Company Culture

Building Culture and Connection in a Fully Remote Work Environment

After two full years of working from home, growing evidence indicates that remote workers and teams are becoming even more distanced from each other. Collaboration, social interaction, and innovations that typically spring from these relationships have dwindled, as have opportunities to conjugate around common objectives. Despite these challenges, positive management trends are emerging to bolster company culture and connection. These changes are already seeing a positive impact.

Remote work is here to stay. While data reflecting culture and community shows a need for improvement, the balance employees experience from these environments far outweighs the minor negative impact. Recent Microsoft data suggests that remote employees increasingly report feeling disconnected. Though interactions with close networks have grown, distant and peripheral network interactions dropped off as people prioritized connections with those they were most used to seeing in the office. As a result, departments within companies became more siloed. While, the trend has weakened ties and diluted once-strong connections, many companies are innovating to find new ways to help employees connect.

In this article, we intend to share the issues negatively impacting company culture and connection in remote work environments while showing how employers can utilize new tools and resources to reclaim what may have been lost in this transition.

Typical Adverse Outcomes of Long-Term Remote Work

Remote work may have helped businesses maintain continuity, but employers may face dramatic drops in productivity, lost opportunity, and attrition if they fail to recognize and remedy the situation.

According to mounting evidence, these are some of the most common adverse outcomes of long-term remote work:

  • Miscommunication. Recent data shows that 86% of business leaders and employees feel that miscommunication is the root of workplace failure. Though most remote employees have multiple tools at their disposal, technology is not perfect, and signals are often missed. Some employees may feel so uncomfortable that they avoid communicating with some of their colleagues altogether. 
  • Poor collaboration. Interoffice collaboration and teamwork are challenging in a remote environment. Idea sharing and brainstorming do not have the intensity it typically does when these activities happen face to face. In the absence of meaningful workplace collaboration, initiatives may not achieve their full potential, opportunities may be missed, and innovation falls by the wayside.
  • Uncertainty about relationships. Without direct connection and interaction, it is more difficult to build trust. Managers that prioritize transparency and regular communication with employees are more likely to see improved engagement and productivity as workers feel seen and heard. 
  • Feeling isolated or disconnected. While the workflows and tasks may not have changed substantially with remote work, the fact that employees are essentially on their own most of the time is a significant shift. Some employees may be hesitant to reach out or speak up if they’re feeling isolated, which only compounds the situation. 

Additionally, fully remote employees often report confusion around what tasks to prioritize and how to manage their time. 

While none of these scenarios are unfixable, they are precursors to the point of diminishing returns (at the very least). At worst, the disconnection could creep over time until the employee eventually feels ineffectual and ambivalent, leading to disengagement and lost productivity.

A Remedy for Navigating Culture In A Remote Work Environment

Despite the myriad issues we are starting to identify as symptoms of remote work syndrome, solutions can be immediately applied to stem the tide. However, it’s vital to implement these strategies before the problems become systemic. 

Strong leadership is essential to steer the ship in the right direction and keep it from taking on water. With an empathetic approach, managers can help employees at home overcome challenges, stay engaged, connected, and maintain a high level of job performance. 

Mounting evidence shows that managers who regularly check in with remote workers, prioritize their wellbeing and mental health, and facilitate collaboration between coworkers in close and distant networks achieve high-performance results. When team members are included and looped in on critical conversations, they tend to take the initiative naturally as they gain a stake in the organization’s ongoing success. 

There are many takeaways from the volumes of remote work studies conducted over the past two years, but they all offer one common critical insight: leadership makes the difference. When remote employees are managed effectively and empathetically, they are happier, more engaged, and have the potential to outperform their in-office counterparts significantly. 

What Have Fully Dispersed Companies Done in The Past?

Before the pandemic, only about 6% of the American workforce was remote. Three-quarters of full-time employees had never worked from home. In the decade before March 2020, there was much talk about remote work environments, and as internet accessibility and reliability improved, virtual work environments became a more viable prospect. 

Freelance communities sprang up, and in the wake of an increasingly competitive recruiting landscape driven by the tech startup community, companies considered the possibilities of accessing talent across borders. Everything was on the table, but most executives probably would never have considered going completely remote. 

But not all employees—or managers—were psychologically up to the task. Self-starters had no issues with remote work and its accountability requirements, but others needed more direct supervision or risked not getting anything done at all. 

Managers had to get their heads around accountability and monitoring and motivating their teams. Before the pandemic, there was an expectation that remote work must be done without oversight, and there was little consideration for mitigating factors in the employee’s life that might impact the quality of the work. In other words, it was a sink-or-swim scenario. If employees couldn’t perform in a remote environment, they often didn’t get a second chance. 

Cultivating Culture Through Empathy

However, the majority of pre-pandemic remote work environments were by design. Expansion and scale could be accomplished without the usual constraints of meshing personalities in close quarters, establishing boundaries, or budgeting for additional office space and parking. Remote environments were more inclusive. They enabled flexibility and a better work-life balance. 

But the distance and detachment created by remote work environments were not ideal. 

According to remote work expert Pamela Hinds, “Cultural norms are still being created and reinforced [in a remote work environment] but previously established office systems and routines are not guiding them. They’re more open to change and influence from non-work factors present in the employees’ daily lives.” As a result, more effort must be expended to keep teams focused on common goals.

Jack Altman, the co-founder of Lattice, experienced rapid scale early in the pandemic, growing from a small company with 120 employees to 500. He quickly found himself in a situation where he didn’t know most of his employees. To keep the culture strong and make work meaningful, they “ensured every employee knew why they were getting out of bed each morning” and doubled down on their internal communities to encourage equity, trust, and cooperation. 

What Are Some of the Strategies Companies Are Trying Now?

It’s clear that remote work is here to stay—and plenty of evidence supports the idea that it can improve productivity and that company cultures can thrive with the right approach. 

Among companies that have found success in maintaining a strong remote culture, empathetic leadership is the common denominator. Here are a few more actionable tips you can implement today:

  • Help others meet their challenges. Lack of social interaction can feel isolating and lead to mental health issues. Encourage your employees to support each other and consider implementing a reward system for doing so.
  • Make meetings inclusive. Whether you do Monday morning scrums or weekly sales meetings, ensure everyone has a voice. Encourage all participants to respond with an emoji to represent how they feel in the moment—it’s a non-invasive way to give your remote employees a voice.
  • Check in. Let your people know that you genuinely care. Take the time to get to know your employees individually so you understand their challenges. 
  • Exhibit trust and grant individual autonomy. Micromanagement undermines employee confidence and trust. Check-in too frequently, and employees may start to doubt their work.
  • Celebrate wins with the team. Share accolades and recognize good work across the team or the entire company. Recognition benefits everybody and encourages trust. 
  • Create meetings that have nothing to do with work. Send employees grub hub gift cards to purchase lunch and host an online meeting where the only intention is to get to know one another. Show photos of your kids and pets and share stories about your day-to-day lives.

Building culture in a remote environment is an intentional process. When you lead with empathy and encourage employees to look out for each other, everybody wins. 

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