How to Build REAL Culture in a VIRTUAL Workplace

Every company operates in a virtual setting at least some of the time, with many operating that way all the time. And new mobile, SaaS, web and cloud-based technologies continue to emerge that allow teams to operate anywhere, anytime.

Simply operating virtually isn’t the same as being a team, however, and the more technology and distance we put between ourselves and our co-workers, the more culture becomes the glue that holds it all together. 

But it’s notoriously difficult to build a cohesive culture even when everyone’s in one physical location. How do you make it happen in virtually??

Over the past 20 years, each of us has built or supported cultures in virtual organizations ranging from a handful of people to several hundred. Our experiences lead us to believe there are eight principles essential to success:

 

  1. Have a Clear Purpose: Purpose is the “Big Bang” of culture. It is the starting point, the reason your company exists in the first place, and it’s rooted in the change you want to bring about in the world. It’s what captures the hearts and minds of your customers, employees and partners and makes all of them want to work with you. It’s critical for culture in a virtual workforce because it creates a shared connection between all staff and becomes the one thing everyone can look to for guidance  on morals and behaviors. It is your north star.  It’s also the key to motivating and keeping people, especially millennials. According to Linkedin, 74% of candidates want a role where they feel like their work matters.
     
  2. Know Your Cultural Character: Cultures have a personality and a character that is a composite of all the individuals who are part of it. Knowing and quantifying that character will help you manage, celebrate and communicate your culture in a way that resonates with all team members. Consider an archetypal assessment using a tool like CultureTalk™ to clearly identify the personality of your culture and the positive and negative attributes that may arise.
     
  3. Get Real About Values: Core values are critical for any culture but especially a virtual one. Unfortunately, most organizations default to meaningless or overused expressions like “Innovation” that are open to wide interpretation and offer zero guidance for behavior. Instead use straightforward language that encourages behaviors and gives permission to act. For instance, instead of “innovation,” tell team members to “try anything and everything” or “assume you have permission” or “challenge all assumptions.”  But then be prepared as a leader to accept that behavior when they exhibit it (especially when they challenge you!)
     
  4. Invest in Collaborative Technology: Virtual teams need a central “water cooler” to gather around every day or members can easily feel left out. Use a platform like RewardGateway.com to give far-flung staff a single place to go to stay in touch on a daily basis. And err on the side of over-communicating: allow anyone to contribute to the hub in real-time with minimal filters. Let the CEO – or any employee – post video from his or her phone. Again, informal authenticity is best for internal communications vs. the high-polish professionally edited videos you’d create for external audiences.  Also, create dedicated collaboration spaces with whiteboards and encourage the use of video for all virtual meetings (video forces people to stop multitasking and stay present).  But make sure the quality is solid and tested frequently: nothing will sink a virtual meeting or town hall faster than a shaky or unreliable connection.
     
  5. Teach Virtual Etiquette: Building an effective culture within a virtual organization requires some special training. People in a conference room need to consciously and deliberately include those on video in a conversation, and not talk over them to avoid making them feel left out. Users need to look into the camera when speaking and use proper lighting. Managers need to be aware that virtual employees may not be comfortable using video before or after normal work hours. Consider documenting how to run a virtual meeting and adopting a set of best practices.
     
  6. Make Recognition Peer-to-Peer Rather Than Top-Down: Recognition from your boss is nice, but recognition from your peers means more and it’s the #1 reason people will go the extra mile.  Make it easy for employees to salute each other by including some form of peer-to-peer recognition in the communications hub. That way, they see it every day and the practice will be more likely to grow organically. Tip: Be sure to tie the recognition to the core values to authentically bring them to life.
     
  7. Continuously Measure Engagement: In traditional workplace environments, one can often see the subtle signs of distress an employee might be experiencing. Not so in a virtual setting. That’s why leaders of virtual workforces must have a means of regularly gauging employee satisfaction and engagement. One well-respected tool is Gallup’s Q12 survey. It’s the gold standard of engagement surveys (administered to 25 million-plus employees over the years) and provides a view into the workplace’s emotional impact.
     
  8. Lead with Trust Rather Than Rules: In a virtual environment, it’s easy for leaders to default to “rules” designed to control people.  Better to default to trust and let the environment police itself.  For example, rather than managing people’s daily activities (impossible in a virtual setting), consider using Google’s Objectives and Key Results framework to manage outcomes. This simple system aligns corporate objectives with the actions and priorities of departments, teams, and individuals and puts the focus on results rather than activities. Also, consider making corporate policies for the 99% not for the 1%. Rather than have a travel or expense policy that limits employees to a specific $ amount, clearly communicate some high-level parameters and let them use their discretion. Ninety-nine percent of the time they’ll meet whatever limits you might have imposed anyway, and the 1% of the time they don’t, everyone will hear of the consequence and the system will self-correct.

 

These eight best practices will help any organization – virtual or otherwise – build a better culture, but they’re especially important to those operating in a virtual or mixed setting. Some may seem risky or counterintuitive to you now, but then again, so was the idea of working remotely not long ago!

Wondering if your company is up to the challenge of a virtual environment? Take our self-diagnostic to measure the strength of your purpose or the health of your culture and then contact us for more information.

 

 

About JP Laqueur:
JP is the Chief Connector at BrandFoundations, a strategic advisory firm that helps companies maximize valuation by leveraging their greatest intangible assets: brand and culture. You can find him on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jplaqueur/


About Talin Andonians:
Talin is an experienced executive who has built competitive cultures that passionately attract, retain and engage top talent in growth environments. She believes culture is the foundation that drives great financial results. You can find her on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/talin-andonians-b440304/