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Does a Strong Workplace Culture Require In-Person Work?

A woman sitting on a couch watching a video conference on her laptop.

​Data shows that the shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely successful in maintaining productivity, but most employers still believe that returning to the office is the best path forward for maintaining a strong organizational culture. But is that true?

Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at employee recognition software company Achievers in Toronto and director of the Achievers Workforce Institute, discussed that question, as well as ways HR and people managers can foster stronger ties with their remote co-workers, with SHRM Online.

SHRM Online: Does a strong workplace culture require employees to be in the office?

Baumgartner: There's no strict rule book for what makes a strong workplace culture, and it can differ from company to company. A strong workplace culture stems partially from how well-aligned core business processes and priorities are with company values. One challenge we've seen in the past year is that culture alignment has decreased, meaning organizations have lost sight of their values as they are making decisions. For example, pre-pandemic, a third of leaders said their strategic decision-making was very aligned to company values, but that number dropped 20 percent during the pandemic.

Because every organization has different values and priorities, a strong workplace culture does not always require employees to be in the office, as long as the decision to provide remote-work opportunities and the subsequent decisions around hiring, professional development, budgeting, etc., all align with the company's values. As we continue through the pandemic and beyond, I suspect we'll see a variety of inventive ways to maintain a strong workplace culture for a fully remote workforce.

SHRM Online: Which additional aspects of workplace culture are most in danger of neglect with continued remote working?

Baumgartner: Through our research, we've seen that the feeling of support and recognition in the workplace has dwindled during the pandemic. Forty percent of employees don't feel appreciated for their work, and this lack of appreciation may disrupt employees' sense of value to the organization and thus their impression of the culture. The other area of company culture that is difficult to replicate during remote work is the watercooler conversation or stopping by a colleague's desk for a quick chat. There are a variety of platforms that can help to aid this sense of community, but it really comes back to how employees want to interact with each other remotely. This is a great time to ask your employees for feedback on their contact preferences. Requiring weekly Zoom yoga or happy hours may have been fun at the beginning of the pandemic, but as remote work has become a more permanent fixture, these options may contribute to Zoom fatigue or may not be what employees are looking for within the culture. When revamping remote company culture, a critical first step is purely understanding employee needs.

SHRM Online: What more can HR do to support workplace culture with a remote workforce?

Baumgartner: Maintaining a strong culture with a remote workforce relies on honest feedback from employees. How can any HR team understand how to maintain a thriving culture if they don't know how their employees feel about the current culture? Nearly half of organizations only conduct engagement surveys once a year. For a remote workforce, but really any workforce, that is not frequent enough to fully understand employee needs. While many organizations rely on feedback through managers in one-to-one meetings or regular check-ins, three-quarters of employees would be more honest in a survey than in a conversation with their manager, further exhibiting the need for frequent, anonymous feedback. The second important piece of this feedback loop is taking the time to analyze employee responses and determine actionable steps to make improvements. Once employees see HR leaders taking steps to improve the culture based on their own feedback, they're likely to continue to gain trust in the organization and provide more honest feedback moving forward.

SHRM Online: How can people managers help their remote, distributed teams feel a sense of culture and belonging?

Baumgartner: Managers are critical in helping remote employees feel a sense of belonging and support in the workplace. Manager recognition is key in helping employees feel supported; however, more than a third of employees haven't been recognized in the last six months. Another important aspect of manager support is empathetic leadership or investing in employees' needs. According to our research, employees who would endorse their manager feel seen and understood as a person by them. Additionally, nearly all employees who would endorse their manager also feel a strong sense of belonging at their company, demonstrating a clear tie between empathetic leadership and a sense of belonging. This is especially critical for a remote workforce, as managers often experience less face time with their direct reports and thus fewer opportunities to easily uncover if something is wrong.


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