How to Create and Sustain a Virtual Work Culture
Dec 18, 2020
BY DIANA VIENNE
There’s no denying it: The future of work is upon us, and there’s no going back. More people are working remotely than ever before, whether by choice or because they must.
As companies around the world are learning, the necessity for virtual work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a whole new level of complexity, and leaders have adapted quickly to meet the challenges head-on. However, now that virtual work is integrated into the temporary work world, what comes next?
Leaders need to understand how to inspire and engage people virtually, and still measure results. Employees need resources and guidance to help them stay healthy, engaged, and productive. To sustain a culture that engages the best talent for the long term, companies must shift their behaviors, policies, and mindsets about the ways work gets done.
Winning organizations will be those that integrate and master virtual work, community, and collaboration. To succeed, companies need to focus on four critical activities:
GET THE ORGANIZATION READY
Companies must look at their work policies, practices, and behaviors to evaluate long-term remote-readiness. Then, they must address any gaps to prepare the organization for a long-term, productive virtual work environment.
Review your current people plan. Companies must align their “people plans” to their shift in business focus. During the COVID-19 crisis, they have quickly figured out how to serve their customers and clients remotely. From telemedicine in hospitals to remote learning for public schools and streaming fitness classes, every industry has accelerated its own digital transformation. As a result, the demand for highly skilled remote workers will continue to increase.
With a surge of candidates in the market, companies must recruit and integrate these key individuals into the organization quickly and seamlessly, so that they can capitalize on the cost savings and broader access to rock- star talent. To keep people on track and make progress toward their goals, companies will also need to provide managers with the tools they need to remain connected to their teams, reassess budgets, and determine what individuals can achieve, despite uncertainty about the future.
Establish and reward the right behaviors. Companies must establish new policies and reward behaviors that support virtual working. No longer can employers measure their employees’ productivity on “face time”—their actual presence in an office, day after day. Now, they must shift their focus to what gets done and the value of the work, not how long it takes to get that work done. To do this, leaders must provide clear expectations and metrics based on organizational priorities and goals, rather than discrete tasks.
Recognize and model true work-life blend. Perhaps most important, organizations must recognize their employees as whole humans who have lives beyond the work they produce. Employers must work hard to remove stigma and support employees’ need to make time for self-care—including exercise, meals, and family time. Policies and procedures need to reflect these shifts, and leaders must model a true work-life blend so that it becomes part of the company culture.
PROVIDE TOOLS AND TRAINING
Your employees can’t make the transition to remote work in a vacuum. To be successful, they need support from the organization to connect every employee and every team.
Make communications easier. Now that companies have gone fully virtual, individuals are communicating more efficiently and more frequently across a networked environment. To do this well, everyone, at every level, must make opportunities for dialogue by employing numerous channels.
Leaders can make communication easier for their people. They can remove roadblocks, create a governance structure that pushes decision making out and down, and provide employees with the tools and training they need to empower them for ongoing communication and local decision making. With traditional hierarchies gone, true leaders must step up to facilitate information flow across the organization.
Offer bite-size, interactive learning moments. Individuals are learning new skills every day, and the pace of change has never been faster. Some are taking on new roles and responsibilities and need to get up to speed quickly, some are learning new technology platforms, some are now managing teams remotely, and many are doing all these things simultaneously.
Converting in-person training into bite-size, digestible, and interactive learning moments is key to continuing to upskill employees. Once they are trained, they can use their skills to cross-pollinate into new areas that will drive innovation, growth, and productivity.
STEP UP COMMUNICATION
Leaders need to be accessible, authentic, and more communicative than ever. Take a hard look at your internal communications strategies and make the changes now.
Review strategy and engage senior leaders. Companies must review their executive communication strategy and engage senior leaders from across disciplines to develop messages that will resonate with their people. Those leaders who show up as human, vulnerable, and genuine will inspire people to continue moving forward. They need to be honest and compassionate and share the message that even though they don’t have everything figured out yet, they are working on it. This transparency will pay steep dividends in garnering loyalty and support.
Listen and respond. Leaders need to listen to their people and respond to their concerns in a thoughtful, consistent, and empathetic way. Many leaders are embracing the current moment to make deep connections with employees. They must continue the dialogue they have begun and maintain momentum long past this crisis to sustain employees’ engagement over the long term.
CREATE A SUSTAINABILITY PLAN
Creating a roadmap that balances short-term urgency with long-term strategy is difficult in crisis situations, but now is the time to plan for sustainability. To do this, companies must assess and maintain the components of a successful virtual work culture, establish protocols to support their employees with the most modern tools and communications, and create a plan that can evolve as the landscape shifts.
Envision the future of work in small steps—beginning with reentry. Leaders need to set expectations now for the ways of working that will benefit the organization down the road, so that employees can focus on the strategic business priorities of the future. Creating a vision of “possibility”—even if the details are unclear—provides the guidance to begin planning for the future.
Refine your long-term people plan. Understanding how the new normal impacts the overall talent lifecycle will be critical to steadying employees into the future of work. Nurturing a culture that embraces virtual work will inevitably impact recruiting, onboarding, performance management, development, succession planning, and advancement. Companies need to create and communicate a new baseline on measures of success to set expectations for how employees will continue to grow and evolve, and they must train leaders and managers on how to bring these expectations to life every day.
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to rethink what we know, and our ways of working are no exception. To begin shifting our idea of what’s possible for remote work after COVID-19, leaders must take hold of what’s working today, integrate it quickly into the everyday, and make a flexible plan for sustaining remote work long into the future.
About the Author: Diana Vienne is a senior partner with Notion Consulting, a global change-leadership consultancy that helps leaders tackle complex business challenges. She has more than 20 years of change, talent, and transformation experience working externally for large and boutique consulting firms, as well as internally as chief talent officer in the advertising industry.