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Viewpoint: Why Remote Work Doesn't Have to Dilute Your Company's Culture

A woman sits at a desk and uses a video conferencing system.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

The pandemic pushed many organizations to become fully remote, and the experience has been better than many imagined. As a result, a hybrid working model that embraces the best of both remote and office-based work awaits many workers and companies on the other side of the crisis. Adapting to this new working model might seem straightforward in theory, but it will prove more nuanced in practice, especially when it comes to organizational culture.

Company culture is rightly a primary concern for many leaders. How can they reimagine their culture for a world where rituals and ceremonies enacted in the office are inaccessible, and workers have little or no face-to-face interaction with each other or their leaders? How can they build the types of bonds that establish a lasting culture, not to mention integrate new employees? How can they redefine company culture to match the new rhythms that emerge when some employees are in the office and others are working from anywhere?

Of course, it's not that company culture somehow goes away in a remote or hybrid context. Cultural beliefs and norms are still being created and reinforced, but they're not being guided by systems and routines that were previously established in the office. They're more open to change and subject to influence from new, non-work factors present in employees' day-to-day lives.

We conducted interviews with executives around the globe who shared their concerns about sustaining and building culture while remote. Although there are challenges, there are also promising experiments in motion at leading companies that show how to make organizations stronger and more resilient in a remote-first or hybrid future. This isn't about incremental change — it requires recognizing that culture is evolving despite being remote and that organizations need to invest a substantial amount of time and energy into keeping their cultures on track or steering them in new directions. Organizations that fail to do the deep work required to rethink the transmission of company culture may well have unpredictable results.

Shifting to a Remote-First Culture

Historically, office settings and interactions have been key signals of culture, which is often built and reflected in the way people behave and dress and reinforced by physical settings, from open office spaces with ping pong tables to traditional offices with wood paneling and leather chairs.

Many leaders are stymied when it comes to creating and directing culture when employees are far-flung. The first hurdle is acknowledging that culture can no longer be forged in the same way as it was in an office-centric model. Here are some examples of companies intentionally reinforcing aspects of their culture during the abrupt shift to remote work:

Infosys. According to Infosys President Ravi Kumar, the Infosys culture is client-centric, but it's also a close-knit community in which employees are treated as family. Early in the pandemic, the company made a significant investment into chartering flights for employees and their families who were stranded outside of their home country. Infosys also announced early on that there would be no workforce reductions tied to company performance — in other words, employees' jobs were safe. Despite employees working remotely, these actions reinforced an already strong culture around concern for employee welfare and emphasized the Infosys family.

Alibaba. According to Chen Zhao, Head of Alibaba's NHCI US Lab, Alibaba shifted some of their culture-building activities online. As a substitute for Aliday, historically a day-long company celebration, Alibaba North America hosted a remote quilt-making event where employees could come together and create "one quilt for each office to commemorate this special time," thus reinforcing their values of community and collective activity.

IBM. Nickle LaMoreaux, Chief Human Resources Officer at IBM, described how IBM's culture of inclusion and employee initiative prompted a grassroots "Work from Home Pledge" that specified how employees should support each other in balancing work and life while working remotely, be sensitive to needs for family time, and stay socially connected (virtually), among other things. IBM's CEO, Arvind Krishna, subsequently posted the pledge on LinkedIn to broadcast IBM's values. IBM employees also exhibited their passion for innovation and their culture of inclusion by self-organizing signups through Slack for employees who needed help. They signed up for tasks like picking up groceries for colleagues' homebound parents and even reading nighttime stories to kids.

Overall, organizations that are adapting well to this massive remote work experiment have invested in reinventing processes and touchstones that align with their desired cultures. Plenty of research shows that our ability to connect meaningfully to others is less satisfying when we're not physically present and that shared understanding is harder to establish and more likely to suffer from "drift" as we spend time apart. The absence of shared context, from body language to the type of snacks made available in the shared kitchen, dilutes these myriad signals that convey culture.

To counter these challenges, organizations can send new and stronger signals by establishing more touch points — that is, reaching out to employees more often and being explicit about the purpose and meaning of doing so. An organization that wants to reinforce an agile, innovative culture, for example, might have regular events that prompt creative engagement, such as improv activities, and showcase collaboration tools that enable brainstorming and sketching.

Onboarding new employees and getting them adjusted to culture is of particular and growing concern. Prior to the pandemic, Slack onboarded all employees from within and outside the U.S. by flying them to San Francisco headquarters for a week of education sessions and engagement with executive leaders. Having hired over 25% of its workforce since going fully remote in March 2020, Slack has changed onboarding processes dramatically, moving paperwork and learning sessions to online and video and privileging discussions of cultural values and norms in interactive sessions with leaders and teammates.

Leaders Set the Tone and Steer the Culture

During this inflection point, leaders have a stark choice to make: do nothing, work to craft new ways of reinforcing the existing culture, or capitalize on the shift to remote work to profoundly reset the culture. When co-located, leaders often implicitly transmit culture by modeling behaviors and values in the presence of their employees. The same implicit signals exist when remote, but they're harder to detect and interpret. Leaders need to decide on the type of culture they want, the signals that are appropriate to communicate it, and how and when to send them without distortion. They also need ways to assess which aspects of the desired culture are "sticking" and which aren't.

This time can be used as an opportunity to reset aspects of culture as an organization evolves or as a new way of working requires it. LaMoreaux at IBM described how the shift to working from home has made people "a little more human." Meeting with remote colleagues, she says, feels like being invited into their homes, and employees have learned so much more about the multiple dimensions of each other's lives (how they live, the colors of their walls, their family members and pets, etc.). Although this wasn't an intentional intervention by IBM, she wants to keep it going and is exploring how to embed this in the culture for the long-term, even when some employees return to the office.

At Slack, we've seen this as an opportunity to make executives more approachable, show our own vulnerability and transform the culture into one that more explicitly values individuals and individuality. All-hands meetings that were once monthly, hour-long formal productions are now bi-weekly, 20-minute updates, with executives dialing in from home (featuring the occasional kid crawling onto a lap), combined with more town hall–style "ask me anything" sessions conducted online. The point is to meet people where they are, to project openness, and to build the same culture of empathy internally that we expect our employees to demonstrate externally with our customers.

Hybrid Organizations Are the Future

A Future Forum study of knowledge workers across six major countries found that the vast majority value flexibility — while only 16% want to be fully remote, only 12% want to return to working in the office five days a week. A clear majority of 72% want the option of working within a hybrid remote-office model. They're eager to avoid the commute and have better work-life balance.

The benefits of a hybrid model for companies have also come into focus. It opens the door to hiring from broader talent pools, reducing real estate costs, and generally operating more efficiently. A number of high-profile organizations have announced that they may never return to an office-centric culture. According to FlexJobs, companies including Deutsche Bank, Infosys, Nationwide Insurance, Nielsen, Siemens, Starbucks, Twitter and many more are moving to permanently give employees the option of working from home some or all of the time.

Leaders need to start thinking now about how they want to "re-enter" the office environment. How might we reimagine the office to reinforce culture in new, better ways? More importantly, how do we ensure an even distribution of culture across those in the office and those working remotely? One of the greatest risks with hybrid work is the potential for employees to have different and incompatible understandings of the company culture.

For many, this comes back to fostering inclusiveness and ensuring the transmission and reinforcement of culture for remote employees. Ensuring inclusiveness might mean changing habits around how and where information is communicated. For example, asynchronous, video-based updates might work better than live all-hands, or meeting norms might involve leveling the playing field by dialing in all members, regardless of their location. For companies focused on fostering an inclusive culture, providing greater flexibility to work from home can be a considerable benefit. In our research, we found that Black, Hispanic and Asian American employees' sense of belonging was actually higher in remote work settings, while white employees' was worse.

Organizations should be concerned about watering down their culture by relying solely on asynchronous communication. Even fully remote companies like GitLab and Automattic rely on episodic in-person gatherings to rebuild bonds among employees and socialize new members. Organizations will undoubtedly require a mix of practices that enable efficient, inclusive engagement while at the same time preserving aspects of synchronous and in-person activities that strengthen culture.

Almost every executive we talked with over the past few months knows that we're entering a new, untested period. It will take early experimentation to generate ways of promoting remote-first cultures while preserving the value of in-office symbols and side-by-side work to strengthen culture. Tolerance for failures along the way will be essential to finding a path forward. Leaders must recognize that thriving in the new era of work depends on being open to new formulas for building and maintaining strong culture.

Pamela Hinds is Fortinet Founders Chair and professor in management science and engineering at Stanford University. She studies the dynamics of globally distributed work and how work is changing with the introduction of emerging technologies.  Brian Elliott leads the Future Forum, a new consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in a people-centric and digital-first world. Brian has spent the last two decades leading teams and building companies at Slack, Google and a number of startups.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2021. All rights reserved.


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