As the world works its way out of a global pandemic, we find ourselves at a time like no other. Out of absolute necessity, countless workers across the globe learned to work remotely. And many people, having grown confident using new skills while having to adapt in a crisis, will be intent on permanently joining remote workforces.
It’s still early in the game, and as the spread of the Delta variant has shown, the pandemic may yet have some bitter surprises in store. But now is the time to begin thinking seriously about how best to build the culture of a global remote team.
Look Beyond the Tech
There is a lot to be said about the technical aspects of remote work, and how the pandemic has enormously accelerated the usage of specific technologies. Just two years ago, no one could have predicted that many millions of people would suddenly become power users of teleconferencing and collaboration software.
Such widespread adaptation of new technology can remind us of something a scholar at Harvard Business School wrote more than a half-century ago. Paul Lawrence, who spent a distinguished career studying people in organizations, said, “What employees resist is not technical change, but social change -- the change in their social relationships that generally accompanies technical change.”
In an article Lawrence published in early 1969, he contended that “blind spots” caused by a “preoccupation with the technical aspects of new ideas” led to resistance by employees.
Popular press coverage of remote work in the past year has largely focused on the technology. But heeding what Professor Lawrence wrote decades ago, we shouldn’t get preoccupied with the tech. We need to look beyond the technical aspects and focus most of our attention on building culture.
Smart leaders need to think creatively about how to build culture for a remote workforce in a post-pandemic world. Of course, lessons learned before the world was seriously disrupted will still apply. But there will likely be new considerations.
Classic Advice Still Works
When vast numbers of people began working remotely in the spring of 2020, some of the classic advice for remote workforces was published widely and no doubt proved helpful. Some pointers were:
Structured Daily Check-ins: A scheduled daily call, either on an individual basis or as a team call, naturally keeps people engaged. Ideally, workers and managers should openly communicate back and forth and questions or concerns can be addressed promptly.
Communication Beyond Email: The amazing surge in people using video services such as Zoom in the early months of the pandemic indicated that people need to communicate in a more interactive way than is allowed by simple email. There will be times when quick and even casual communication is more important than passing emails back and forth.
Establish “Rules of Engagement”: Letting remote workers know when and how they should communicate with managers and each other is always important.
Promote Some Social Interaction: In some circumstances, creating a social environment, though remotely, can help instill a positive influence. Everyone has heard stories of remote workers during the pandemic having virtual office parties to mark birthdays, or even simple and fun events such as showing off pets during video meet-ups.
Offer Encouragement: Remote workers who don’t receive positive feedback on their work can begin to wonder if their efforts even matter. Positive reinforcement matters, and a few compliments on a job well done will go a long way to making a remote worker feel appreciated.
Remote Culture Going Forward
Those basic tips will certainly help to create a positive culture in a remote workforce. But let’s be honest, times are not normal. We also need to address where we are in history.
Despite obvious obstacles and daily headlines that can inspire gloom and doom, we need to remain optimistic and prepare for how we will come out of the Covid crisis. And as the world returns to normal and business activity accelerates, promoting a healthy culture among a remote workforce will require some new considerations.
We are all familiar, of course, with stories of cross-cultural social disasters, humor that simply doesn’t translate, or an innocent gesture that may be highly insulting in a different society. As we navigate beyond the pandemic, awareness of differences in how the pandemic was experienced will require the most careful attention of managers and workers.
The pandemic struck across the entire globe, but the effects could be very different in different regions. In some countries, it is sadly not uncommon for someone to have a family member who was directly impacted. And some societies had much more disruption than others.
When engaging with a widely dispersed workforce, alert managers will need to be aware that how we talk about health issues in general, and Covid-19 in particular, may vary greatly.
As we move forward, there is reason for optimism. According to a survey by CFO magazine published during the pandemic, 83% of executives surveyed said they were “looking into a remote global workforce model because of changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.”
If a great surge in remote global workforces materializes, it means that managers who are already attuned to creating a positive culture in their remote workforce will have a distinct advantage.