Can you build a strong culture with employees working remotely?

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The coronavirus pandemic has created a huge shift in working practices, and as a result, the world has had to adapt to remote workforces. With the final restrictions being lifted and ‘normality’ set to resume, many businesses are dealing with the challenges associated with having dispersed employees. As a result, Business Leader have gained the views of some industry experts to understand the best practices in creating and maintaining a strong work culture.

Although millions of employees are returning to the workplace, many other businesses are keeping a hybrid or remote workforce. Whether that is due to a decision by senior management or workers still unsure on the best way to proceed for their own personal beliefs, it can be a headache for a business owner to make the right decision.

In the midst of this conundrum lies the issue of creating the perfect environment for a business to lay the foundations for success post-Covid-19.

Whether a business is in ‘recovery mode’ or looking to scale, at the heart of it all is the driving force of any company – its employees.

Strong working culture

With so much disruption facing almost every sector, the businesses that have survived the pandemic have now started looking to the future – and are deciding on how to proceed. Part of that mission is to have an environment that encourages a productive and engaging workforce. But what does this look like in reality – especially considering the impact of the pandemic?

Breathe CEO Jonathan Richards, explains: “Culture is a term which is difficult to define. It’s the intangible fabric of a business, the atmosphere when you walk into the office.

“Company culture is now so much more. It’s how a company cultivates business growth by offering each employee a voice, while encouraging healthy day-to-day attitudes, behaviours and work ethics. Nowadays jobs aren’t for life and employees are looking for employment in companies that have meaningful purpose, values and a sense of responsibility. How employees view work has changed. A great company culture encourages personal growth, offers flexibility, fosters trust, encourages risk taking and offers praise and acknowledgement.”

Jo Lyon, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Talking Talent, agrees: “A strong workplace culture is an inclusive one; one that nurtures each worker to perform at their best, grow to their full potential, and be themselves. Achieving this is, however, not a straightforward path. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect workplace culture’ and this style of thinking can cause businesses to adopt a ‘tick box’ mentality that only produces surface level results. Adaptability, proactiveness, and a commitment to growth is what defines a strong workplace culture in 2021. Ultimately, unless managers are consistently reviewing and improving their workplace culture, they risk their business falling behind.”

Like many parts of work and life as a whole, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people analyse their careers and what they truly want for their futures.

Jamie Mackenzie, Director at Sodexo Engage, explains: “Pre-Covid, it was far too easy for businesses to think of company culture only in terms of a swish office, with fun, but inconsequential benefits like free snacks and pool tables. However, with time away from this, many now realise that workplace culture runs far deeper. For the large part, we have seen organisations really come together and support their employees through hard times. For some this might have been more flexible hours to suit childcare or providing help and support with any mental health issues that have come about following large periods of time at home. Those that have put their people first will find that they have a much more loyal team who feel valued and supported. This is hugely important.

“After such a long time away from the workplace, many employees will be reconsidering everything from their employer, their role to their purpose. If the workplace culture is not up to scratch, many will search for it elsewhere. Employers need to leverage all the tools in their arsenal to demonstrate what their culture is, where their values lie, and how these are meaningful and align with their peoples’ values.”

Is it possible?

With the definition and application of a culture within a business changing due to the pandemic, many companies will be looking at the best practices for adapting to the new working world.

Business Leader spoke to Salford Business School to see if it feasible to implement new strategies to create a strong, post-Covid working culture.

Kathy Hartley, Lecturer in People Management said: “Leaders can shape culture to some extent, build a strong culture, but it is also something that tends to emerge in a more spontaneous way as people work together. Where more people work remotely, and their physical interactions with leaders are less, they need to be more aware than ever as to whether their actions match their words. We’ve seen examples recently which show how easy it can be for very driven, competitive, entrepreneurial leaders to unintentionally create a strong culture within their organisation, but one that employees see as less than healthy. When we discussed this, Rebecca and I both honed-in on the fact that trust, flexibility and openness will be needed to build a strong, healthy culture as we emerge from this pandemic.”

Rebecca Collins, Managing Director at Chapel House Training continues: “I think there are certain questions leaders need to be asking themselves at this point. Firstly, how are they are going to take care of themselves, to ensure that they remain resilient and able to deal with the next stage of organisational life? That’s really important. Secondly, are they brave enough, and do they have the skills needed, to review whether their values and way of doing things are fit for purpose? I see this as a real opportunity for organisations to review what they do and how they do it, think about what their purpose is and what really matters. There’s a danger now of a boomerang effect, where in some cases the true culture of an organisation comes bouncing back, and that’s not what many employees want.”

With offices opening up again and new working routines being implemented after 18 months of being locked up – remote working still has a key role to play in the development of a successful culture.

Lyon comments: “While there are certainly challenges to building a strong workplace culture that accommodates remote working, it is achievable. It already offers a multitude of benefits to staff, particularly working parents, due to the lack of commuting time. This allows staff the freedom to commit more substantial time into family life, as well as more time into general health, wellbeing, and personal projects. If implemented correctly, with the appropriate boundaries in place, businesses can expect remote working measures to combat burnout and workplace dissatisfaction, while also supporting employees who face challenges attending offices full time to perform at their best.

“Moving into flexible working, this is more crucial than ever. Despite its many benefits, recent reports suggest there is a strong advantage for onsite workers around securing promotions and workplace accolades. With this in mind, businesses should strive to build a seamless environment for both remote and on-site workers, and ensure they have equal opportunity to take ownership of their work. Businesses can also look to supplement this by initiating dialogue with staff around workplace satisfaction, and by offering tangible solutions when remote workers feel alienated or undervalued. This can include improving the visibility over remote workers, such as through increasing the number of one-to-one meetings, or by re-structuring the hybrid working schedule to level the playing field.”

How to manage a dispersed workforce

The pandemic has changed how people view their employer and what they want from a career. This means that business owners now have to adapt to the changes as people head back to the office – and others remain remote.

It can be a minefield to manage, but there are some key tips to creating opportunities to scale – as well as keeping the workforce engaged and productive.

The first step is for the business owner to focus on their own skills related to managing a dispersed workforce.

Mark Allan, Commercial Director at Bupa UK, comments: “Research by Bupa UK has revealed, over the next 12 months 25% of the UK workforce would like to see initiatives to boost employee morale and 14% of UK employees would like to see their employers introduce polices encouraging workplace diversity and inclusion.

“The biggest lever though is quality of leadership at all levels. Those organisations that invest in developing leadership empathy and compassion will see enhanced rewards from their initiatives.”

And once those measures are in place, it is up to the business leader to manage the team through the end of the pandemic and beyond.

Ross Seychell, Chief People Officer at Personio, comments: “The key to managing a dispersed/hybrid workforce is to engage, communicate, and take them with you on your company vision and mission. Providing employees, regardless of where they are working, with a sense of common values and purpose will help maintain unity and productivity as we move forward.

“Leaders should check in regularly with employees – whether that’s on a 1-to-1 basis, in smaller groups or through companywide surveys. Each business is different and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing a dispersed workforce. But, by collecting feedback and adapting working procedures and practises accordingly, and ensuring business leaders are both accessible and approachable, businesses can find a management style that works for all.”

However, the biggest challenge facing companies with a hybrid model, is ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.

As the lines between home and work have been increasingly blurred, as a result of remote working, one mental health condition that is affecting employees is burnout. Research by Bupa UK has revealed over the last year Google UK searches increased by 45%.

Burnout is experienced when employees are under high levels of pressure and stress at work. Often the amount of stress feels uncontrollable, causing symptoms such as feeling negative towards work, emotional exhaustion, and lack of motivation.

Richards comments: “The main challenge is really understanding how people are really doing behind the screen. Monitoring wellbeing is enormously difficult when everyone is dispersed. In order to keep the culture together, leaders will need to focus on each individual and what they gain from the company, what they need and how to best help them if they are coming up against challenges. Investing in your people and giving them what they need from work is a great way of showing your commitment to their wellbeing not just as an employee, but as a human being.”

The power of tech

One of the key facets of managing a hybrid workforce as the pandemic ends, will be the correct utilisation of technology. The world has become accustomed to video conferencing platforms Zoom, Teams, etc – and have come to terms with their pros and cons. But how can tech like this help going forward?

Justin Small, Future Strategy Club’s CEO, comments: “One way tech can help is to have an always-on office camera and screen near the communal area so that at-home employees can chat with in-office employees during their breaks. We use Tandem, which is a great virtual office solution where employees are always live, and where conversations during the day are quick and easy. Combined with Miro, a team whiteboard – that allows everyone to share their thoughts and ideas with the team – the virtual office is no less connected and productive than the physical one. Add Slack and Trello to that – and you can argue that the physical office is the least productive option out of the two.”

However, it isn’t just tech that can help. During the pandemic, several businesses have come up with innovative ways to keep a happy and collaborative workforce – leading to a strong working culture.

Marcus Thornley, CEO and founder of Totem concludes: “Many companies are taking it upon themselves to build strong, positive workplace cultures post-COVID. Citigroup recently introduced Zoom-free Fridays in a bid to ease pandemic fatigue and build a more positive workplace culture. Other business leaders have acted on instinct – Bumble’s senior leadership team announced a closing of its offices for a week as it felt a collective burnout within the business’ employees. Both these initiatives were done to create a positive workplace culture and combat work related stress.

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