Building and maintaining culture in remote teams

Building and maintaining culture in remote teams
Published: 18 June 2020

Whilst some elements of lockdown are beginning to ease, for most organisations a return to a full complement of office-based staff is unlikely any time soon.  With the mandatory introduction of social distancing in workplaces, it is likely that a full ‘return to work’ will not be possible before a coronavirus vaccine is ready.  Even then, whilst working from home is not without its challenges, many employees have found that they much prefer the work/life balance that remote working provides.

In our conversations with senior leaders there has been near universal admiration for the flexibility and ‘can do’ mindset with which their staff have adapted to the situation. Yet, whilst people can cope with a crisis situation in the short term, leaders worry that an extended period where teams aren’t able to interact in person, might erode culture.  

The importance of company culture

Company culture is consistently shown to be one of the things that employees value the most, even above financial reward. But how can organisations ensure that their core culture is not eroded whilst colleagues are unable to meet face-to-face? Some firms have a well-established and deep rooted ‘vision’ or ‘mission statement’, but for many organisations culture is something picked up by assimilation, a learned sense of ‘this is how we do stuff around here’.  This type of culture is much harder to acquire or maintain remotely.

This issue is something that many tech/digital teams have been addressing for some time.  Blended teams of tech resource, working from different locations and often across different time zones have found ways to build shared ways of working. This is something that many tech leaders are building on given the current situation. It is also something that the wider business community is starting to adopt.

Retaining a connection to business purpose

Nick Burton, CIO at Avon Cosmetics has been keen to ensure that his teams retain their connection both to each other, and to the business’ key purpose of enabling female entrepreneurship. He concedes that the global nature of Avon’s business has meant that colleagues were somewhat used to working in distributed teams. However, this is something which has been cemented by the introduction of a product-based approach in 2019. Fortunately, this meant that many of the core tools for remote working were already in place when COVID-19 struck. That said, Avon’s core business model has face-to-face personal contact with customers at its heart. Therefore, a rapid shift in both mindset, and technology stack throughout the B2C channel, across 29 countries worldwide, was vital when the social distancing measures were brought in. The fact that the change was ‘on stream’ in a matter of weeks has given the business more confidence in technology; this has led to Avon’s stakeholders being more open to piloting new approaches and tech products.

Avon have replicated the social element of their office locations with weekly ‘huddles’. These are unstructured meeting with no agenda, arranged purely so colleagues from each location can just chat. Furthermore, with Avon having tech teams working across different global territories and time zones, the traditional ‘Town Hall’ Zoom call doesn’t work. Instead, Burton has begun recording a candid vlog which he shares weekly. In this he sets out what’s happened in the week (both good and bad) and then couples its release with a Q&A on Microsoft Teams chat for people to ask questions. Burton finds this works better than a live ‘all hands’ video conference as he found most people were reluctant to ask questions in that setting.

One positive aspect of remote working has been the removal of barriers, such as location or perceived hierarchy. Burton has been keen to schedule non work-related ‘check-in’ calls with those team members he may not ordinarily have had chance to spend time with. He also utilises the external channels (LinkedIn/Twitter) to PR the work Avon’s tech teams are doing, and to publicly acknowledge performance.  These channels are another way to engage those who prefer to consume news ‘out of hours’.  Avon is now keen to acknowledge the shift, from the adrenalin-fuelled reaction to the immediate crisis stage, to the ongoing ‘new normal’. It has introduced an overt focus on well-being including apps such as ‘Thrive Global’ from Ariana Huffington.  Indeed, Avon’s most recent engagement surveys show that its people now feel more connected than they ever have before. 

Overcoming challenges

Tom Geraghty, Head of Technology for the digital agency MoreNiche has observed both the positive and negative aspects of remote working.  MoreNiche were operationally and technologically ready for a transition to full remote working, as up to a third of the team live and work remotely across Europe. However, the sudden switch to going fully remote, particularly for those who were used to an office environment, presented certain challenges.

To counter it he has developed a framework to measure how connected and secure remote teams feel and used this to move them towards becoming high performing teams. Geraghty’s framework is based around the concept of ‘psychological safety’ which gives individuals the confidence to be themselves, ensuring that they understand explicitly the meaning of firm’s values and that they know what they need to do in their roles.

Technology tools are clearly key in keeping remote teams connected. Barry Kelly, Head of Digital Enterprise at roofing and waterproofing material manufacturer, BMI Group, is responsible for the introduction of digital tools and for driving their adoption across the firm’s global territories. BMI have chosen to use the Google platform for their collaboration tools but they have augmented these applications with Facebook’s Workplace product for the benefit of social interaction. Kelly felt that Facebook’s relatability meant it was the best option to help some of BMI’s more traditional stakeholders feel comfortable moving to the digital channels.

However, the firm is also working hard to help individuals adopt the various tech tools through the creation of 250 ‘digital ninja’s’. These are tech savvy individuals identified from within the business who can act as local advocates or coaches for their colleagues who may struggle with using digital tools. This support network has seen an increase in the use of the various platforms.

In conjunction with this, BMI are working hard to help its people embed structures and boundaries into their day to cope with the scope creep of ‘always on’ remote working. The firm is also trying to make sure that the ‘social glue’ which kept location teams together, monthly birthday drinks, daily check ins etc. are given equal priority.

Whilst maintaining the essential culture of firms has undoubtedly been made more difficult by lockdown, it should not be impossible. However, it does require specific focus and a concerted emphasis to ensure culture is not eroded.

In this case though, who should best accountable for ensuring culture is retained?  Chief Executives? HR Directors? Or perhaps there is a greater role for CIO’s to play here. CIO’s have been to the fore recently in the delivery of the underpinning technology to keep organisations operating during this crisis. But could the new enforced digital reality present an opportunity for them to share their experience? To harness the fluency with which distributed tech teams work together and help colleagues in using digital methods to adapt to the drastic people leadership challenge COVID has brought about. Maybe today’s CIO should be playing a key part in maintaining the ‘heart and soul’ of their organisations too.

Alex Richardson is a Principal Consultant in the IT & Digital Leadership Practice of the leading executive search firm Berwick Partners.

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