The way firms work has forever changed. The rapid (pandemic-driven) transition to remote workspaces may have initially been viewed as a short-term “fix” to office closures, but trust that this new way of operating is here to stay.
Back in the day (you remember…when everyone was in the office) remote work was viewed merely as an alternative assigned location—such as the client’s office, an event, or a secondary firm location. Oh how things have changed. Today, remote work is no longer just about location but rather represents a new business model—one that supports full-time work from home or a hybrid of both home and in-office.
And while the virtual workspace model has proven to be a much-welcomed change to employees, it can prove challenging to create a culture where everyone feels connected, comfortable, and engaged. If you are experiencing this issue, you’re right where you need to be (reading this article, that is).
Industry influencer and guest expert on our Driving Digital Transformation series, Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA, CDE®, diversity and inclusion consultant, speaker, and trainer at Etienne Consulting, lives and breathes culture every day. In this article, she’ll share key elements of workplace culture and the impact of the new remote work model. She’ll also offer expert advice and insight on strategies for strengthening workplace relationships to help you master camaraderie, inclusivity, and connectedness in the virtual world.
What are the key elements of workplace culture?
Workplace culture is made up of several elements. When these elements are properly defined and in balance, it can positively influence a firm’s culture. With this in mind, the first step is to understand each element and how it can impact culture.
Let’s consider each:
Company values and principles: These are the standards for how a firm operates—the social construct inside an organization that guides behaviors. The company’s values and principles are defined by and must be upheld, first and foremost, by the organization’s leaders and managers.
Work habits and routines: These elements include things such as work hours, how information is documented, and how we communicate (e.g., email, IM, video).
Organizational systems and policies: These are the formal rules for what we do and how we accomplish work. For example, a firm may have a written policy for annual employee reviews, client onboarding, and, yes, remote work.
Shared beliefs and attitudes: These include the “unwritten rules” such as the length of lunch breaks and whether certain spaces are considered social or functional (e.g., break room, centralized work spaces, virtual workspaces).
Communication: This represents broad communication across the organization. Is there transparency in communication? Is the tone formal or casual? When do we use email over IM? Each of these questions help identify the communication element of your firm’s culture.
Benefits: This includes standard benefits such as PTO (paid time off) and medical coverage. Is there a waiting period before benefits kick in? Do benefits exceed the norm to include mental health and wellness or career advancement (education, training)? These questions help identify where your organization stands in terms of benefit offerings.
Decision making: This represents how decision making occurs in the organization. Is it centralized or decentralized? How much input do staff have across the board? Is it only top down or is it collaborative?
“All of these things influence what it feels like to work in an organization and as such have a direct impact on culture.”
- Jina Etienne
Etienne emphasized that many organizations have long been operating under outmoded, traditional norms—those that have been in place for several decades. However, wIth the transition to virtual workspaces, it’s time to reevaluate these elements to support the unique needs of a remote workforce.
According to Etienne, firms have to ask such questions as: How do we make employees part of the decision-making process when they’re working remotely? How have work routines and behaviors changed? How is communication transparency accomplished? What has been done to ensure inclusivity and connectedness under the new remote business model?
In relation to inclusivity specifically, what firms further need to understand is that inclusion is not just a feeling or a static state. It must continuously be reinforced via regular conversations, meetings, leadership behaviors, and policies. And according to Etienne, a feeling of inclusivity can significantly improve performance organization wide.
“All of these elements influence what it’s like to work for your company. They affect your culture.”
- Jina Etienne
So, to ensure a positive culture, it’s critical to evaluate existing workplace norms and expectations and redefine and reboot as needed. For example, are company values and principles up to date with current remote-driven realities? Do expectations/routines require updating (e.g., do you need to set a specific range of hours when employees should be online)? Do you need to update technologies to support collaboration and connectedness (e.g., Zoom or Teams for video conferencing, Slack or Teams for instant messaging)?
Broadly, according to Etienne, leaders must ask: What needs to change to support the new age of remote workers and avoid common challenges?
“There are many challenges of remote work, including isolation, asynchronous work, a sense of disconnect from coworkers, and inconsistent policies and practices. To create a sense of belonging, we have to be able to establish regular touch points to keep people connected.”
- Jina Etienne
It’s clear that the traditional way of working is no longer sufficient to support the new virtual work reality. And, frankly, with the next-generation workforce rapidly replacing Boomers, it’s the only model that works. It’s how Gen Z and Millenials demand to work.
Working remotely is the dominant preferred working pattern today.
Taking everything into consideration, leaders must think through the elements of their existing culture and redefine each to support a positive workplace where employees feel a sense of inclusivity and stay engaged. Culture has the power to build staff loyalty if done right.
Strategies for developing remote workplace relationships
This is certainly not an easy task. Developing a positive culture that continuously strengthens remote relationships takes time, energy, and focus.
Etienne provided proven and tested strategies to help ensure success:
Understand intention versus intentionality: And, yes, there is a difference. As organizations think about changes needed to build camaraderie and bolster inclusivity, intentionality is the ticket.
“Intention is great but it doesn't always lead to outcomes. You can’t just mean well. Intentionality encompasses deliberate action, moving forward purposefully and methodically, and having a solid plan. All of this leads to true action for change,” explained Etienne.
Adopt thoughtful technology: Technology is at the root of everything we do. It supports collaboration across roles and teams. It allows staff to connect no matter where they are. It also supports mobility and can accommodate unique remote worker needs [e.g., closed captioning, screen readers, dual monitors].
“Your tech stack should create clarity, support transparent communications, and provide appropriate training. You can’t just throw technology at staff without showing them how to use it,” Etienne said. “Technology should support efficient, collaborative-based work [think smart automation]...not make things harder for staff.”
Create new connection points: What are you doing to make space for people to meet? What touch points are you providing other than standard meetings? What are you doing to ensure inclusivity? All of these questions require creative thought. Consider team building activities to build camaraderie such as virtual group lunches, contests, or other fun events. Also consider one-on-one meetings to give employees personalized time with their managers.
When building connection points, also focus on multigenerational and cultural awareness. Some people may not be comfortable on camera or working with certain technologies. Be thoughtful in how you create these touch points.
Etienne stated: “You have to look across all channels and how you’re using them to ensure there is a level of equality. This is where generational and cultural awareness is important.”
Think through alternative career pathways: This provides people across roles and departments with alternatives for career advancement. Think through how those interested in advancing can demonstrate leadership potential while working remotely. Also think through alternatives for those focused on other pathways (not necessarily advancement) such as flex time to balance work and family or those interested in taking a sabbatical (can an employee take off extended time without losing their position?).
Offer mental health and wellness support: Health and wellness are at the top of the list for most of the workforce today. In fact, 1 in 5 Gen Z’ers don’t believe that their employer takes burnout seriously or takes needed steps to address this common issue.
Organizations with exceptionally positive cultures understand the need to support mental health. This is accomplished by respecting time off; offering wellness programs, training and coaching; providing onsite wellness spaces; offering reimbursement for off-site wellness efforts such as meditation, yogo, and mindfulness activities; and providing mental health benefits such as an employee assistance program (EAP)—to name only a few.
Bringing it home
With the majority of today’s workforce demanding either full-time virtual or hybrid work options, it’s imperative that firms understand how to operate in the virtual world. Without modern policies and advanced technologies in place, the remote business model can quickly create chaos and unrest. It can create a highly toxic culture.
The strategies above provide a sound roadmap for those looking to improve their remote work culture and ensure a universal feeling of camaraderie and inclusivity. Of course, this is no easy task.
Etienne provides five tips to help keep you on a successful path to creating a killer remote culture:
FOSTER trust: This occurs via ongoing and effective communications. Whatever changes you make across culture elements, open communication is the way to get buy-in and build trust among staff.
USE the right communication channels: Offer channels that are the most helpful. For example, Slack for internal messaging over outmoded email. It’s easier to support ease of communicating and transparency when you offer the right tools.
BE proactive: As you move forward with implementing change, conflicts will arise. Stay on top of issues and work to resolve them as they pop up.
CLARIFY roles, responsibilities, and deliverables: Offer clarity around processes, expectations, and what staff are responsible for delivering. Clarification supports efficiency and will help you to continue to build a positive, inclusive remote culture.
SET boundaries: Be sure to communicate the rules and stand by them (e.g., hours of operation, timelines, etc.). This provides structure and standardized policies for remote staff to follow—offering a sense of security that they’re meeting expectations.
Putting best practices in place will help you build a remote work culture that meets the needs of today’s virtual-work-loving professionals. Start by applying a few of the strategies outlined here to build a positive, inclusive culture in your organization.
Ready to drive digital transformation in your firm? Follow our Driving Digital Transformation series to hear from today’s industry thought leaders who have been there, done that, and are sharing what they've learned along the way. Sign up so you don’t miss a beat.