voices from taking over and promote participation.

Check out these additional resources:

Increase participation in virtual meetings

Accelerate psychological safety in remote teams

Using silence to improve collaboration and brainstorming

4. Virtual Team Rituals: How to Keep the Remote Culture Alive

You don’t need to be in the same place to build culture.

Rituals can bring back a sense of connectedness and belonging. They can intentionally take care of your team culture.

Review your existing team rituals.

Which are working and which can be improved? If your team hasn’t adopted any virtual rituals, it’s time to spend some time crafting one that will bring everyone together. Start by identifying what aspects of your team culture you want to emphasize or improve.

Dropbox sends new team members a box with ingredients and recipes to cook cupcakes – one of its core values is represented by a smiling cupcake.

Rituals can increase interpersonal relationships by getting to know each team member better. Team rituals are effective ways to reinforce positive behaviors by celebrating achievements. You can also use them to increase mindfulness, wellbeing, and empathy.

Rituals can point out areas of improvement in a friendly, unthreatening way.

At Heiligenfeld, employees ring a bell when a meeting is going off the rails. Everyone pauses to reflect. Afterward, when the team resumes, the meeting is more focused and productive.

Use the Team Ritual Design Canvas to craft meaningful experiences that will move your team in the right direction.  

5. Rethink Remote Collaboration with the 6 Ways of Working

The most significant shift in a hybrid environment is replacing a synchronous mindset with an asynchronous one. Rather than assuming that collaboration happens when people are together – whether in person or remotely – design an experience where your team can collaborate at their own pace.

The goal should not be efficiency, but to optimize the quality of work.

As I explained in The Six Ways of Working, there’s a lot of work to be done that doesn’t require collaboration – and there’s a lot of collaboration that doesn’t require people to interact at the same time.

Review the six modes of collaboration with your team.

Discuss how you are working and what shifts need to happen. Which activities can be moved from we-time to me-time or synchronous to asynchronous? Block time to protect deep work, avoiding mundane follow-up routines to affect your teams’ thinking.

Some tips:

  • Define which work mode works best for which type of work
  • Agree when it’s necessary to collaborate and when it isn't
  • Evaluate when the cost of collaboration is worth it
  • Create transitional time to shift from one mode to another
  • Make it okay to protect “me-time” modes, minimizing interruptions and not expecting everyone to respond to requests immediately
  • Avoid collaboration burnout – remove unnecessary meetings, touchpoints, or communication so people can focus on doing the work, not just talking about it

Simple tricks like reducing the number of meetings, alternating time zones, rotating the number of participants, or recording meetings can keep everyone in the loop without forcing people to be there.

6. Rules and Norms: Flexibility Is Vital

Are you still operating under rules that were written before the pandemic?

Revisit rules and norms – both written and unwritten. See whether they are helping or limiting your team.

App developer Project Imagine, named one of the best companies for remote workers by Quartz, realized that the shift toward working from home required reconfiguring the workday. Creating bigger chunks of time helped redefine collaboration.

The redesigned remote workday barred meetings between three periods of time: Before 10 am, between noon and 2 pm, and after 6 pm. The new approach gave Project Imagine employees the flexibility to manage their mornings around their family or children, protect personal time to have lunch or go for a walk, and set a clear end to the workday.  

Adobe realized that most employees weren’t taking time off despite feeling burnout. As people could not travel because of the pandemic restrictions, they weren’t using their vacation days. Focus groups showed that employees could benefit from the entire company taking a break simultaneously. In response, Adobe instituted global days off. This year, the software company had a global day off one Friday per month.

Flexibility is crucial for remote team performance.

Keep your team rules simple and flexible. Include team members in writing their own code of conduct.

Citigroup categorized all jobs into three groups: “resident,” “remote,” or “hybrid.” Management defined who would be into each group, creating a divide where employees who provide in-person customer service need to work at the branches five days a week. By including people in the process, employees could have uncovered new ways to serve customers that will allow “residents” to become “hybrid.”

7. Make Faster, Smarter Decisions When Working Remotely

Working remotely has brought both good and bad news.

The good news is that virtual teams are being more productive and generating more ideas in brainstorming activities. That’s something I’ve experienced first-hand working with our clients.

People feel more included in conversations as techniques, such as turn-taking or timeboxing make it easier to protect everyone’s chance to participate.

However, one thing that has suffered a lot is decision-making. This is not a new phenomenon. Psychological studies have historically shown that virtual teams are not good at making decisions compared to in-person ones. Groupthink is more common when all the communication happens digitally.

On the one hand, virtual teams take longer to find common ground – either because they want everyone to agree or run into endless, meaningless debates.

On the other hand, teams default to synchronous decision-making processes. This means that those who are not present don’t have a say. Or they suffer from proximity bias, prioritizing the input and opinions of employees in the office overs remote participants.

Review how your team is making decisions.  

What’s slowing down the process? How can you neutralize groupthink? Can the team default to asynchronous decision-making to ensure everyone who’s affected can chime in? How can you avoid proximity bias?

Not all decisions are made equal – there are two types.

Type 2 decisions are reversible and changeable. If your team makes a suboptimal decision, they can course correct it. Type 1 decisions are more complex and involve more risk. They should be made slowly and methodically, with great consultation and deliberation.

Type 2 decisions should be made by individuals and Type 1 require group involvement. Review the most frequent decisions your team makes and define which fall into each category.

Review the seven decision-making methods and define which one works best when and for which types of decisions.

Decide how your team wants to make decisions.

8. It’s Time to Reset Your Virtual Tools, Too

During the pandemic, most organizations tried to app their way by adding multiple tools to deal with the new reality of remote collaboration. However, most continue to use them with a synchronous mentality – or no one considered whether they were solving communication problems or adding new ones.

Joshua Zerkel, head of global engagement at Asana, recommends considering the following three categories of tools: communication, collaboration, and coordination. You might have tools that overlap or complement each other (all apps now include some form of chat). However, it’s important to define when to use which.

For example, text/ chat for quick updates or coordination, email for conversation, MURAL for collaboration, and video calls for solving issues or making decisions.  

At Fearless Culture, we decided to get rid of Slack a couple of months ago. We replaced it with Circle.so. By moving to a community-based tool for our open programs or client-based culture design projects, we improved communication and collaboration.

Reboot Your Remote Team Culture

It’s time to pause, reflect, and update how your team works together.

Designing a hybrid workplace culture is not a one-time event. Rather, it requires experimentation and iteration. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. We are all learning and discovering the right model.

Plan to have regular reset sessions with your team to review what’s working and what’s not. Changing habits and ways of working takes time. Quarterly reboot sessions can help the team monitor progress and ensure no one gets stuck in the hamster wheel.

If you need help facilitating a Reboot team culture session, reach out. We can guide your team through the process, share insights from other teams, and challenge the thinking with a fresh and outsider perspective.

Book a free consultation to discuss how we can reboot your remote team culture.

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