Organisational culture in a remote world

A shared set of beliefs and behaviours has never been more important – Clive Webb sets out how to best manage culture remotely

Developing and sustaining an organisational culture that drives the achievement of the purpose of the organisation is crucial. Common goals and shared beliefs are at the heart of an effective workforce. In this disrupted world, where remote working has become the norm, is organisational culture something that we should ignore, or cherish more?

What is organisational culture?

Much has been written about organisational culture and what it means. Daniel Denison, for example, in his book Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness in 1990 described it as characterised by four general dimensions: Mission, Adaptability, Involvement and Consistency.

Ultimately, culture is about people, whether they are remote or not. It is not something that is done to you, it is something that, as a collective of employees, comes from the ways in which people behave around each other: a core set of beliefs aligned to the achievement of organisational purpose. Having clarity of this is essential.

Consider translating the beliefs into a set of behaviours so that the employees have a more practical understanding of what culture means, setting the boundaries to give the freedom to act. Culture can never be defined by a brand image; rather the brand image is how the purpose of the organisation is reflected in the activities that it undertakes.

While organisations have overarching cultures, they also have sub-cultures that are reflective of team leaders and the specific purpose of that team.

Why it matters in the remote world

As we, at least for the present, are working increasingly remotely, having that shared sense of beliefs is important. In our article, How to get remote onboarding right, we talked about the need to bring new joiners into the organisation with a clear sense of why they were there and the expectations of them.

Having the clear focus matters, however it is not a set of posters on a wall. It is not a set of mission statements that are communicated and forgotten. Organisational culture is a set of beliefs and behaviours that act as the glue between team members. What we are here for and how that contributes to how our organisation adds value to society.

Impact of the remote world

The remote world has an impact on organisational culture. In the current environment people feel insecure and threatened. We may be taking less exercise and eating differently. Sleep patterns may be disturbed. Our mental wellbeing is impacted because of all these factors.

This can be manifested in many ways. People not willing to be seen on conference calls because they are afraid of how others might perceive them. Do they look distracted or fed up? Do they feel that they are not involved? Are they rewarded for the work that they are doing when their managers are not as aware of the effort or the context in which the work is being undertaken? All these factors can make individuals withdraw even further.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication can be prevalent in a remote world. People have a sense of needing to perform more because they are uncertain of how those around them perform. The visual clues are absent. A robust culture helps to overcome some of these issues.

What do I need to do?

As a manager or leader, you need to take a holistic approach to people. You need to be informed and take an evidence-based approach. Consider taking some of the following actions:

  • Understand what your team is going through. How is the situation working and what more can be done?
  • Focus on activities that increase morale and reduce anxiety.
  • Work as a team to address problems and increase inter-connectivity between team members.
  • Balance the work and non-work communications to be inclusive, but respect people’s boundaries of what they wish to reveal about themselves, especially at the current time.
  • Include physical elements into calls, even if only encouraging people to stand up.
  • Consider how non-work actions can be included, such as those focused on mental and physical wellbeing (eg, sending fruit to team members).
  • Use humour to support challenging situations.
  • Encourage non-work community discussions on tools such as Yammer and Slack to enable people to share anxieties but also to reward contributions.

Team and organisational culture

In the remote world, teamwork and trust between others is essential. In our article Secrets of good remote management, we highlighted the importance of trust between team members. Establishing that trust can present challenges in the remote world but using sharing and collaboration techniques can overcome this. Using two-minute videos to explain who you are and how you perceive your work contributing to the purpose of the organisation can be an effective tool.

The traditional networks and structures within organisations are being challenged. Teams are increasingly being formed for shorter-term projects involving varied skill sets as organisations dynamically respond to the crisis. Clarity of the role and skills of the individual and how they contribute are key.

Role of emotional intelligence and empathy

Formal programmes on culture and values become challenging in this fast-moving world. Focusing on doing the right thing, accepting of others’ constraints and preferences and working together towards a common goal are essential.

Using emotional intelligence and empathy is also crucial. Having relationship skills that transcend the constraints of the media available are a vital part of the leader’s toolset.

Clive Webb is senior insights manager at ACCA. Sharon Critchlow (ACCA Council), Marita Price (Hello Performance), Keith Jones (Alchemy Worldwide), Nigel Spencer (Oxford Saïd Business School), Jane Daly (independent consultant) and Dmitry Milaschuk (Integral coach) also contributed to this article