Business Matters

Embedding Culture Within the Remote Workforce

by Konstantinos Nikolaras



Having a remote workforce comes with several benefits for the organisation such as access to a wider talent pool, lower operating costs and higher retention rates for employees. But alongside the benefits come several challenges; most notably how to embed an organisational culture. With the remote workforce on the rise there is less face to face interaction and embedding culture becomes increasingly difficult. So how should organisations address this challenge?

Culture is the biggest determinant of performance!

Organisational culture is a system of shared values and norms amongst employees. It defines what is important (values) and what are the appropriate attitudes and behaviours (norms) within an organisation. Formal structures such as job descriptions and process maps describe ‘what’ people and teams do; culture, which is to a great extent unwritten, affects ‘how’ things are done.

The extent that a strategy is successfully implemented is one of the most common reasons companies succeed or fail. It’s the number one challenge facing leaders, and up to three-quarters of large organisations struggle to implement their strategies.

And here is where culture comes into play, as it represents the ‘how’ after the ‘what’. As a minimum, a culture in place (effective or not) instils employees with confidence in times of change on what are the cultural values, what is important and how they should react to the changes and challenges coming up. If the culture is ambiguous, they will come up with their own interpretations.

A strong and authentic culture drives consistent behaviour and clear direction amongst employees, so when a culture is aligned to an organisation’s strategy, it plays a significant role in its successful implementation.

  

  1. 1. Leadership Traits, Beliefs and Behaviours – Assessing leadership approach, styles and behaviours to address barriers to growth and drive alignment to the desired culture.
  2. 2. Organisation and Role Design – Reviewing organisation structure, roles and responsibilities to assess the degree of alignment to the desired culture.
  3. 3. Communications, Engagement and Environment – Assessing the types, tone and style of interaction and employee engagement, as well as the workplace environment and the digital tools provided.
  4. 4. KPIs, Appraisals, Reward and Recognition – Reviewing measurement systems, rewards and recognition programmes to identify barriers to culture transition.
  5. 5. Work Practices, Policies and Procedures – Reviewing work practices, policies and processes to identify those that conflict with the desired culture of the organisation.
  6. 6. On boarding, Skills and Capability – Assessing recruitment, induction, training and skills development to identify barriers to culture alignment.

Embedding culture within the remote workforce – the challenge

Working remotely has been on the rise steadily over the past decade. According to the Office of National Statistics, over 4.2 million people work remotely in the UK. In the US, 43% of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely. Remote working used to be very popular primarily with smaller business and start-ups, but this is no longer the case. Large corporations are increasingly adopting policies that allow such flexibility. For example, companies like Amazon, Dell, Hilton, Salesforce, Xerox, SAP and Toyota feature in the top 100 companies with the highest number of part or entirely remote job openings for 2018.

 Building and embedding a high-performance culture aligned to the organisation strategy is a difficult task, even when your employees sit under one roof. Cultural norms are often represented within the physical environment, by leadership role modelling and through interacting with colleagues. With an ever-increasing digital workforce, demonstrating ‘how’ things are done poses a greater challenge. For employees working remotely, picking up these unwritten cues and embedding a shared and consistent culture becomes even more difficult.

 A little creativity though can go a long way and help you through this journey. After all, a remote workforce is more accustomed and receptive to using digital tools which you should use to your advantage. Regardless to where your employees are based, it’s possible to promote and embed the values and behaviours that will support your strategy.

 

The five interventions that can make a difference

1.    Identify digital behaviours and reward them consistently: The most important tool to building the culture you want is your reward system. The right reward system should always positively reinforce the right behaviours; never hope to achieve A and reward B. For example, if you are experiencing low margins and wish to increase them (A) you can’t reward only sales volumes (B). Similarly, you can’t hope to increase performance of teams (A) if you only reward individual performance (B). This can also be applied to a remote workforce, by identifying relevant digital behaviours and recognising them and rewarding them accordingly. For example, if teamwork is required to realise the strategy, promote and reinforce digital behaviours such as holding regular video conferencing sessions, reaching out to colleagues for input and suggestions via collaboration tools, or sharing best practice or case studies across teams electronically. In order to achieve that, make sure you create the right incentives and recognise these behaviours in employee performance appraisals.

2.  Communicate a compelling organisational narrative: An organisational narrative is the story organisations tell about their past, present, and future and covers its values, heritage, behaviours and strategy. It unites employees around a shared purpose and demonstrates the role that they each play in contributing to the overall success of the organisation. To share the narrative, take inspiration from Marketing and gain insights for how your digital workers prefer to engage with content. Mobile apps, video or even WhatsApp can be effective tools to connect employees with the organisational narrative.

3.  Invest in the right tools for remote collaboration: There is an ever-growing wealth of digital technologies that exist to aid collaboration within organisations, and these can be invaluable when fostering connections amongst colleagues in different locations. It is vital to instil a consistent and effective digital infrastructure to allow dispersed teams to work together seamlessly. If you have employees using different systems or tools, this can lead to significant delays with projects. Beyond the business impact, employees will feel disconnected with the wider organisation.

4.   Generate opportunities for dispersed teams to socialise. Through the process of socialisation, employees (especially new ones) understand the values and expected behaviours faster and easier than through formal processes. Create opportunities for colleagues to meet face to face, whether through an annual away day, or by incentivising employees who are based in the same geographies to proactively arrange more informal ad hoc catch ups.

5.    Create forums for innovation. Innovation in the workplace does not only relate to technology or research. Enabling innovation can simply mean allowing and encouraging for new ideas by creating safe environments where people can take minor interpersonal risks – seeking feedback and asking questions which they wouldn’t otherwise ask. This approach to innovation can help people understand what a desirable or undesirable behaviour is, what fits the culture and what does not. In other words, innovation creates a system where employees approach issues with openness and thus make themselves available to understand and adapt the with the culture. This is even more impactful with the people within the remote workforce, who don’t get regular opportunities to participate in informal discussions and make themselves and their ideas visible to their colleagues


Building the right culture for your organisation might be challenging, but if done well it is very rewarding for the business as well as its employees. Having a high percentage of remote workers should not discourage you; there are methods and tools to support you in this journey. In fact, some of the most highly rated companies for culture and values globally by their employees in review site Glassdoor such as Adobe and Salesforce employ a large remote workforce.

Konstantinos Nikolaras

Senior Management Consultant | Change Transformation. Combining industry and consulting experience with a London Business School MBA, I lead teams to implement business strategies and transformations for turnaround, growth or performance improvement


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