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Mai Fenton
12 May 2020
6 minute read

Don’t let lockdown break your amazing company culture

Culture determines your success

Why is company culture important? Every CEO, Managing Director, boss and worker will have a different take on this, but one truth is crystal clear: COVID-19 has challenged workplace culture, and this hasn’t been a universally bad thing.

The Drum recently published an article outlining how to measure company culture, stressing upfront that ‘A company’s culture will ultimately determine its success’. Whether you agree or not (and one company’s culture will never suit all personality types or individual needs), there’s a growing understanding amongst businesses giant and micro that a happy working culture tends to breed trust, creativity and ownership, spelling better solutions on an execution level.

And businesses in a time of coronavirus need all the solutions they can get.

Remote culture

98% would go remote (for good)

Earlier this year, Buffer (the fully distributed social media tool wizards) published their latest comprehensive remote working-focused study. Created in partnership with AngelList, The State of Remote Work is an annual report, putting the spotlight on remote workers, their world, and data that helps us understand them better.

Based on a survey completed by over 3,500 remote workers, the analysis for 2020 shows that 98% would continue working remotely for the rest of their careers, where possible.

Remote ups and downs

Buffer’s survey also outlined the top benefits and challenges of being remote. The standout benefits were a flexible schedule (32%), flexibility to work from anywhere (26%) and not having to commute (21%).

Crucially for company culture, the joint top pain points for remote workers were collaboration and communication, and loneliness, with 20% struggling on both issues. These were closely followed by difficulties with unplugging (18%).

Communication, collaboration, staying connected and unplugging. All of these are intrinsic to a successful company culture, and Buffer’s findings suggest that with the benefits of remote working come serious challenges. Most of the time, people need to feel part of a team. And whether you’re going fully distributed, for good, or just running a remote show during lockdown, nailing this is crucial.

From clear communication to remote Friday beers, where do you start?

Top challenges

As your company embraces the remote way of life like never before, let’s unpick the challenges and set out strategies for meeting them head on, protecting what you've worked so hard to build: a winning company culture.

Replacing face-to-face

It can be difficult to articulate, but this is one of the most common bug bears for remote teams and managers. When you’re used to establishing ways of working through day-to-day office contact, getting to know your colleagues ‘in-person’ and noting body language, tone and the general vibe in a meeting room, it can be really tricky to move into a remote-only setting.

Forbes recently pointed out that when you’re working with a ‘distinct break from the norm’, remote teams:

‘will need a lot more nurturing than face-to-face teams, in large part because the norms that emerge during face-to-face encounters take much longer to establish online.’

The key is setting expectations, using clear communication, which we’ll look at below.

Integrating new people

Companies were hiring right before the lockdown, many have maintained a business as usual recruiting approach, and many more will continue to hire as we move into the summer. But onboarding and making sure your new people feel ‘at home’ is a skill, especially when we’re all, well, at home.

The advice from Harvard Business School is to double up your efforts, and be ‘very deliberate’ in developing your remote onboarding strategy. Some things you can take for granted in an office setting – a natural ‘buddy’ at the next desk, for example – but with remote working, you don’t have that luxury. Be intentional, available and proactive, when onboarding new talent.

Loneliness

A top concern for remoters, according to Buffer’s survey, and one that can go under the radar for some time. With all the irritations of a busy office comes a sense of connection, and hopefully a friendly face at the next desk. For thousands of people, basic office interactions are the only really ‘social’ contact they’ll have that week.

Without micromanaging, stay ‘close’ to your employees and colleagues, making sure you ask ‘how’re you getting on?’ (and meaning it), at the start of that regular one-to-one you’re having (you are having them, right?), before moving into business minutiae. And use tools like Slack to their full potential – from parenting and baking to mental health and introvert corner – all of these are existing chat channels we’ve come across, and mean a lot to their members.

Communication

Another classic remote working problem. It’s a big challenge to a company’s culture too, because without good communication tools and habits, how can you fly the same flag and be part of something special?

Alongside getting your people set up with great tools, remember that when you’re not in a room together, communication needs to be extra clear. It’s too easy for screen-based misunderstandings to fester, and if you can’t calm things down with ‘the wink of an eye or a certain tone of voice’, take advice from Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier in their book, REMOTE: Office Not Required, and double-down on your communication skills.

Unplugging

We’ve seen in Buffer’s 2020 report (above) that unplugging is a top problem for remoters, with 18% struggling to flick the off-switch.

Remote workers do like to be at home, and even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 80% of respondents chose home as their primary working location. For the uninitiated, working almost-constantly from home might sound relaxing. No commute, childcare to-hand, all the comforts of your own living space, etc.

But in reality, with your laptop out on the kitchen table and no 18.49 to Hastings to catch, it’s easy for work to bleed past your usual stop-time, into the evening and weekends.

Your environment is a big part of it, too. When home is your workspace and the workspace is your home, it can be tough to ‘leave your work at the front door’. Add the need to take holiday (a strange concept, in lockdown) and your smart-working company culture can suffer. Why? Because people need downtime and rest periods, to really show up and set their role on fire, rather than burning out.

Superscript – our remote culture

When Cameron and Ben (our founders) set up Superscript in 2014, building and nurturing a smart, happy culture that broke the traditional insurance mould was top of the agenda.

With lockdown came a shift in ways of working – not too disruptive, and as a digital company we were pretty well set up – but more concerningly a new challenge for the company culture we’re so proud of. Outside of lockdown we aren’t fully distributed, most of us are based in the office, and carrying our culture into Zoom catch-ups and Slack chats meant we had to work extra hard to keep the spirit alive.

Here’s what we did:

  • have a robust remote set-up. This was our first job and a big shout-out goes to our management team, who made sure screens were delivered to everyone’s front doors on day one of lockdown.
  • expand your networks. Right from the start, we were all having daily catch-ups with someone outside of our core team, using a random matching tool. We now use the pairing app Donut for this – you can add it really easily to Slack and it’s been so important for onboarding our new hires during the crisis.
  • keep your company meetings. We’ve increased our all-employee facetime by having a weekly company Zoom meeting, keeping everyone up-to-date on how different departments are doing.
  • keep an eye on stress. We’ve set up with Spill – read all about it in 5 awesome apps for wellbeing – to stay on the pulse with employee mental health, and helping out where necessary.
  • bring the fun. We’ve been leaning on Slack for lots of ours, and things like daily challenges have been a laugh. From posting the best-looking lunch (ok, it’s really the most shameful ones that get the votes) to real-time push-up cams, it’s an opportunity to smile and learn new things about our colleagues. And if we live by ourselves, are new to the business and/or are feeling a bit lonely, it’s a valuable connection point.
  • add little extras. This depends on your circumstances but is there something outside of the benefits package, that could bring a smile to lots of faces? Some companies are getting a weekly lunch delivered to employees’ doors, but we’ve gone with twice-weekly online personal trainer sessions, by popular demand.
  • whether it’s a lemonade in the sun or a beer at your desk, keep the Friday drinks trolley. This needs no explanation, and you’re probably already doing it. Keep it going, don’t talk about work, and embrace toddlers running in, dogs barking and the current madness.

You’ll find people are far more likely to stick around for Friday drinks in a post-lockdown world, if it’s become part of their remote unplugging routine.

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