The lifting of pandemic-era restrictions paves the way for millions of workers to return to their offices. For many employees, however, this is not an attractive prospect. And considering that talent is scarce, employers must think twice about ordering people back full-time.
In this article, Larry English argues that building a strong virtual workplace culture is indeed possible. He shares applicable tips for managing a remote or hybrid workforce, from screening for cultural fit to clarifying core values.
You and your remote workers can build a strong virtual culture and increase your competitive advantage.
Applicable, Well Structured, Concrete Examples, Leadership, Non-Fiction, Business, Business Culture, Money
Consultant and author Larry English believes in building a strong virtual culture as workplace norms shift in the wake of the coronavirus. Researchers predict 73% of teams will include remote workers by 2028, but few companies make building and maintaining their culture with all workers – including virtual ones – a priority. Many don’t even talk to new hires about culture, says English. He shares applicable tips to help you manage a remote or hybrid workforce, from screening for cultural fit to clarifying your core values. Leaders at all levels can benefit from this accessible step-by-step guide to fortifying your culture.
- Building a strong virtual culture hinges on trusting your workers.
- Align your virtual culture with your core values and operating philosophy.
- Invest time in screening new hires to make sure they fit your culture.
- Create a training program to spread your culture, and appoint cultural ambassadors.
- Encourage vulnerability to strengthen virtual relationships.
- Use internal and external feedback to assess your corporate culture.
- Enhance your virtual culture by investing in a collaboration tool.
- Become a better virtual worker by adopting healthy habits.
Building a strong virtual culture hinges on trusting your workers.
Remote working is the future of work. Researchers predict that by 2028, 73% of teams will have virtual workers. Companies with remote teams should proactively create a connected culture. When you create a positive company culture, you do more than make work more enjoyable – you gain a big competitive advantage. A Gallup survey shows that companies with cultures that foster employee engagement see nearly 60% more revenue per worker than average.
“So what is culture? Its the personality of a company. It defines the environment in which employees work and includes both the spoken and unspoken rules for how things get done in a company.”
A positive virtual culture requires trust. Employers may worry that their remote workers will underperform, but, in reality, remote workers often work harder than office workers. You don’t need to micromanage employees who work from their homes. Instead, check on their progress regularly so you discover any problems early. Treat remote workers as responsible adults, giving them autonomy and flexibility, rather than overburdening them with rules about how to structure their time.
This policy will contribute to their happiness and, in turn, they will feel a greater sense of loyalty to your company, thus building the foundations of a positive culture. Companies that have cultures rooted in trust see several benefits, including a 50% decrease in turnover rates, better stock market performance, and increased worker productivity, innovation and engagement.
Align your virtual culture with your core values and operating philosophy.
The culture you create reflects the rules – both official and unspoken – that your company embraces. Before you create a virtual culture, reflect on your current culture. Ask why you provide the services or products you offer and what core values inform the decisions people make at your company. Examine your traditions – which can encompass anything from how you celebrate wins to what leisure activities team members enjoy together. All these things reinforce your culture and values.
Everything you can physically see embodies and reinforces your culture. For example, employees may dress comfortably and casually for work if you have a more laid-back company culture. You likely have unwritten rules that reveal your culture. For example, perhaps you let employees who are going through personal hardships work fewer hours because your culture is supportive. For insight into the nature of your culture, analyze the behaviors or types of people your company rewards, and reflect on who gains promotion and who doesn’t. Make sure your culture aligns with your operating philosophy – the principles that guide your company’s operations.
“We treat our culture as seriously as we do our business strategy. Just like you would innovate on new business offerings, we do the same with our culture.”
After you identify and redefine your culture, start adding in virtual components. Everything your company does, from the way you conduct sales calls to the collaboration tools you use, should align with your core culture. Try to be flexible. Understand that remote workers will have different distractions – children interrupting, doorbells ringing – than office workers. Prioritize moments of human connection among your remote workers. For example, you might create space for informal chats before virtual meetings and encourage – but not require – people to turn on their videos.
Invest time in screening new hires to make sure they fit your culture.
Consider which aspects of your virtual and core cultures you can and can’t teach, then hire people who already possess the cultural aspects you value but couldn’t teach, the intrinsic aspects of your culture. For example, teaching someone to be kind isn’t easy, so if you and your culture value this trait, screen potential hires to make sure they act with kindness. The teachable aspects of your culture, by contrast, might include certain skills and a core of knowledge about work-related topics, such as delivering projects to clients or working from home more efficiently.
When you interview potential employees, spend half your time determining whether they have the skill level required for the position and half the time determining whether they fit your culture. To screen for cultural fit, first share anecdotal stories with candidates, so they understand the nature of your culture. Then, try to learn about their decision-making processes by asking situational questions, such as, “Talk to me about the last time you made a big mistake.”
Choose team members to act as stewards of your culture, and make them responsible for assessing whether a potential hire will fit. Don’t skimp on the time you spend recruiting. Introduce candidates to your team, so you can see how they interact with others in a group setting and how they develop an understanding of your culture. Pay attention to warning signs that candidates are not cultural fits. Try to determine if any of their qualities directly oppose the cultural aspects you value?
Create a training program to spread your culture, and appoint cultural ambassadors.
Few businesses train workers in their culture – more than 60% of companies don’t mention their culture when onboarding new employees. If you want your workers to embody your culture, teach them about it. Consider creating a culture curriculumhighlighting the cultural traits you prioritize, such as diversity or collaboration.
“If you want a great culture, you have to actually tell your employees what your culture is and what it means to live up to it.”
Make both in-person and virtual learning methods available to workers, since people have different learning styles – some may prefer learning at home, while others prefer learning in a group. Hire leaders who embrace your cultural values in their own lives to serve as role models. Consider investing in mentorship programs for new leaders to guide them as they learn to adopt your culture.
Enable employees to share your culture by inviting a select group of people from varying career levels to serve as cultural ambassadors and share your company culture. Make ambassadors responsible for identifying charities your company can support, organizing internal events such as hackathons and providing feedback on decisions that could affect your culture.
Encourage vulnerability to strengthen virtual relationships.
Virtual relationships can develop into strong connections, just as in-person relationships do in the office, but remote connections may require extra effort. Create strong relationships by making an effort to be vulnerable and encouraging team members to do the same. When people display vulnerability, it triggers oxytocin production in those around them, increasing cooperation and feelings of empathy and trust.
Consider bringing more of your personality to work: Perhaps you could craft a clever auto-reply or share small details about your life to help your colleagues feel a greater connection with you. Leave time for people to chat about non-work topics before virtual meetings to encourage distant team members to get to know one another. For example, the virtual call’s facilitator could spur conversation by asking a lighthearted question that prompts people to share details about themselves before the meeting.
“Vulnerability is the secret ingredient and shortest route to building any strong, collaborative relationship, whether your relationship is strictly virtual or in person.”
Be mindful that misunderstandings can cause conflicts during remote meetings, since people have more difficulty interpreting one another’s tone of voice or body language in virtual communication settings. Proactively manage conflict by taking extra time to connect with people. If you suspect that someone is upset, check in via video chat or phone call. Occasionally host in-person meetings when possible to reinforce your virtual culture. Decide how often you’d like your team to meet in person – if doing so is feasible. If you don’t have a physical office space, consider cost-effective free spaces, such as coffee shops or restaurants.
Use internal and external feedback to assess your corporate culture.
Use all available metrics to measure your corporate culture. Figure out how frequently you’ll gather feedback on your culture and which sources you’ll draw from to make sure you have at least one quantifiable metric you can study over time. External sources – such as web platforms like Glassdoor that allow people to rate their employers – as well as internal feedback systems that use anonymous employee surveys are potent forms of data.
“Great culture cannot exist without feedback – otherwise, you get off track, parts of your culture get lost during growth periods or grow stale over time, and employees feel unheard.”
Use apps to collect employee feedback more rapidly and regularly. For example, using the Japanese app Niko Niko, employees can share their moods by choosing an emoji. When employees leave or are let go, take advantage of the opportunity to conduct detailed exit interviews since as workers tend to share negative feedback more openly when they’re leaving.
Enhance your virtual culture by investing in a collaboration tool.
Take time to enhance your culture by finding the best collaboration tool to facilitate internal communication and cooperation in your organization. If you don’t invest in a collaboration tool (for example, Microsoft Teams), your virtual culture may suffer. Employees can become frustrated if they lack effective methods for connecting with one another and streamlining their workflow.The right collaboration platform builds your virtual culture, creates community, connects new hires to your culture, breaks down silos, facilitates multigenerational collaboration, creates greater transparency, improves employee engagement and collects data on how people collaborate.
“Culture building never stops. Once you have established a solid culture, you will want to continue to nurture and grow it – otherwise its greatness will not last.”
Make sure you have the appropriate change-management practices, guidelines and rules in place when you introduce new collaboration tools. Then encourage enough people to use the tool to justify your investment.
Become a better virtual worker by adopting healthy habits.
To become an effective, high-performing remote worker, take these steps:
- Establish boundaries – Contrary to popular belief, many remote workers work too much. Set and honor boundaries between your personal and work life.
- Choose your workspace carefully – Work somewhere with minimal distractions. Be sure family members or roommates know not to interrupt you when you’re working.
- Schedule time for breaks – Take time for activities, such as exercising midday, that bring you energy and refreshment.
- Create your own schedule – Figure out the times of day when you are most productive and work during those hours.
- Don’t isolate yourself – Take time to connect with your co-workers, either virtually or in person.
- Stay present and focused – Don’t try to multi-task during conference calls; give meetings your full attention.
- Build relationships – Get to know your teammates virtually.
- Build your culture – Nourish your company values and live them authentically; share ideas on ways to enhance your company culture; and hire or provide referrals to potential employees you view as good cultural fits.
About the Author
Larry English is the co-founder and president of the management and consulting firm, Centric Consulting.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Crap, We’ve Started a Virtual Company
- Chapter 1: Remote Work 101: It’s All about Trust
- Chapter 2: Digging Deep to Discover Your Virtual Culture
- Chapter 3: The Most Important Parts of Your Culture Can’t Always Be Taught
- Chapter 4: How to Hire Culture Amplifiers and Virtual Work Superstars
- Chapter 5: Scaling Your Culture with a Cultural Training Program
- Chapter 6: Separate but Connected: How to Build Strong Virtual Relationships
- Chapter 7: Impactful In-Person Meetings, Unforgettable Memories, and Deep Bonds
- Chapter 8: Continuous Feedback, Continuous Culture Improvement
- Chapter 9: Crappy Collaboration Tools Can Sink Your Culture
- Chapter 10: The Secrets to Becoming an Outstanding Virtual Team Member
- Conclusion: Building Culture Never Ends
- Appendix: Centric Consulting Culture Awards 2008-2019
- About the Author
Virtual work isn’t the model of the future-it’s here now. But many companies struggle with setting their employees free from the office without sacrificing culture. Centric Consulting president Larry English is here to guide the way.
Twenty years ago, Larry and his friends weren’t happy in their consulting jobs. The long hours took a serious toll on their personal lives. So they built their own company where employees could work virtually and the culture would contribute to both the business’s success and employee happiness.
Since then, Centric Consulting has expanded to over 1,000 team members with operations in 12 US cities and India-and everyone works remotely some or most of the time. As Larry unpacks everything he’s discovered about creating and sustaining a culture of collaborative teams, you’ll learn:
- How and why you need to cultivate an atmosphere of trust in a virtual environment
- How to recruit and hire team members for remote work
- How to build strong relationships with people you don’t see every day
- How to scale your virtual company without sacrificing culture
- How the right software tools can help build culture
- How to be a great virtual team member
Sprinkled with funny, insightful stories from Larry and other Centric employees, Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams is the ultimate guidebook to remote work and a successful virtual culture.
“If there was ever a time to know how to build a virtual workforce, this is it. Larry English gives you a step-by-step plan to build it out, create the right culture, and avoid costly mistakes.” – Shep Hyken, customer service and experience expert and New York Times bestselling author
“Office Optional is full of critical culture guidance and practical advice for not just running a successful virtual company but for running any company. I also run a nearly virtual company and thought I had it figured out, but Larry’s book shared ideas and insights I had never considered. This is great content for the beginner as well as people already well-versed in remote working. Don’t miss this timely read!” – Lisa Stein, founder and CEO of Revolutions, Inc.
“We are wired for connection, and Office Optional is coming in the nick of time. Every executive, entrepreneur, and small business owner will want to read this book now. Larry serves up bite-sized strategies and tactics interlaced with engaging stories that bring to life what it’s really like when you create a virtual culture, not just a virtual workforce.” – Laura Cooke, CEO of Positive Foundry
“The transition from an office to remote isn’t a trend, it’s our new normal. If your company can’t work remotely, you can’t compete. Both as an entrepreneur, and leading products within Microsoft, remote teams have been my secret weapon. They’ve unlocked access to top talent, speed to execution, and a cost efficiency that’s helped me drive 10-times results in diverse sets of environments. In learning from Larry in Office Optional, I’m excited for you to make remote work your secret weapon too.” – Matthew Mottola, product leader, author of The Human Cloud, built the Microsoft 365 freelance toolkit
“Wherever you and your company are on the continuum of working from home, Office Optional is an important read. Larry shares practical lessons, specific tactics, and many detailed examples from his team in an accessible and informative approach. Centric’s story emphasizes the key strategic value that results from intentionally creating and supporting a strong company culture in a virtual world. A strong culture isn’t just an abstract idea in Office Optional. Larry brings culture creation to life with specific strategies, tactics, and stories to support the journey. When 20 years of experience is contained in such an easy-to-digest book, there is no need to invent our own unique solutions as we seek to thrive in a virtual or hybrid workplace.” – Kent Johnson, CEO of Highlights for Children
“It’s very clear that enabling remote work is more important than ever, and that it will continue to have lasting value beyond the COVID-19 outbreak. We are committed to building the tools that help organizations, teams, and individuals stay productive and connected even when they need to work apart. Thanks to Larry and Centric for sharing how Microsoft Teams is doing just that in Office Optional.” – Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365
“I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to speak to hundreds of companies. I found Centric to have not only such an enthusiastic culture of happy people, but a C-suite that was thinking ahead of the curve rather than being late adopters. Larry is so quick to create such a useful book in a time when all industries are scrambling to embrace the new frontier of remote work! He is staying ahead of the curve and ensuring collective communication and company growth through creating virtual protocol that will bond, inform, and keep everyone rocking! You go, Brother Larry!” – Mark Schulman, drummer for P!nk, speaker, author