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How to encourage company culture in a remote environment

Any HR specialist knows that building and maintaining a company’s culture is a full-time job. With the advent of the global workforce, virtual offices, and offshore workgroups, we are faced with an evolving landscape where the notion of culture is changing and adapting. How can we adapt with the times to turn these rising challenges into opportunities for a better and more rewarding experience for our talent?

What is culture and why does it matter?

At its heart, a company is a community, a system of relationships between individuals that have a common goal with a shared set of beliefs, practices, values, and language. As with other communities, the cohesiveness of a company can be understood in terms of its culture. 

The anthropologist Sir Edwar Tylor defined culture in 1871 as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” a definition that still holds up to this day.

Culture serves as the connective tissue that underlies group dynamics. The more we share with others and the deeper our involvement with our culture, the easier it is to communicate with others with whom we share those values and traditions. This can have notorious benefits. In fact, the relation between company culture, well-being, and productivity has been proved beyond any shadow of a doubt.  

Culture in the digital age

If you’ve researched about company culture on the net, odds are you’ve seen dozens of articles talking about technology and how it’s hampering human relations and how we’ve become isolated and distant. Indeed, some folks paint a very grim picture of the world in the digital age.

First, let’s dispel that false dichotomy. Technology doesn’t affect culture, it is culture. It’s a product of human endeavor and it has been shaped by our traditions and beliefs as much as it is shaping the way we live our lives.

Having said that, there is a hint of truth to be found in all that doom and gloom. Technology is changing us in ways that we are just starting to figure out. Case in point, nurturing a company’s culture is a whole different beast when most of your interactions are happening over Zoom or Slack.

Yes, it’s a challenge to adapt, and, yes, we are going to have to readjust. But look at the incredible success of social media. That in itself is clear evidence that we are finding new ways to connect with one another, socialize, and find others who share our tastes and beliefs even if they are all the way across the globe. 

So the question isn’t how do we keep things as they are, but rather how can we adapt and let our company culture be transformed by technology in such a way that it enhances our work experience.

What kind of culture are we aiming for?

Culture is emerging. In simple terms that means that as long as you have a group of people with semi-regular interactions they will develop signs, customs, and shared knowledge by themselves. So our job here isn’t to create culture, but to steer it in the right direction.

What’s the right direction you may ask? One where the emergent culture produces well-being and creates a sense of cohesion and identity as well as emotional involvement. In a way what we are doing is removing the obstacles so that the natural process may run its course. 

Diversity is a key concept that’s going to crop up whenever we strive for a culturally rich and welcoming environment. Sharing culture isn’t the same as having a hive mind. In that sense, think of multicultural rich countries like Canada where diversity is a core value. That in itself is a form of shared culture, even if different folks come from different walks of life.

Corporate culture 2.0

If culture is a byproduct of social interactions, then you have to understand what channels are being used to establish those interactions. Only then you’ll be able to promote changes. 

A group that sticks to emails and phone calls will have a radically different dynamic than one that uses instant messaging and voice chats.  Which one is better depends on the context, but one thing that you should aim for is finding a common channel that everyone has access to and feels comfortable using.

A big part of what makes culture happen is the small things that happen on a day-to-day basis in an office. Jokes, banter, and other forms of socializing are to the workplace what salt is to a boring dish: they bring out the flavor and turn the monotonous tasks into something more fulfilling. 

That’s why it’s very important that you have at least two channels, one for official business and one for socializing. Lay down some basic rules that ensure that both channels are safe spaces and let the people vent with memes, jokes, videos, and whatever else they want to share.

Create group activities that the workgroup will enjoy. Remember that computers, phones, and tablets can be more than a workstation! Invite your talent to watch parties with apps like Netflix Party, use a virtual tabletop like Roll20 to play board games or role-playing games, or find online games that can be played with a group, like Among Us. 

Stimulate healthy behaviors, for example, create a competition with exercise routines, or ask people to share some recipes for a good and healthy meal. 

Find ways for people to open their homes, ask people to post a picture of what they are eating, to give a tour of their homes, or to show something they love and share it with the team. This is a great way to deepen connections as well as getting to know the people you work with. 

The point we are trying to make is simple: create space for people to share something more than just work. Embrace the fact that most of us have access to cameras, the internet, and a computer that can run more than a spreadsheet. 

Not only will you be fostering group cohesion with these kinds of activities, but you’ll also be nurturing spaces where people can cope with the loneliness and anxiety that many experience when they have to stay at home.

If I could summarize these tips in one single sentence it would be this: help everyone remember that the image on the screen is another human being, and even if we are not shaking hands, we are still sharing a space – a virtual space. 

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