Leading and Growing Company Culture in Hybrid and Remote Work Environments by Richard A. Berkowitz, JD, CPA
COVID-19 literally forced businesses to close their doors in 2020 and begin the process of adapting to remote-work arrangements. With many companies reporting surprisingly higher levels of productivity and profitability, the economics of the new paradigm have been favorable. Today, however, as it becomes clear that hybrid work schedules are here to stay, businesses are struggling to maintain the same levels of efficiency while noticing troubling side effects resulting from the virtual work environment. Navigating these unique environments with team members in different locations requires senior management to learn and practice new skills to keep everyone connected, engaged and energized.
Senior management needs to remember that their offices are not merely physical buildings where their employees go to get work done and be productive. Work is not a place where people go! Instead, offices are living and breathing hubs of activity, where team members have opportunities to regularly connect, collaborate and work together toward shared goals and missions that form each company’s unique culture. By their very nature, hybrid work arrangements can create an array of missed opportunities for team members who are not in the office on the same days. Physical separation robs them of the ability to pop into colleagues’ offices for quick updates or bump into them in the hallway to catch up and build the social connections and camaraderie required for trusting relationships to develop. Consequently, each interaction between virtual team members requires a higher degree of intention, preparation and focus.
The following are some approaches senior management should consider to counter a slowly diminishing business culture that results from the lack of spontaneous interaction and the absence of team members’ working together in the office.
Be Prepared. Virtual meetings are rarely spontaneous. Unlike accidental encounters with colleagues in the hallway or snack room, they demand advanced planning to coordinate schedules between attendees. By the same token, you can demonstrate to participants that you respect their time and recognize the importance of that call by preparing in advance. For example, you may spend time before the meeting conducting research, utilizing project management software, preparing and practicing your presentation, outlining your key messages and reviewing the intentions you wish to communicate to your teammates.
Be Present. Zoom makes it far too easy for team members to zone out or focus their attention away from the matter at hand, whether they type on their keyboards or turn away from the camera to talk to someone outside the screen. These behaviors convey to meeting participants that the call is not important to you, and your time can be better spent on other tasks. Instead, be deliberate in your words and actions, paying close attention to your nonverbal behaviors and cues that are more likely to be misinterpreted on a video call than in a face-to-face meeting.
Build Trust and Community. Hybrid work schedules come with higher levels of independence and autonomy, which can be a double-edged sword for all team members. While it is important to encourage teammates to be self-reliant, they must be careful to avoid falling victim to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Team members should be encouraged to communicate and connect with their colleagues regularly, whether it is to give a status update, ask questions, share good news or celebrate each other’s achievements. Encourage open and transparent communication among team members through regular check-ins, video meetings and other forms of communication. Make it easy for them to share ideas and feedback.
Team leaders must also strive to foster an environment where every team member feels connected and valued. One way to accomplish this is to dedicate time during each virtual meeting to simply catch up on personal matters, such as asking about holiday plans, following up after a recent vacation, or asking how each person is doing. Special care should be taken to avoid making all team interactions transactional; after all, trusted relationships are built on far more than accomplishing tasks.
Be Mindful of Others’ Unique Needs and Goals. Effective leaders recognize that each team member is unique, with different personalities, strengths, weaknesses and motivations. This requires you to take the time to get to know your teammates, personally and professionally, to ensure they have the information they need to move a project forward and achieve their own professional and personal successes. Clearly communicate expectations and goals, making sure remote team members understand what is expected of them and how their work fits into the overall goals of the company. Also make it a point to communicate how the company’s goals correlate with the team members’ goals.
Give Team Members the Tools they Need to Succeed. Not only should team leaders ensure colleagues have the physical tools they need to be productive, but they should also take the time to check in on team members to identify other areas where support may be needed. This may involve addressing team members’ concerns about a specific project, a client issue or even the skills they want to hone to advance their careers. You can also empower team members by giving them the authority to make decisions and take ownership of their work. It is critical you cultivate a culture that recognizes and rewards team members for their contributions and hard work. Encourage a positive work-life balance. Set boundaries around work hours and make sure teammates tend to their physical and mental wellbeing by taking breaks and time off when needed. You can also offer resources, such as wellness programs and mental health support, while making certain that those who are responsible for mentoring teammates actually focus on checking in on how the team members are doing.
Make Time for Face-to-Face Connections. Despite the flexibility and other benefits that may come with hybrid work schedules, the fact remains that face-to-face human interactions are where culture is created, traditions are developed and relationships are built. New members of a team will only experience the firm culture when they interact with other team members in the office.
Rather than trying to get all team members in the office at the same time on the same date, encourage them to coordinate their schedules to take advantage of the office’s superior technology and resources to get their work done more efficiently. Make your office inviting and promote comradery by providing ample snacks and food and decorating for the holiday seasons. Also, have the management team available on those days when there will be a maximum number of people in the office. Consider the extraordinary benefits of connection you can create by organizing gatherings of teammates for social events, technical training, professional training, fellowship sessions or simply to celebrate your shared successes.
Amplify Your Efforts to Inculcate Company Culture. If there is a perception that company culture is slipping, you will have to redouble your efforts to support it and build it back up. The tone at the top of a company is crucial to preserving its culture. The culture of great organizations always warms those outside the main campfire. Make sure you have transparent and open communication by sharing company updates and progress regularly with all teammates. Be clear in conveying your company’s vision, mission and core values and constantly reiterate that your culture is fully integrated with those principles. Promote leadership and motivate teammates to pursue opportunities and take risk; have regular check-ins and addressing concerns they may have. Equip them with the training, tools and resources they need to take on new challenges and try new things to help them succeed. Finally, you can build a strong company culture by consistently modeling the values and behaviors you want to see in your company.
About the Author: Richard A. Berkowitz, JD, CPA, is founding and executive chairman of Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs and Provenance Wealth Advisors (PWA), where he provides business consulting, growth strategies and succession-planning consulting to entrepreneurs and companies. He can be reached at the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., office at (954) 712-7000 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.