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Maintaining company culture and team spirit in the era of telework

September 8, 2021.

In spring of 2020, the global onset of COVID-19 caused huge disruption in the operations of most companies, who will continue feeling the fall-out long after the end of the pandemic. In under a month, nearly all companies whose activities took place in an office environment (service providers for the most part) switched en masse to remote work, to protect their employees and customers as well as to meet government requirements. This could forever change the workplace as we know it.

With the sudden increase in cases of the delta variant, we’re not out of the woods yet. This curveball means we may well have to reconsider the lifting of sanitary restrictions. Companies are compelled to postpone the reopening of their offices, often set for September, to early next year. A few days ago, Apple announced to its employees worldwide that they were not expected to return to the office until January or even later. Other big tech firms such as Amazon and Google followed suit.

Just as we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, several factors lead us to believe that companies may have to push the date out yet again. When teleworking was introduced, executives saw this mass transition as a temporary measure. Eighteen months into it, this short-term solution has become the new normal. With no guarantees as to when we might return to the office under normal conditions, it certainly seems that post-pandemic work life will look nothing like before. Companies are trying to imagine the new environment, with many advocating for hybrid work models.

Telework is here to stay

Given that talent acquisition and retention is increasingly competitive, especially in the tech industry, companies do well to listen to how employees see themselves working in the future. Many recent studies reveal that not all are after the same thing. According to a Zenefits study (1), 36% of workers want to be in the office every day, 43% want to come in occasionally or as needed, while 23% prefer teleworking full time. What’s more, some employees claim they would resign rather than return to the office. To sum up, there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution for companies in post-pandemic times. In the same way that they adapted by successfully shifting operations, they will have to keep exercising flexibility.

The inescapable fact is that telework in the service industry is here to stay, even among those companies who were previously reluctant to embrace it. Telework allows them to reduce their real-estate expenses — a major benefit for startups who don’t have to spend precious capital on maintaining a traditional workspace. Working outside of the office has many advantages for employees as well, who cut commute costs, free up personal time, and enjoy a better work/life balance.

This new work model is a great asset in attracting new talent from a larger pool of candidates, including workers with disabilities or those who don’t live within commuting distance. Results published by Zenefits show that companies who care about retaining employees and are concerned with their quality of life will adapt to a workforce that falls in three camps: those who return to the office as before the pandemic; those who come in occasionally; and those who stay home. This new arrangement presents several challenges, chief of which is upholding the company’s culture.

Organizational culture, the glue that holds everything together

Though work culture is at the core of a company and many take it to heart, few could actually put it into words. It usually takes the form of an unoriginal bulleted list of generic values, based on ethical principles akin to motherhood and apple pie, and a commitment to greater social and environmental responsibility. Though intangible, corporate culture is in reality much broader as it is founded on organizational planning and practices. It is a group phenomenon that permeates interactions in the workplace and guides decision-making and reaction to change. It is essential to an organization’s sustainability and to the upkeep of a collegial work environment. Yo-Jud Cheng, professor at the Darden School of Business, illustrates this by saying “organizational culture is the glue that holds everything together” (2).

Some companies have a siloed, opaque, closed-door culture that many would hesitate to join, while others are fun and creative. Some are appealing and promote a sense of belonging, while others turn people off. Whatever the company culture, being proactive maintains and improves it, all the more so because those events that kept it going, such as chats around the watercooler, team outings, or pizza lunches have disappeared.

Working solo in an improvised home office can cause feelings of isolation and disconnection among employees. Some are used to working in a micromanaged, structured environment and find it difficult to work independently, while others have a hard time exercising enough discipline to get down to work when they are alone. Teleworking is not for everyone. Employees who struggle most will opt to get back in the office, whereas others are quite happy with this work style. They blossom and appreciate the benefits such as hours and hours of time saved now that they no longer have to commute.

The challenge lies in merging all of this, in finding systems that won’t leave anyone behind but will unite everyone in feeling like they’re working for the same company. How do we maintain and bolster cultural practices among employees spread to the wind? One thing seems certain: we will have to double down on our efforts when the pandemic is over.

Maintaining and enhancing culture in the new paradigm

Spell it out. Never pass up an opportunity to communicate your vision statement, your narrative and your commitments, and everything else at the core of your business that forged your culture and the way your work is done. Clearly define the expected behaviours and standards. Do it systematically with each new hire. Who are we, where did we come from, where are we headed and how will we get there? State and restate your mission. Emphasize what you hold as best practices in your corporate culture and bring visibility to positive contributions.

Communicate. A golden rule of internal communications is to not be afraid to repeat yourself. Keep everyone informed. Communicate, communicate again, then communicate some more. Good communication is regular, transparent, consistent and open to discussion. If the old methods no longer work, find new ways to get the message across. Managers’ communications should aim to be clear and to give employees a sense of physical presence. Remote workers should receive the right amount of information and understand it. With employees scattered about, these principles are that much more critical in order to gather everyone around an organizational culture. Regular, well-formulated communication is as essential with remote workers as it is with those a few meters away.

Stay vigilant. In the MIT Sloan Management Review, professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville rightly states that “perhaps as important is calling out affronts to culture. When managers don’t visibly censure practices that depart from the desired culture, the boundaries of culture are not well defined” (3). The CEO’s vision embodies the company’s culture, and safeguarding it should be everyone’s business, not just the responsibility of Management or the HR department.

Culture is not carved in stone. Businesses are in constant motion as external circumstances and the company’s own growth present new challenges. Its employees, who are its cells, are always renewed. Think back to your own company a few years ago: it is no longer the same today. It will have changed, especially in the wake of success. Though some ethical principles are immutable, culture can’t remain stagnant. Cultural traits must adapt to meet changing circumstances and the company’s evolution.

Sometimes there is no choice but to transform oneself, during this lockdown for example, when many practices that used to contribute to company culture and team spirit came to a halt. It’s a good time for new ideas and creative solutions to come into play. It takes mettle but also tact to question outmoded cultural characteristics to bring about change that sometimes stirs strong feelings.

Reassess your tools. Lockdown may have quick marched you down the path to digitization. Perhaps now is a good time to evaluate the usefulness and effectiveness of your tech tools and see whether they are really suited to your internal and external teams’ new ways of working. Take a look at data security risks related to each new tool. Finally, hybrid– and telework are an opportunity to optimize costs and invest in systems modernization.

When the organizational culture is aligned with your objectives and colleagues share a passion for your vision, the foundation for your company’s success is in place. It’s never too early to set up a corporate culture that supports your company’s strategy and strengthen it with sound leadership and communications.

(1) www.zenefits.com/workest/

(2) ideas.darden.virginia.edu/global-workplace-cohesive-culture

(3) sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-sustain-your-organizations-culture-when-everyone-is-remote/