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Culture and the virtual workforce

Remote working has become a critical issue for many organisations in the world today. As governments apply ever-stricter measures to deal with COVID-19, many enterprises are being forced to rapidly extend or adopt new ways of working, just to keep their business going.

However, beyond the immediate crisis, there are forces at play that mean that many of these changes won’t be temporary. Quite the contrary, as the nature of work, the workforce and the workplace go through unprecedented change, virtual teams are set to become a much larger and more important feature of modern business.

If that wasn’t enough change to deal with, organisational culture is also going through a transformation. Culture has become a key driver of competitive advantage, driving exceptional customer experiences and loyalty, innovation and productivity. It underpins speed, consistency and risk management. As trust in ‘the establishment’ plummets, positive organisational cultures have become a key tool for communicating organisational purpose, values and meaning to customers. In fact, culture is fast becoming a vital cornerstone of any organisation’s commercial proposition.

That means most organisations must now build and nurture a much more powerful organisational culture across a much more distributed, diverse and disparate workforce.

Unsurprisingly, that’s easier said than done!

Virtual teams have much less opportunity to build the emotional connections within and between teams that are the bedrock of collaboration. A greater proportion of the workforce will not go through traditional cultural engagement mechanisms geared to on-site staff. A broader, more complicated mix of national and ethnic values, time-zones and languages, motivations and aspirations will pull organisational cultures in more directions at once.

So how do leaders build and maintain strong cultures in the digital age, when a much larger proportion of the workforce is no longer co-located under one roof, isn’t a direct employee and has higher expectations of the culture they align to? How do leaders build the emotional and social connections that are strong enough to transcend the additional variables of space and time? How do they forge productive business relationships within and between virtual teams, enabling essential knowledge to be shared, problems solved and customer loyalty enhanced?

Focus on creating deeper, stronger emotional bonds. As change becomes constant, it is even more important to give workforces – external partners as well as employees - a powerful, shared purpose to keep them focussed, unified and inspired:

o That means organisations have to be ultra-clear on what their mission is, and ultra-clear on the values and behaviours that help achieve it. They need to constantly, clearly and concisely communicate their purpose internally to their workforces and externally to all their talent marketplaces. They should bake their values into everyone’s performance management metrics, reinforcing the importance of positive shared behaviours in delivering commercial results.

o Next, give virtual teams more responsibility and control. Workers are more motivated when they perceive they can choose the actions that achieve business goals, endowing their activity with a stronger sense of meaning. Giving people the chance to ‘own’ their outputs strengthens personal accountability, not only to the organisation, but to the projects that deliver the desired results.

o Finally, improve the key talent experiences all talent goes through to bind talent to culture and inspire commitment and performance. Define the ‘moments of truth’ throughout the talent lifecycle, iteratively refining them using employee feedback or inviting employees to redesign their own talent experiences / write their own recruitment adverts.

Proactively build a sense of community. As teams become more distributed, diverse and discerning, it is even more important to find ways to build the mutual trust and respect that are key to unlocking collaboration. Building a sense of community creates an atmosphere that encourages teamwork and loyalty, self-regulates positive behaviours while incentivising teams to strive for better outcomes:

o Leaders are critical in engendering kinship. They need to share more, communicating critical information while openly acknowledging mistakes and failures. They must connect more, building relationships with suppliers and colleagues outside their immediate workstreams, while empowering their teams to do the same. And they need to trust more, delegating tasks to more junior workers or sharing sensitive insights.

o Next, create virtual ‘water-cooler’ opportunities. As people spend less time collaborating face to face, they often lose the spontaneous moments that forge new connections, strengthen relationships or innovate new solutions. Create on-line spaces where workers can connect and collaborate outside of fixed teams or workstreams.

o Focus on collaboration as both a skill and behaviour. It may sound obvious, but you cannot build a community if the people in it only behave as individuals. Ensure recruitment/promotion processes actively screen for emotional intelligence (EQ), communication skills and empathy. And be sure to screen these attributes as much with external partners and third parties as with employees.

Invest in ongoing, prescriptive cultural interventions. Leaders cannot sit back and wait for culture to blossom organically across their distributed workforce. Instead, they must proactively and continuously shape it, providing the focus, frameworks, systems and processes that reinforce the right values while proactively confronting the challenges that distract or derail culture from enabling the mission:

o Culture needs to be continuously reinforced, protected and evolved, making it as much part of operational as capital expenditure. Budget for regular, small, meaningful everyday interventions rather than large glitzy annual events that tend to be limited to the few (and are quickly forgotten)!

o Set up deliberate habits and routines that constantly reinforce cultural values and behaviours. That might be at key touchpoints within workstream lifecycles (project kick-off, onboarding, milestones), on session agendas or at performance review meetings. Provide clear guidance on working practices and principals, and provide the next layer of detail that helps workforce apply critical values in the real world.

o Invest in good collaboration technology, but more importantly invest in ongoing management and training to use it effectively. Encourage everyone to communicate on a single communication platform, including external partners, and set up shared pages where team objectives can be consistently communicated and assets carefully curated. Create channels where industry intelligence can be shared, new opportunities published and solutions crowdsourced. Provide regular training so the right information can be shared on the right channels quickly, simply and transparently.

As work, workforces and workplaces evolve beyond recognition, strong organisational cultures will rely on a powerful unifying purpose, underpinned by deeper emotional connections, a stronger sense of community and a constant commitment to nurturing the right values and behaviours. Without each of these in place, they will struggle to capitalise on fast moving opportunities or defend against threats.

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