Managing remote workers does not have to mean struggling with disconnection and distance. When done right, it can actually strengthen your team’s culture and cohesion. Explaining how, is Benjamin Drury – The Culture Guy, an independent consultant who helps business leaders shape the culture of their organisations to drive their success.
Holding a team together is difficult enough face-to-face, but the shift to far more remote management of workers over the past two and a half years has raised some real issues.
It’s not enough to use the same paradigms and systems to manage and develop teams as you did when everyone was in the office. That doesn’t mean that culture isn’t important, quite the opposite. It’s the glue that holds people together, wherever they’re based.
So here are five things to consider when building the culture of remote teams:
In an era of hybrid working, we need to move beyond work/life balance as a core cultural concept.
While it has been useful in the past, this model decouples paid work from the rest of life. It belongs to an era when individuals exchanged their time – the 9am-5pm – for an employer’s money. What might have made sense when everyone was gathered in one place at the same time, no longer holds.
It’s time to throw the traditional working window out of the window! We know people don’t always do their best work between 9 and 5, and when people are working remotely, they expect to have a greater degree of flexibility to manage their own time – with family life, exercise, and social engagements woven through rather than bookending their working hours.
Instead of a work/life balance – with its inbuilt on/off dichotomy – this is about a culture of flexibility and fluidity – treating individuals like adults and not resources.
But without the external motivator of the physical office – the onus is on companies to provide a compelling reason for people to get up, get to work and deliver.
So, as a business leader, it’s more important than ever to consciously define, articulate and embed your values and culture, because when employees understand ‘why’ their organisation exists, and feel what they are doing is worthwhile, important and impactful, then they are personally motivated to bring their best, wherever and whenever they are ‘at work.’
Choose a different metric
Under this new paradigm, where we are not exchanging time for money, how do we measure the value of an employee to a company? And how can we ensure office-based and remote workers are treated the same in terms of rewards, recognition and development opportunities?
More than ever before the metric isn’t time, but outputs – clients seen, calls made, accounts balanced, reports written, projects completed, code written, bugs fixed, problems solved. These are what matter to the business – so they are the variables to measure.
The boost to productivity when you allow people the space to manage their own time can be remarkable. I worked with one organisation who implemented unlimited holiday and fully flexible working times and both productivity and revenue went up, because if someone was at their desk, it was their choice, so they chose to do their job well. People will often surprise you!
It is worth remembering there are situations when prescribing time is needed, and those that struggle with the freedom and lack of outside imposed routine, might still need the option of coming into the office to do their best work.
Once you introduce this new level of self-motivation and self-organisation, and empower people to make decisions about how, when and what work they do, it is imperative that they understand the rules of the game – not just expectations in terms of output and goals, but also the framework for making the right decisions which reflect the values of the company and the needs of clients.
As a leader you need to be really clear in those non-negotiables, and also invite employees to be clear on what they require to get the job done – the level of autonomy, resources and support they need to meet the expectations of the organisation etc.
Without colleagues, line managers, and members of the wider organisation around them, team members need that framework of expectations and values to be explicitly expressed. In that sense, remote working can actually be a catalyst for a more clearly defined culture, with far less temptation to assume it’ll be perpetuated organically.
With everyone in the same geographical location, most communication happens organically – chatting over an office divider, popping over to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question, or grabbing some coffee together and having a 10 minute catch up or gossip. When people work remotely, communication requires a more organised approach.
There are three levels of communication that need to be managed:
Explicitly organised communications such as team meetings and client meetings. While it’s straightforward enough to take much of this online, it’s worth reassessing the duration and frequency of these meetings with a view to improving communication and connection for people working remotely.
Water-cooler time. Those serendipitous moments in the break room, passing in the corridor, or even in the loo, where people chat for a few minutes with colleagues, especially those not in their immediate team, help build connections and can lead to interesting innovations.
Office time and space should be optimised to promote these interactions when people are in, and when they’re remote working. Steps should be taken to recreate these opportunities online.
That might include allowing time before and after video meetings for chat, creating channels on Slack or teams specifically for ‘watercooler’ conversations, or encouraging people to book in ‘virtual coffees’ with co-workers in their wider network.
Social connections. Grabbing some lunch together, heading to the gym before work – these are important rituals in developing team cohesion, trust and support. Away days, online socials, lunches – there are still ways to reproduce these non-work interactions while working remotely.
Find new ways to build trust
When I talk about trust I mean vulnerability, openness, and exposure to one another’s weaknesses – that’s the kind of trust necessary to squash timewasting politics and foster an atmosphere where people forgo personal agendas and prioritise what’s best for the team. With fewer face to face interactions, it’s much harder to achieve.
Trust goes both ways. To build it, managers and leaders must not only demonstrate they trust team members to fulfil their roles but find opportunities to show empathy and concern – to look after them beyond the deliverables of work.
Equally, team members need to exhibit trustworthiness by delivering what they promise and show commitment by doing more than the minimum expected.
The risk of remote working that out of sight means out of mind – health or personal issues for example, which might be obvious if you saw someone daily, can get missed.
But by checking in and actively ensuring vulnerability and openness is rewarded and encouraged, that firm foundation of trust, connectedness and belonging can still be established.
And the result…
The move to hybrid and home working requires a major shift, but like any challenge, it brings an opportunity.
Without the conventions of a traditional physical office to fall back on, leaders are less likely to fall into the trap of assuming the working culture they desire will somehow grow by itself.
Managing remote workers requires them to clearly define and articulate their culture, values, and expectations, then mindfully embed that through systems of monitoring and management and channels of communication. In doing so, leaders also become much more engaged in how their teams build trust and develop social relationships.
Inevitably they’ll find that, with a conscious hand at the tiller, company culture is a powerful engine for success.
Learn more from Benjamin Drury at thecultureguy.co.uk