Spring 2021
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CTDO Magazine

Company Culture Has Become Remote and Disconnected

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Here are four ways to create a connected culture while employees are working from home.

Whether leaders intentionally create a culture, every company has one. Culture is the way an organization as a whole works toward fulfilling its goals, and it includes each employees’ behaviors and core values.

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With many companies converting to a distributed remote or hybrid format where employees work from home during the pandemic, talent leaders have been talking and thinking about how to maintain company culture. As a chief culture officer, I’ve seen how culture is especially paramount when times are tough.

We may even be wondering whether our companies are losing their cultures. When leaders are less visible and it’s more challenging to lead by example, how do organizations find ways to make culture apparent and transparent?

The future of the traditional open office space is iffy at best. Without a shared space to meet in, employees miss the social and environmental cues that convey culture and stand as a symbol for the organization.

The losses that come when we lose culture

The potential loss of company culture and norms that the shift to remote work has caused can create a variety of challenges. The first is the tendency for relationships to become primarily transactional as individuals rely more on asynchronous communication and have fewer chance run-ins with colleagues.

Previously, if an individual was handing off an invoice to a colleague, they may have taken a moment to make small talk. Now they send that invoice via email, and the opportunity to catch up is lost. Casual friendships at work, which have been linked to greater happiness and connection, are harder to maintain when employees are dispersed.

With the decrease in casual friendships, individuals lose the inefficient moments, which aren’t about work itself but ultimately about building rapport.

Other side effects of remote work

Work-life boundaries, burnout, and feeling isolated both in general and from colleagues are issues that any large-scale strategy involving organizational culture must consider.

“Leaders have a responsibility to help mitigate workplace isolation,” says Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work. She asserts that without prioritizing social connections, “workplaces will feel the aftershocks of isolation and burnout long after the pandemic is over.”

Isolation affects culture by perpetuating a new norm where people retreat into themselves and disconnection becomes normalized. When employees are less likely to share ideas and collaborate, silos form within the organization, where teams only speak to each other and do not make cross-departmental or cross-functional considerations. Inclusion and belonging suffer when companies do not mitigate those factors within a culture.

Rethink company culture

So what can talent development leaders do to successfully rethink and reinvigorate company culture even while remote?

Because culture is the cumulative behaviors of everyone in the organization, being intentional about how to build and foster moments of virtual collision are vital in creating and perpetuating culture. Four strategies we have used at BrainPOP are:

  • Establish work values.
  • Communicate with intention and transparency.
  • Layer in rituals.
  • Treat employee well-being as a key performance indicator.

They are based on our experience and from our study of what other companies have done.

Establish work values

If your company doesn’t yet have a formally codified set of work values, now is the time to get a task force together to create them.

As cultures evolve and respond to changes in the world outside and inside the company, work values such as “Treat everyone with respect and dignity” and “Deliver on our promises” are the staples that managers and leaders can use to promote well-being and refocus on shared goals. 

If your company already has stated values, ask yourself whether the new remote or hybrid landscape has called one or more of those values into question. If so, use this time to reframe or update a value that no longer works. 

Establishing values that stick is an art. At BrainPOP, rather than opting for generic value words such as integrity and creativity, we decided to write values as phrases so they have a bit more stickiness.

For instance, our value “Lead with empathy” has been often repeated during recent stressful times, underscoring the necessity to role model and lead with the care and understanding needed for a given situation. Because our values act like mini-mantras, they find their way into our conversations and debates when we are trying to prioritize or provide rationale for a decision. 

Whether inside or outside the physical office, work values function as anchors that help leaders stabilize as they navigate uncharted waters.

Quick tips:

  • Gather interested individuals in your organization to form a values task force, and ensure individuals represent the many parts of the company.
  • Stay focused—three to five values are enough.
  • Use a values card sort exercise to begin speaking about values within teams. Note, virtual versions of this activity exist.

Communicate with intention and transparency

During times of uncertainty, repeated and authentic communication from the executive team, leaders, and managers is extremely important. To ensure employees hear the messages loud and clear, you may need to reiterate the same message across a few different channels and in more than one form to successfully transmit it.

As we shifted to the remote model at BrainPOP, we moved to Slack, where we shared a daily morning announcement. During the hardest days of the past year, when there was a great deal of anxiety among employees, a morning message from leadership offered perspective, inserted humor, and kept everyone aware of milestones and current events. The consistency of a morning announcement gave a sense of order to ongoing and important communication.

Even though employees didn’t see leaders in person every day, the digital footprint on Slack is the model for how leaders show up on a company-wide level.

Slack generally became the nexus for all company communication, which was often overwhelming. As such, we established clear guidelines for the effective use of Slack and email, which reduced the noise level that was occurring in many channels.

Being intentional about communication is a key component to making leaders’ presence felt. Moreover, to build trust, they must communicate transparently and authentically. 

Virtual town hall meetings and Ask Me Anything (AMA) events with the executive teams are helpful in creating transparency. During BrainPOP town halls, the CEO strikes a balance between addressing what’s happening in the world and at the company, using knowledge to empower employees, sharing new strategic directions, and infusing optimism. He also makes sure to recognize big team wins and individual accomplishments.

There are also obstacles to good communication, especially in a remote or hybrid culture. That happens when leaders, often unintentionally, share information with certain groups rather than among the whole organization. Managers need to make sure that if they are sharing information that is relevant to everyone, they are also taking measures to post that information in a public channel or include it in an email. 

Beyond that, take extra measures to include remote employees. For instance, at BrainPOP, we have a policy that when one employee is remote, everyone is remote. That means that if even one person must be on video chat in meetings, those in the office are also on video chat. That creates an equitable experience and also ensures information and knowledge transfer happen more evenly throughout the organization.   

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Quick tips:

  • Focus on consistency for where employees can find information. Create a weekly update email or a monthly town hall to communicate important updates.
  • Declutter Slack or other noisy communication channels by creating usage guidelines.
  • The best leaders role model good information sharing. Knowledge sharing and learning are the core of alignment around goals.

Layer in rituals

Employee engagement has been shown to increase when companies add rituals into employees’ daily work life. Celebrating milestones such as work anniversaries or birthdays, acknowledging small and big wins, and spotlighting new employees are meaningful ways to create a sense of belonging and build rapport through fun.

For a hybrid workforce, think through a remote-first lens, and be considerate and inclusive of rituals that you can do within and outside the office. There are now digital equivalents for everything: If your ritual is brainstorming as a group on sticky notes, there’s a program for that; if it’s passing around birthday cards, there’s a system for that. Whatever experience you want to share as a ritual, you can create it virtually when you do so with a little research and intention.  

Quick tips:

  • Look at the team rituals you already have—can you extend them throughout the organization?
  • Assign certain rituals to specific types of meetings. For example, in our all-hands meetings, we celebrate work anniversaries, while in smaller team meetings, we celebrate birthdays.
  • Remote-first cultures embrace digital methods for sharing rituals.

Treat employee well-being as a key performance indicator

BrainPOP’s organizational objectives and key results throughout the pandemic have addressed employees’ needs and our business performance objectives. For example, when the pandemic began, “Ensure employee wellness and resilience” was one of our four main company objectives, along with ensuring our sales success and implementing our product strategy.

Getting the CEO and executive team’s buy-in and role modeling is helpful in creating an environment that prioritizes all individuals’ mental and psychological safety.

Because burnout and isolation have been so prevalent during the pandemic, it is essential to create an environment where employees feel cared for. At BrainPOP, we emphasize employee well-being by creating new policies such as a more robust vacation plan and more flexible work hours.  

We have used regular pulse surveys to check in with employees and gather company-wide feedback. We also have made sure to track well-being and isolation as key metrics and then connect with employees if there are concerns.

Offering L&D opportunities must be a priority, as does helping employees build specific job-related skills and soft skills, such as how to be a more effective manager. If you don’t have the budget to invest, ask employees to share their expertise with their peers, or create learning circles where employees can read an article and discuss their takeaways. 

Learning spaces offer the added benefit of socialization and bonding, which creates engagement while also having the clear benefit of individuals learning new things.

Quick tips:

  • Do a wellness check via a short one- or two-question pulse survey.
  • Create spaces for learning by forming a reading group or learning circle.
  • Remember to champion wellness among the leaders in your company.

Approach culture with an open mind

The most important takeaway for talent leaders during this period is to be open-minded and look for places to improve culture. The way culture presents itself during the pandemic should have the core tenets of your pre-pandemic office culture. But for that culture to survive and thrive, it’s important to enable elements of the culture to evolve, all while sticking to your company’s core values. 

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Maya Kadar Kovalsky is chief culture officer at BrainPOP, the pioneering online K-12 education company whose resources have engaged the hearts and challenged the minds of over 300 million learners worldwide.

She joined BrainPOP in 2010 to lead production of BrainPOP ELL, a proficiency-based English language learning program for all ages. In 2016 she originated the role of chief culture officer with a focus on increasing employee professional growth, building community, and continuing to make BrainPOP an inspiring place to come to work every day.

She earned her BA in Film Studies and Art History from Barnard College, and her MFA in Film Production from Tel Aviv University

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