Cultivating an authentic corporate culture is a fickle and elusive beast to pin down at the best of times. But when Covid-19 reared its ugly head in early 2020 and forced a large majority of the professional world into a remote working situation, the traditional guidebook on how to create fertile grounds for a healthy team culture needed to not only be tweaked but, in most cases drastically revised or rewritten entirely.
Working Remotely Has Threatened Our Working Communities
Seemingly overnight, the casual watercooler conversations, impromptu desk hangs, spur-of-the-moment kitchen brainstorms, 4pm team trivia games and after-work appies and cocktails disappeared and were replaced by colourless phone calls, emails and (initially) awkward Zoom chats.
The deprivation of tactile, in-person employee interaction resulted in coworkers feeling more lonely and distant from each other – less cohesive as a synergistic unit. There was also a vast disconnect felt, having been abruptly removed from that buzzing hive of activity that was the home of their professional pursuits and (many times) personal relationships. That place where they all energetically laboured towards a common goal they not only knew but felt – The Office.
After it was clear that the pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon, it became increasingly apparent to corporate leaders across the globe that, even if their companies survived, if they didn’t do something quickly, they may lose the strong sinews of corporate culture they’d worked so hard to build, that bind their team together through the good times and (even more importantly) the bad.
However, before you can dig into and assemble a game plan to save, recoup or rebuild corporate culture and effective teamwork in the virtual space, it’s first prudent to understand what corporate culture IS and – more importantly – what it IS NOT.
What is Corporate Culture, Really?
Similar to other strategy sessions, before you get into any team-building brainstorms, it is first paramount that you genuinely understand the objective before you put any actionable pillars in place. Many companies try to manage corporate culture from the top down. This typically manifests in a list of well-intentioned (though sometimes vague and generic) Corporate Values, inspirational Mission Statements and tangible office perks like Nespresso machines, ping-pong tables and in-office gyms. While all these things certainly add to a fun and engaging work environment, their mere presence does not yield a tight-knit team culture.
Office culture is often tough to define and even tougher to measure. But Martha Bird, writing for leading business media brand Fast Company, sets a good foundation for understanding just how complex corporate culture really is:
“Corporate culture is a nuanced product of each department, each team, and each individual worker in those teams…. each area of a business has its own language and way of doing work. And within each business team, employees have diverse geographies, economic backgrounds, religions, and educational experiences that drive the ways in which they collaborate and work together. Together, these factors create what can be considered organizational culture.”
As you can imagine, based on the above definition, there are a plethora of different variables and complex interpersonal relationships that ultimately are woven together to create the rich human tapestry we refer to as “corporate culture.”
However, a simple starting point in navigating this complex web is to remember two fundamental principles:
1) a healthy team culture is not bought or won. It’s grown and nurtured; and
2) while company leaders should undoubtedly lead by example, office culture is usually grown from the ground up, starting with the happiness, a sense of purpose and inclusion experienced by entry-level team members on up.
Following these guiding principles will help create a shared sense of purpose and foster a sense of pride in working for a company, which ultimately results in better output and employees who are willing to go the extra mile.
So, now that we have a better sense of corporate culture, let’s look at how organizations can look to inspire, engage, and empower their teams in this new virtual work environment.
Tips for Virtual Team-building & Remote Culture Maintenance
When determining which remote team-building options to implement, there’s an old adage that will serve you well – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Begin by identifying internal elements proven to help team members connect, collaborate, hang out with each other in the physical space, and emulate those elements in the virtual space.
Get Everyone on the Same Team Chat App
A lot of the traditional in-office communication between team members is done informally, on-the-fly and does not always (initially) pertain to company business. The right amount of non-work-related employee banter is an essential way for coworkers to get to know each other and develop meaningful rapports and closer personal relationships.
Rachel Jay, a senior career writer at FlexJobs, reminds us that “Keeping remote workers engaged is a necessary part of leading a remote team, company or employee. Without the ability to have organic conversations in the break room or at each other’s cubicles, it takes a more concentrated effort for remote workers to engage with others … A lack of engagement can lead to isolation and loneliness, a lack of passion for the company’s vision or goals, and feeling unhappy and unappreciated.”
There is a multitude of great Chat Apps out there (both free and paid) that not only provide important project management software like document sharing/editing, virtual conferencing and timeline tracking but also provide a turn-key forum for coworkers to chat informally about topics that are important to them, bring them mutual joy and actually work to keep them more in the know with regards to popular culture and current news that, for many industries, can be an undervalued tertiary benefit.
Host Virtual Team Games & Activities
Just because coworkers can’t hang out and play ping-pong at the office, participate in team-building offsite activities or go to multi-day Annual General Meetings together, it doesn’t mean you should stop trying to find creative ways to spend time together.
Although they lack the tactile experience, virtual team games are still an excellent way for coworkers to form meaningful bonds through team comradery, mutual cheerleading, collaborative problem solving and more. These aren’t just games. They are light-hearted team-building exercises that are jam-packed with those subtle, intangible benefits that form strong teams.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. The strong need to connect with each other during the pandemic has resulted in many new, innovative ways for coworkers to hang out online – some even have unique, real-life experiences included!
Creative online team activities like virtual beer tasting or pairing events (where each participant is sent a box with craft brews and cheeses to sample and discuss together), to online corporate Escape Room experiences (where your team needs to work together to escape particular virtual peril), keep team members engaged and connected – and are a ton of fun for Coordinators and CEO’s alike!
Conduct Virtual Team Brainstorms
Whether you work for a sports marketing agency, app-building startup or architecture firm – everyone loves good team brainstorming! But gone are the days of ordering in food, holing up in a boardroom for hours with a sprawling whiteboard and dry-erase markers in every colour of the rainbow to hash out your company’s next eureka moment.
Thankfully, some easy-to-use virtual brainstorming software and platforms offer intuitive tools that feel natural in the virtual realm. These collaborative tools provide you with the freedom and flexibility to let ideas flow in a team setting, then capture and organize them in a variety of different versatile formats. Many times you forget that you’re not actually together in the boardroom!
Hold Virtual Town Halls & Leadership Forums
Working from home can be a lonely and isolating experience, especially for those who had personal relationships with their coworkers and valued their weekly time in the office. What was once a strong nucleus of team members can slowly start to drift apart while working remotely and lose that sense of common purpose and pride in their team’s accomplishments – which are symptoms of corporate culture decay.
To avoid this, Rea Regan, head of marketing at ConnectTeam, believes that as a manager or company leader:
“…you must make it a top priority for your remote teams to engage in regular team socializing. This will help to build a genuine human connection with remote workers and build trust and inclusion. Plus, it will allow for remote employees to have an impact on company culture – just by being involved, remote workers will feel valued and like equal members of the company. Therefore, it is vital that you create time to socialize with all your employees.”
To do this, company leaders should arrange monthly or bi-weekly company forums where all employees get (virtual) face-time with team managers/leaders to discuss what is working well and what has been challenging with this remote working environment. More often than not, one employee’s challenge is representative of the rest of the group. Online Chat Apps like RingCentral offer turn-key software and intro advice on how to run an effective company town hall meeting.
So remember, each team and company culture is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to effective team-building or authentic culture creation. However, the above advice and tools should start you off in the right direction – good luck!