How to build culture while being remote.
Can it be done? Yes it can.
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Happy Friday folks!
Summer is here and yesterday my daughter graduated pre-school and next year she’ll be in first class. Time flies and all of that.
I have a game plan for the newsletter during summertime, let’s see if I have time to follow through on the plan though…
But enough of the small talk. Let’s dive into today’s topic.
Let’s start with a disclaimer. This post won't be about why you need your company to offer flexibility or how to structure your days. If you are looking for that kind of post, I've written them in the past.
This post will be about the topic on many business leaders' minds these days - how do you build culture while being a remote company?
Elon Musk might not perhaps read this, but the rest of you are likely to think about it every now and then.
The article is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all approach. This is my view. My view might be limited. I don't know your context, etc, etc.
I've listened to podcasts and read articles, books, and tweets. I've then combined that with my own experiences. It is what it is, but hopefully, it can serve as some inspiration.
What is even culture?
Ten years ago (!), together with my friend Adam, I wrote a thesis about organizational culture and how culture evolves in an organization. This is (some) of the excerpt:
Organizational culture and values are popular concepts in companies and organizations, and many companies operate according to different values. The company where we conducted our study used to work with values actively, but this work has been discontinued in recent years. The study's goal is to investigate what happens to values in an organization when they are no longer actively communicated.
One of the books we used heavily in our thesis was Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein. It's perhaps not the funniest book out there, but it describes and explains organizational culture well. A very, VERY simplified way to describe this is that culture is made up of:
Artifacts - The things we can see and observe. Suppose there's a dress code (both formal and unofficial ones). Perhaps you have your values written on the walls? You've chosen to invest in a very fancy-schmancy coffee machine. And you regularly have gatherings, both informal and formal ones, that require in-person attendance? Artifacts!
Values - The values, norms, and ideas by which the organization wants to be guided and permeated. Often, these are explicit and characterize the artifacts that can be observed. Much of the values and norms of organizations are passed down from the founders and even the early management teams. At the same time, new and fresh ideas are often a necessary element in revitalizing and sustaining a thriving organization.
Underlying assumptions - The essence of organizational culture lies in the underlying assumptions that an organization carries, maintains, and builds upon.
These assumptions are often invisible, unconscious, and taken for granted by the organization's members, while they form a large part of the organization's self-image. There is an implicit consensus within the group about these assumptions, and dissent is often seen as unthinkable and may even be perceived as exclusionary.
These assumptions predict how group members perceive and deal with organizational problems while providing a stable and taken-for-granted basis for the organization's existence.
Enough of the theories! This is, after all, not a scientific paper. It's a newsletter that is supposed to be semi-funny as well.
So why do I even mention this? Because even though the world has evolved into this digital hybrid work, my guess (yes, I'm guessing) is that what makes up culture in our organizations has remained the same. We still need artifacts, we still need to work on our values, and we still need to acknowledge the underlying assumptions we all carry.
Can it even be done?
If I were to be given a bitcoin for every time I've heard this question, I would at least have five bitcoins. That would be nice. But it would also be nice to stop asking the question altogether. Of course it can. But it can't be done the same way we used to do it.
We can't throw up a cool poster that we think will define us, like some of us did in our rooms back in the 90s, clap our hands, and walk away. New times require new ways of creating these artifacts.
There are examples of organizations that are working remotely (very) successfully. And before you scream, "But they have ALWAYS been working remotely, that's cheating!" - yes, many of them have, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from them and other examples from across the internet.
Because almost everywhere you look on the internet where people are gathered one way or another, there's culture. Be it on Reddit or your local Facebook Group. There are specific rules and procedures to follow, manifested by such things as artifacts (look at us, we all have the same badge in our profile) or values (no, in this group we don't post pictures of our cats, that's not the group, Karen).
No, I'm not suggesting that you should turn your organization into the local buy and sell group on Facebook, but I want to make a case and point around that we can indeed breed culture online. But once again, it requires doing things differently than we have while we were (mostly) in our offices.
How to do it?
First and foremost, we have to update and, in some instances, replace our old artifacts. But not in all cases.
At the core of working together and creating a common culture is, at least for many of us, still a sense of belonging and trust. It would be wonderful if someone solved those basic needs through a tool, but unfortunately (?) we're not there yet. To many people’s despair, we still need to do and host the good old-fashioned "get to know each other" exercises. I know some people shuddered in horror, but yes, that is still how we connect. The difference now is that we might have to do it remotely.
Miro has a great list of exercises that you can do with your team. Or sell to the groups you are supporting. (All of which, unsurprisingly, also requires a Miro account.) Combine it with evali, and you'll have a great team day. (Yes, tooting my own horn very loudly here.)
Speaking of Miro. It's a tool. Perhaps a new tool. And tooling, like Miro and others, becomes more critical than ever. It's an area where we've seen incredible development since the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been new tools developed, but the existing ones are also significantly better than before.
These tools are now an essential part of your employee experience. Sucky tooling experience and sucky communication methods are equally awful employee experiences. Great tooling becomes an important artifact in the hybrid world. Intranet, collaboration tools, email - think about the user experience and the branding of all these tools. There's a reason why we see IT move into HR in some organizations.
Large meetings are also an excellent opportunity to foster culture, and it doesn't need to be in-person events. It can be done digitally, but it needs to be done with intention and planning. And yes, the presenters need to amp up their presentation skills. It doesn't need to be Apple Keynote-classy, but if they host frequent large presentations, it's probably a good idea to help them get even better at presenting. If you still run death-by-PowerPoint presentations - stop it. If you are mindful of employee experience, it's not a great employee experience to suffer endless slides with Arial 9 as the font and font size.
These things mattered before remote work, but matter even more now. It's the time and place to convey the organization's values (and is your organization an Arial 9 organization?), and it might be the only time some people see senior leadership. So, make sure that what they observe aligns with what you want to push forward.
There's an almost endless debate over whether you should book face-to-face time with your team or not; I'm in the camp that does believe that intentional face-to-face time, with the sole intention of building belonging and getting to know each other, is excellent.
Even if I'm a strong advocate for embracing the fully remote concept, I believe that coming together and meeting in person once or twice a year is a fantastic event. But culture will have to be worked on in-between, hence all the above. As always, this is not the perfect answer or solution on how to build culture, but hopefully, there are some takeaways, and hopefully, you can add more to the to-do list you already have.