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Maintaining company culture in a virtual world

Have you ever been a part of a company culture that meshes perfectly with your values and personality? 

If you have, then you know that it can be an empowering and motivating experience. Strong company cultures help keep employees engaged, committed, and invested in the organization’s future. 

66% of job seekers consider a company’s culture and values as the most important factor when exploring career opportunities. That statistic should be a head-turner for any organization that doesn’t have a clear vision for its company culture and a process to nurture it.

Of course, maintaining company culture can be especially difficult in 2020 with the pivot to remote work. In this article, we’ll walk you through some tips for how to build and maintain a strong company culture and values virtually. 

But first, let’s take a step back.

What is company culture?

Company culture is the shared values, attributes, behaviors, and characteristics that an organization and the people within hold and prioritize. It’s a shared ethos within an organization that dictates the way that employees feel about the work that they do, the values they believe in, and their vision for the company’s future. 

The best company cultures are evident every day in the way employees interact with each other and the decision they make both as individuals and for the company’s collective good. 

It can be difficult to define company culture, as it’s an abstract term that touches virtually every corner of an organization, including:

  • Work environment
  • Mission
  • Leadership styles
  • Feedback policies
  • Values
  • Ethics
  • Expectations
  • Goals
  • Employer brand 

How an organization structures its leadership style, specifically, can have a significant impact on a company’s culture. 

For example, hierarchical leadership styles will create a more formal culture where expectations and job descriptions are set and somewhat rigid. 

On the other hand, team-based cultures decentralize leadership and encourage employees to take on new roles and responsibilities as needed to complete a task or project. 

The culture you choose and nurture at your organization will be unique to you. It must fit your organization’s needs and structure, while also being reflective of the people you hire. 

Now that we’ve defined company culture let’s discuss why it’s important. 

Why is company culture important?

Company culture impacts virtually every aspect of your business: from recruitment to performance to retention. 

As mentioned at the start of this article, job seekers prioritize company culture very highly when considering a new job. There’s a reason for this. People want to work for a company that’s aligned with their goals and values. If they don’t, then it’s likely that they’ll look elsewhere. 

This concept is at the core of why company culture is so important. It influences outcomes from the top to the bottom of an organization and can dramatically affect an organization’s long-term success. Strong company cultures make people feel like they can move mountains. Weak ones make people question why they should even try. 

When organizations take the time to communicate their values and nurture a distinct company culture, some pretty amazing things happen, including: 

  • Employees understand what is expected of them and their peers and act according to those values and goals.
  • Employees are more likely to enjoy their work and stay for the long term.
  • Employees build stronger relationships with their peers.
  • Teams become more aligned and committed to a collective outcome. 

Engagement, satisfaction, and retention are the three best byproducts of strong company culture. And the company culture statistics prove that point:

When you consider what company culture is, those stats make a lot of sense. Employees spend a lot of their lives at work and away from their families. They want to work in a job or for a company that offers more than just a paycheck if they have the option. As a result, most employees will actively seek out companies whose culture aligns with their own life priorities. 

But how does one go about building a strong company culture? We’ll dig into that in the next two sections.

Tips for building a strong company culture

While it’s clear that strong company culture and values are important for long term success, it’s often less clear for business owners how to actually go about building one. 

That’s because company culture is somewhat abstract. A large part of it is built organically through specific decisions that are made over time, and it can sometimes morph into a culture that the business owner didn’t envision in the first place.

The fluidity of company culture is one reason why it’s so important for business owners and managers to have an active hand in helping to create it. 

Employees and teams will create their own cultures whether you like it or not, but there are steps you can take to ensure that this organic growth is channeled toward the values and goals that are important to strategic success. 

Here are some techniques that business owners can use to help build a strong company culture: 

  1. Choose your leadership style. Do you want your organization to have a more traditional, top-down leadership style? Or will open collaboration and cross-functional teamwork yield better results? Picking how you want to manage your employees is the first step to setting the tone for the rest of your company culture. 
  2. Establish your company values. Next, you’ll want to think hard about the values you hold personally and as an organization. If you’re a founder or CEO, then the values you hold and convey in your work will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of your employees. Determine what values you want to prioritize as an organization, and communicate them across the company. These are the guiding light for everything your employees do on behalf of the company.
  3. Draw a line in the sand. Who do you want to be, and who do you not want to be? Clearly establish what characteristics you want to encourage at your organization, and which ones are not part of your vision. Drawing a line in the sand will help you firmly establish what your organization stands for, which will help guide your company culture going forward. 
  4. Involve your entire team. Company culture is, by nature, a team construct. Leadership might dictate the values and leadership style, but it’s the employees who build the culture. Be sure that you always involve your employees in key decisions about your company culture. Survey their responses, communicate changes, and get their feedback. 
  5. Write it down. Once you have a firm handle on your values and culture statement, write it down. Record the collective vision for your company culture, and store it in a centralized, easily accessible location. Educate new hires on that culture statement, regularly remind employees that it exists, and find it. 
  6. Communicate expectations internally. Part of company culture is setting expectations for how to interact with employees, carry yourself at work, and engage with customers. These expectations should be communicated clearly via your internal channels. Educate your managers on the expectations and ask them to maintain those expectations at the team level. This brings us to the next point. 
  7. Make sure leadership is setting the right example. You can’t have one set of cultural expectations for employees and a different set for management. Instead, leadership should be the biggest champions for your organization and your values. Leading by example, is crucial to developing and maintaining the company culture that you’re trying to create. 
  8. Let it grow organically. Of course, company culture is just that – a culture. It’s a product of your entire organization and all employees within it. Even with setting expectations and establishing processes to meet them, your culture will still grow organically. Let that happen. The relationships that are formed between employees and managers who share a common commitment to the end goal are at the core of what it means to have a strong company culture. Nurture that organic growth. 

Of course, the tips outlined above are great for building a company culture during normal times. Unfortunately, 2020 is far from normal time. Many people are working virtually or not at all. This puts a lot of strain on companies and makes it difficult to maintain the cultures that employees have become accustomed to.

Additional reading: 8 steps to implementing culture change in the workplace

In the next section, we’ll outline some ways that you can maintain your company culture in a remote work world. 

Maintaining your company culture virtually 

The biggest challenge with virtual work is the lack of physical communication between co-workers. Everything has to be done either through email, chat, or video conferencing. This creates a number of challenges, including:

  • Confused, missed, or lack of communication
  • A disconnect between employees and departments
  • Decreased visibility into what’s going on at the organization, and a lack of motivation as a result
  • Lack of socializing and relationship building with co-workers 

As mentioned earlier, clear communication, a shared commitment to a common goal, and strong relationships are all the drivers behind a strong company culture. Working virtually has largely disrupted that, meaning companies need to find alternative ways to foster and maintain their cultures. 

Luckily, this disruption is happening during a time when there is no lack of virtual communication tools to keep organizations connected and rowing in the same direction. Now is the time to focus on finding new and innovative ways to communicate with your teams. 

If you’re struggling to maintain your best company culture virtually, then try some of these tips: 

  1. Double and triple down on communicating your values and expectations. Now is the time to remind employees that your values and expectations are still in place, even if people are working remotely. 
  2. Publish your cultural statements in a centralized location. If you haven’t done so already, make sure that your cultural statement is easily accessible on a company intranet, or on the website. 
  3. Encourage feedback and two-way dialogue. Keep two-way lines of communication open across your organization. Get feedback on what’s working and what needs improvement. Use that feedback to change your approaches to virtual work. 
  4. Welcome new employees to the global team. Make sure that new hires feel welcome, even if they’re not in the office. Encourage hiring managers to send company-wide emails when new employees join the team and set up virtual introductions with their co-workers. 
  5. Set expectations for communication. Be clear about how often and when employees should communicate with their peers. Set expectations for email response times and working hours. 
  6. Onboard new technologies to enable casual chats. Water cooler chats are a huge part of developing strong relationships. Find tools that will enable these casual chats virtually. Slack, MS Teams, and Skype all have group chat capabilities that you can consider. 
  7. Measure engagement and morale. Send out regular pulse checks and employee satisfaction surveys to see how your employees are doing. Gauge their morale and overall sentiment toward virtual work. Take feedback and recommendations to heart, and implement whatever changes you can to better make the remote work experience. 
  8. Encourage team-building activities, and provide the resources to make them happen. Carve out time for Friday afternoon drinks over video chat. Host virtual game nights of watch parties. Continue your lunch breaks virtually. Any activity that you can think of to bring your team together for casual, fun conversations will go a long way to maintaining the relationships and culture that you’ve worked hard to create. 
  9. Turn on your cameras. Face-to-face conversations are more important than ever now. Encourage your employees to turn on their cameras for video calls to make them more personal and engaging. 
  10. Encourage participation in local communications. And share those local experiences with the global team. Sharing stories of community engagement will help to create a sense of global commitment to the greater good. 

As challenging as this year has been for many organizations and employees around the world, there has never been a better time to pivot to virtual working. The tools and technology are in place to make transitioning to a remote company culture easier and more sustainable. 

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, communication is the key to success in building the best company culture. Define your values and goals as an organization. Communicate them regularly so that everyone in the organization knows they exist and buys into the collective effort. 

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