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A Virtual Organizational Culture? It’s all about Friction

By Paul Goyette on January 21, 2021

It’s simple really. Pre-pandemic, the Economic World Forum reported that only 7% of the workforce worked remotely and this 7% tended to be people in management and higher up the org chart. Now … depending on which web information you read, 66% of small business workers are remote (small business trends), and 88% of companies have asked or required their employees to work remotely (gartner.com), according to Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), 33% of the labor force is not working, 26% of the labor force in the service industry, and the remaining 42% of the labor force works remotely accounting for 2/3 of the US economic activity. Two Thirds of the gross domestic output is by people working remotely. It’s simple to understand the new world … but not easy to navigate.


Organizational culture is more important than ever - a literal life-line in our remote world. But how do we build culture virtually?

 

To look forward, let’s take a quick look back for a moment. Remember what it took to build a strong organizational culture when offices were buzzing with people and the water cooler was flowing, Culture required:

        • A clear “what/why” of the culture
        • Executive leadership
        • Front line leader support
        • Employee clarity
        • Measurement of progress
        • Sustainment over time
        • Communication, communication, communication

Learn how experiential virtual team-building can be used to increase  collaboration in a remote workplace.

So ask yourself … what’s different now?

To build a virtual organizational culture, you need EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS. Granted, the “how to do this” will be radically different, but the underlying foundation of culture remains true … An organizational culture is sum total of the behaviors of its people – it just happens to now be virtual.

 

As humans, we struggle with this new reality because humans are wired for connection and this pandemic reality is putting hurdles and lockdowns in our way. In fact, the remote reality is creating friction for us to connect. According to Oxford, Friction is defined as the action of one surface or object, rubbing against another, or said another way “our remote reality is now rubbing against the fundamental human need for connection.”


Friction is a VERY strong deterrent to accomplishing goals (as experienced by anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution – which includes all of us). Many years ago I was inspired by a business colleague to challenge myself to run every day. Distance, speed and time didn’t matter… just get out and run. The first time I dove into this lofty goal was in the late fall which instantly, living in the north, created friction in the form of freezing cold temps, frequent snows and treacherous surfaces. The goal died quickly but I never forgot it. I analyzed my behaviors, my process, my goal, my running gear and realized that I had too many hurdles in my way to be successful. Too much friction. I addressed the issues that caused friction and I am currently 2+ years of daily running. Identifying the friction and ways to remove it or at least lesson is the first step of removing it.

 

Friction

We have all experienced it – friction – and when it comes to building a culture in a remote world, there are lots of friction points, such as:

      • Communication platforms
      • No spontaneous team interaction
      • Personal isolation
      • Monotony
      • Work becomes life, life becomes work
      • The day-to-day needs of a family
      • My environment
      • My health, my wellbeing
      • And more…


Our collective responsibility is to remember those elements and actions that created culture “in the office” and remove any friction to re-engineer them in our now virtual world. The World Economic Forum identified the top 10 future skills and characteristics that will be needed in the workplace of the future. We are now in the workplace of the future compared to 2020, and these four skills and four characteristics can help you create the virtual culture you are looking for:

 

Creativity

Creativity is the skill of generating solutions through innovative ideas, fresh insights and new approaches. Look at the above friction points and imagine ways to remove them. Offer opportunities to involve the team and allow the team to make choices. Don’t feel creative? Talk to your team, there is creativity in everyone.

 

Curiosity

Curiosity is a motivation or desire to seek new and novel information. Look and listen around you for others who may be achieving a level of successful remote culture building. Notice what others are doing and give it a try. Encourage questions. Encourage guessing. What’s the worst that can happen … it doesn’t work move on to another idea you saw or heard.

 

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Taking a problem (friction), turning it on it’s head and seeing ways to improve the situation results in exploration of change. “I can’t” or “we don’t do it that way” are prime killers of a critical thinking/problem solving. Look at the friction points in front of you and challenge yourself to leave the comfort zone of “we always do this” to establish a new reality.

 

Communication

Communication is a skill that helps manage the pressures we face, simply by talking it out or getting clarity. And communication has changed in this virtual world … People crave connection and our voice is now one of the best and for some (those constantly on virtual platforms) the only tool we have to create connection. Create a language with your team that emulates the culture you are looking for.

 

Good to know – creativity, curiosity, critical thinking/problem solving, communication! And to create a virtual culture and remove friction, here are 4 practical characteristics that you as a leader, you as an employee, can embrace.

 

Be Human

In a strange way, working remotely and using different communication platforms has opened up a more human side of all of us. Through video conferences, we now see directly into the lives of our colleagues and clients in ways we never have before. Through permission, more conversations begin with empathy and genuine interest. Leverage the human nature of all of us to create connections and:

        • Share vulnerability first
        • Notice backgrounds
        • Make time for banter

 

Be Transparent

We are all experiencing this new reality together. It’s okay to not know, and even better to admit, that we are learning together. Openly share your reality and be genuinely interested in the reality of your employees.

        • Show and ask for respectful transparency
        • Show and ask for vulnerability
        • Show and ask for candor

 

Be Consistent

This may be a strange suggestion given there has been significant consistency throughout this new reality of separation, news cycles, financial challenges and more. But consistency of cultural routines, consistency of creative ideas, consistency of inclusion, consistency of purpose will help build culture.

        • Create routine with your team
        • Ask for input on what’s important
        • Always have culture on your mind

 

Be Fun

If there is one thing that has been a challenge in this remote world, it is finding an array of fun things to do at any given time. Here’s an opportunity to inject the fun once had between meetings, in hallways, at lunch and after work into your remote interactions. Take responsibility for injecting fun in and amongst the necessary work happening each day.

        • Create weekly “fun-only” meetings
        • Begin virtual meetings with banter and end meetings early
        • Take the old culture, and re-create in the new

 

Culture is not different now; it is just done differently now. Remember what created culture before and look to the skills of communication, creativity, curiosity and analytical thinking/problem solving to help create the “done differently” part; all the while being human, transparent, consistent and fun. Embrace these and you can successfully build a virtual organizational culture.

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As Executive Vice President Global Performance, Paul has extensive experience in consultation, design, and delivery of programs over his 20 year career with Eagle’s Flight. Through his genuine personable approach, Paul is not only a trusted advisor but also a valued partner to his clients; he works seamlessly to ensure that Eagle’s Flight solutions are aligned to their needs and desired outcomes. As a result, Paul is the account executive for Eagle’s Flight largest account. Many of his clients are multi-year accounts from multinational, Fortune 500 companies.

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