Going virtual: managing the culture change to remote working

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As most employees will tell you, the culture of an organisation sets the tone for its entire workforce and can make it a highly desirable place to work. But how do you maintain that all-important team culture when everyone’s working out of the office? Here, experts share their advice for keeping your remote staff happy and connected.

Have laptop, will travel. Today’s workforce is full of digital nomads who can work anywhere they find a Wi-Fi signal, with set-up times quicker than you can say “see you in the team chat”. With the technology for remote work well in hand, what is the greatest hurdle businesses face? Culture.

Cultural change is something businesses of all shapes and sizes can struggle with when it comes to adopting new work practices.

"For organisations seeking to become more adaptive and innovative, culture change is often the most challenging part of the transformation."
- Bryan Walker from design company IDEO and Sarah A. Soule from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in the Harvard Business Review.

“Innovation demands new behaviours from leaders and employees that are often antithetical to corporate cultures, which are historically focused on operational excellence and efficiency.”

This latter part is key, because remote work often gives a negative perception that working from home – or anywhere outside the office – is inefficient, disengaged and unaccountable.

Dr Timothy Bednall, senior lecturer in HR and organisational behaviour at Swinburne University of Technology’s Department of Management and Marketing, says managers often fear employees won’t be as productive or accountable when working remotely.

“There can be a lot of scepticism and resistance from managers about telework,” he says. Bednall acknowledges there are management challenges when teams go remote, particularly where lots of team interaction is required. There will be an adjustment period and even once your team is successfully interacting remotely, “providing mentoring and support becomes more difficult, as does the transfer of tacit knowledge”, he says.

The communication tightrope

Managers can remain engaged and keep team energy levels high with clear and regular communication. Business coach Kathryn Martens from Release Coaching advises managers to schedule virtual team meetings, as well as allowing flexibility for social chat. And don’t forget to create availability for one-on-ones.

“Just like in the office, some team members will need more contact times and points with their managers in any given week than others,” Martens says. Yet communication problems will undoubtedly arise. Over-communicating or using inappropriate channels can be as detrimental as not enough contact. To prevent this happening, Martens says managers need to work out clear boundaries and guidelines.

“For example: Is text messaging okay, or do you prefer email? Is calling spontaneously okay, or would you rather once a day or week with a list of items for discussion?”

Three key needs

To push through cultural barriers and help embed the new normal of remote working, Bednall says its good practice to shape organisational change around the three main psychological needs: relatedness, competence and autonomy.

Autonomy is simple. “Teleworkers typically have more direct control over their work than if they were in an office,” Bednall says.

“Competence – especially if you define it in terms of knowledge and skill development – is trickier to handle,” he says. “Many organisations are becoming better at delivering online training and development, as well as providing just-in-time support through instant messaging systems.”

Relatedness is the hardest to get right, according to Bednall, especially in the absence of face-to-face communication. He advises managers to maintain the all-important feeling of team connection with clear, shared objectives for employees to work towards.

“Ideally, managers should strive to maintain close-knit teams even if their members are physically separated,” he says.