Senior consultant scarlettabbott
In association with
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The remote revolution: how working from home is changing company culture

Company culture has often historically been tethered to the physical working environment, but now that swathes of us are working remotely – and this way of working could continue into the future – do we need to reassess our approach? What should leaders be thinking about now to support their people in the long term? 

1st Jun 2020
Senior consultant scarlettabbott
In association with
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Girl hands on white background. Concept of making choice. Vector illustration.
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As we settle into our new world laden with all its frustrations of technology, boundaries and balance, workplace culture and its role in galvanising workforces and driving organisations forward has never been more clearly exposed.

Culture is a manifestation of the meaning we attach to things. It can be about processes, behaviours or our physical spaces. 

Leaders are looking for lessons to be learned from the pandemic, a line in the sand from which future cultures will be defined. Long before Covid-19 was hailed as a catalyst for culture change, however, we had already begun to consider the cultural impact of remote working.

Two sides of the culture coin

In client research conducted by Scarlettabbott in November 2019, we noticed a stark difference between how those based in offices and those based predominantly at home or working remotely perceived the organisation’s culture.

Office employees spoke in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’, a recognition of their collective day-to-day working life. Those based remotely referenced the culture from the perspective of ‘I’, speaking more from personal experience.

Surprisingly, remote workers felt more attuned to the way they had to navigate the culture to collaborate and manage activities. They were already very aware of the challenges of not being based with the rest of their team in an office environment. They also recognised the common obstacles – it’s harder to be seen when you’re remote, so both great work and poor behaviour can go under the radar.

For office workers, the opposite was true. Highly visible behaviour and team working meant presenteeism was often mistaken for collaboration and hard work. They looked to the current and physical things around them as representations of their culture – the breakout spaces, the meeting rooms, their bank of desks. Remote workers reflected, forming their definition of culture from their experiences and the history of the organisation.

The risks and rewards of remote working

Culture is a manifestation of the meaning we attach to things. It can be about processes, behaviours or our physical spaces. Different anchors give us different experiences of an organisation’s culture – the insights of our study on remote and office-based workers tell us this.

Pre-pandemic, we used to rely on the cultural touchstones of tea rounds and conferences. We let our office spaces – carefully designed to power collaboration – do the cultural heavy lifting. Now we are building our new remote environment, our cultural anchors will be different.

Long-term, we may come to rely less on the physical space and more on our experience of process and behaviours. As the remote workers found, the remote experience focused less on visible presenteeism and more on understanding and navigating the challenges and barriers to collaboration.

Previously, organisations with multi-locational workforces may have keenly sensed a feeling of ‘them and us’, we’re now united by our shared experience, complete with its pitfalls and potential. There’s no doubt workplace transitions are ahead of us. Success will depend on how well we understand our own organisation’s dominant culture, and its traits, to support our people in readiness for this.

What makes you strong? Who do people look to? What motivates your people? What gets in their way? These are just some questions to explore.

What should leaders be doing now?

In any single organisation there are often many different types of culture. When what employees want and what they actually get from a culture is at odds, challenge follows. Cultural gaps, left unchecked, can widen into chasms that can become a fractured workforce.

We don’t know what the future holds, but if we begin to explore it now, we can get to grips with how our cultures are changing. Leaders can make meaningful decisions to benefit their people in the coming months and beyond by understanding the nuances pertinent to their organisations.

Culture change in an uncertain world

Get to know your culture, and leverage it

Culture can be taken for granted or perceived as too nebulous to get a handle on. It can also be a false goal to aspire to – we’ve all known leaders who want their organisation to ‘be like Google’. With the right frameworks, you can understand and harness it.

Take the opportunity now to get to know your culture and its characteristics. What makes you strong? Who do people look to? What motivates your people? What gets in their way? These are just some questions to explore.

Encourage your influencers

Different cultural types will have different influencers. These are the micro-leaders your people look to in times of change and uncertainty, or for inspiration. Right now, these people might be less visible than before. Getting them front and centre is a way to establish some reassuring norms.

Understanding your cultural type will help you to really get to know your influencers, but there are some broad ways you can look at it:

  • If you’re organised in silos and the work is defined by the job description, then your wider leadership team needs to be at the forefront.
  • If you’re entrepreneurial and dynamic, your CEO or MD will be who your people want to see.
  • Where you’re innovative and customer centric, showcase the creatives and those with expertise.
  • Where you’re independent experts, bound by a common purpose, external experts will carry the most weight.

Take the time to listen

It might seem obvious, but are you actively and objectively listening to your people? Not just through surveys, but through objective and unbiased one-to-ones or workshop-style focus groups. Observe rather than elicit the answer you want to truly understand what your people’s worlds of work feel like right now.

Stay close to this insight. Be prepared to react or challenge the feedback, to face it head on, or to dial up the behaviours that motivate your people, as you evolve and adapt as an organisation.

Are you creating a better culture for your organisation and its people?

HRZone has recently launched Culture Pioneers to support and celebrate the people practitioners dedicated to transforming company culture in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you're doing good work in this area, we want to hear your story!

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