Remote Culture

Published on 02 Apr 2020

The main side effect of the current COVID-19 pandemic is a huge increase in the number of employees working from home. Many organisations, including Human Synergistics, are looking for ways to avoid or slow the spread of the virus through their workforces to reduce the impact it has on their operations and ensure the safety and wellbeing of their people.

This mass migration to home-based work comes with some challenges, particularly for those who are not already experienced with working remotely. A 2019 survey of remote workers by Buffer found some of the key challenges were unplugging after work (as your home becomes your workplace the line between the two blurs), loneliness and effectively communicating or collaborating with others.

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Figure 1. Challenges of working remotely.

Collaboration and communication are likely to be the highest priorities for many organisations as their concern will be how they enable people to work together effectively without the benefits of being co-located. No doubt most will turn to technology as the obvious solution, with messaging services, videoconferencing and other technologies to ensure effective collaboration. This is indeed going to be a key part of any successful remote working strategy.

The other component that perhaps some organisations are less likely to consider is how their culture will help or hinder with these issues. A constructive culture, particularly one strong in the affiliative style, should ameliorate some of the issues around loneliness and ensure effective communication since it encourages strong relationships and collaboration as part of the natural style of the organisations.

On the other hand, a defensive culture could exacerbate these issues. A passive culture could increase loneliness as people are not encouraged to reach out to each other while a culture high in conventional could lead to people struggling to adapt to new ways of working as required by the shift to remote working. Meanwhile, an aggressive culture with spikes in competitive or perfectionistic could increase the difficulties people have around unplugging after work as they are encouraged to work long hours or show they are working longer and harder than their peers.

So, if your organisation is shifting to more people working remotely how can you create or maintain a constructive culture to deal with these issues? Most of the usual cultural drivers still apply but there are also a few specifics to focus on.

As already mentioned, one of the keys is going to be the use of technology to retain a sense of connection to each other. Working from home can be very isolating and so being able to talk to and see each other via video software will be key. One risk here is that these connections become purely task focused and you lose the informal social interactions that usually occur naturally in an office environment. A solution some organisations have already started implementing is virtual coffee catch ups or drinks in the afternoon where teams will conference in for a social catch up (possibly with beverage in hand) which helps retain those connections as well as giving the team a space to unwind.

In general communication will also be important, ensuring people continue to feel engaged and motivated in their work by keeping them updated on what’s happening in the organisation and how their team or the broader organisation is progressing towards it’s current goals and dealing with the challenges we’re all experiencing.

Unfortunately we don’t currently have culture data available specifically for those that work remotely but the data we do have suggests that those with access to flexible work arrangements (including working from home amongst other options) generally have a more constructive experience of the culture than those who do not. Figure 2 shows the cultural experience of individuals who could access flexible work compared to those who could not within the same organisation. Although, these differences could be related more to a sense of trust being placed in them by the organisation rather than anything to do with the characteristics of flexible work itself.

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Figure 2. Cultural Experience of those who were confident they could accessible flexible work (right) vs those who were not (left)

We don’t yet know what the cultural effects of a larger chunk of the population working from home will be, but ensuring regular and effective communication, using collaborative technology and encouraging informal social interaction within teams will go a long way towards helping your people overcome the main challenges experienced by remote workers.

So what are some things we can keep top of mind during times like these?

  1. Encourage ‘social’ catch-up time as mentioned earlier.
  2. Encourage staff to use interpersonal process in the virtual communications. Watch out for communication only being task oriented. When we meet someone face-to-face, we usually start with “how are you…” that’s interpersonal process and is often left out in email communications.
  3. One way to easily do this, is when you start a virtual meeting, start with a ‘check-in’ regarding how each individual is feeling right now/what’s going on for them right now?
  4. Encourage remote staff to get some fresh air at regular stages of the day. Go for a walk.
  5. As leaders, be careful sending emails into the evening as this creates expectations around having to work after normal business hours. Your staff will feel they need to reply to you now since you have emailed them now. This reinforces norms around perfectionistic cultures.

We’d love your feedback as well as any suggestions for questions you’d like answered from our data. Email your feedback to