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Building a Sustainable Remote Culture

Almost a year has passed since the UK’s national shift to remote working and it looks like it’s here to stay. Although the end of the UK lockdown is in sight, 74% of firms plan to continue working from home, according to a survey by the Institute of Directors (IoD) and it’s easy to see why. Remote working is linked to higher employee satisfaction, higher productivity, increased collaboration and more efficiency. One common concern of remote working pertained to how teams could sustain long-term remote working without sacrificing team spirit or the company culture. The good news is, remote work doesn’t have to be a threat to your culture and, it could even be argued that, if your firm struggles with this, it might be a sign that your company culture is lacking. The foundations of a robust remote team culture aren’t worlds apart from practices you would use in the office.

So, what can you do to build a future-proof, sustainable remote work culture where all team members experience belonging, wherever they are in the world?

Identify and Communicate Core Values

To enforce your team culture, you have to know what it is. For many organisations, it isn’t that remote working undermines their culture, but that it exposes the weak spots within the existing culture.

HBR says it best:

“Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones”

When your company has clear core values that everyone understands, it doesn’t matter if you’re working in the same space or multiple different locations because you’re all working from a common position towards the same goals.

Many firms think they already have a set of core values, but now is a good time to reassess. This article by the Harvard Business Review outlines some of the common mistakes companies make when attempting to establish key values. It’s recommended reading and explains the difference between:

  • core values;
  • aspirational values;
  • permission-to-play values; and
  • accidental values.

When your core values are solid, your remote team culture will be too. Core values set the tone without being prescriptive about methods. One of the strengths of remote working is that each member of the team can tailor their working environment to their style and preferences to help them work smarter. Core values in a remote world mean that everyone is working with these ingrained principles at the forefront, while embracing their unique working styles and preferences, meaning everyone is empowered to bring their full selves to work.

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Foster High-Trust Relationships

Research published by Raconteur showed that employees in high-trust organisations are better collaborators, more productive, and more loyal than those in low-trust workplaces. Studies show that 74% of those in high-trust workplaces experience less stress, in turn, performing better at work, with 106% more energy and 50% higher productivity. Additionally, in this research by the Center for Neuroeconomics, high-trust companies saw 76% more engagement and 40% less burnout.

Remote working offers an unparalleled opportunity to be proactive about trusting your team, and what’s salient from the research is that creating a high-trust culture is a win-win scenario. It’s important to note that trust is slow to build and fast to lose. So, how can you nurture a high-trust environment when your team is dispersed? Trust is reciprocal, so it starts with you.

Here are some tips to consider:

Share openly to catalyse a ‘virtuous loop of trust’. This doesn’t mean oversharing but sharing the appropriate amount with the appropriate person. A good way to figure out what to share with whom is by sorting your relationships into ‘task trust’ and ‘relationship trust’ categories. In the former type, you can rely on these people to get the job done. In the latter type, you can confide in this person on a more relational level. The best working relationships house a hybrid of task and relationship trust – these are the ones to nurture!

Being open also makes you easier to read – another quality that adds to your overall trustworthiness.

Since going remote, we’ve lost full access to body language and tone – the 93% of communication that accounts for the underlying emotions and motives. This means we are left clutching at whatever social cues we can find through Zoom, which is harder than ever since we get a very limited view through the webcam. It’s extra difficult to understand people well when they aren’t easy to read, leading to all manner of avoidable misunderstandings.

One way around this is to overcommunicate. If you can’t hear someone on a call, say so. If you’re taking notes or are trying to listen, say so. As Professor Brené Brown says in her book, Dare to Lead, ‘clear is kind’. You’ll be easier to trust when you don’t leave other guessing and others will be more forthcoming with you in return, leading to that virtuous loop of trust.

Assume the best in others. A useful rule of thumb is Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. This isn’t to label others as ‘stupid’ (!) – but rather to consider other factors at play during a miscommunication. Are they or you distracted? Hungry? Stressed? Your relationships will be more positive when you start from a position of assuming the best intentions rather than deciding there is malintent behind certain behaviours. If you’re proven wrong, you can always set boundaries accordingly but starting with the benefit of the doubt goes a long way.

Stay in touch! You may not be able to see your co-workers in the flesh but regular phone or video chats will help you understand one another, keep the connection open, and tackle problems together. Just remember the above point about expressing yourself clearly, being mindful of the screen between you and your peers.

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Model the Remote Culture You Want to See

Core values only work when leaders are embodying them. After all, why should your team live these values if the person they trust doesn’t?

Laurel Farrer, founder of Distribute Consulting, said “Culture isn’t about proximity, it’s about connection. Be innovative as you remind your team that they are valued, appreciated, and recognised, regardless of location.”

Letting your team know they are valued is incredibly powerful. It allows them to feel more comfortable coming to you with feedback or suggestions, feeds that circle of trust, and creates psychological safety.

In short, if you want a culture of clear communication, be a clear communicator. If you want a culture of openness, be open, etc.

Of course, there are multiple other areas of remote working to be explored, such as workflows and productivity tips. But, it’s interesting to see how these day-to-day intricacies naturally follow on when you put the time and effort into building a strong remote work culture.

Some further articles to help you sustain your remote work culture include these from Gallup and Workable. Additionally, check out our recent article with Quiss and NetMotion on working from anywhere as well as insights from T-Tech on how to start a new job virtually.