Note: This article was written by Daniel Freedman, CEO of Burnalong and published in RealClearMarkets.
COVID-19 made remote work the new normal, giving employees more flexibility to live and work from anywhere. But with pandemic restrictions lifting, many companies now face a challenge: how do they keep the increased productivity and other benefits of remote work while also unifying employees under a common company culture?
The answers can be found in organizations that, even before the pandemic, successfully nurtured strong cultures across remote workforces. From the Marines to McKinsey, the Jesuits to the Wall Street Journal, I’ve seen first-hand how organizations of all stripes built virtual yet vibrant cultures across the globe.
Organizations that successfully bridge geographic gaps with collaborative cultures embrace the following critical practices: 1) they increase the frequency of employee communications; 2) they articulate a clear mission, reinforced through regular storytelling; and 3) they deliberately create social interactions online.
Increase the frequency of employee communications. Remote work is a drag if someone feels siloed and separate from what the rest of the company is doing. Weekly all-hand meetings, monthly townhalls, and company-wide communications updates ensure people feel included. It’s also very different when one person is remote (and can feel excluded) versus where everyone is remote. When I started my career in journalism at the Wall Street Journal Europe, all of the colleagues with whom I directly worked were based in different cities across Europe. Group conference calls were chances for everyone to connect and get on the same page with each other.
Articulate a clear mission, reinforced through regular storytelling. Of all the places I’ve worked, my time at UNICEF working to protect children’s rights globally gave the most insight into building a workplace culture today. I saw how colleagues working across continents could be powerfully united behind a shared mission and have a strong culture, joined by the work they were doing. We regularly shared stories of children who’ve been trafficked, used as child soldiers, or as human shields in wars. The pain and tears I shared with colleagues over these stories created a bond that transcended continents. Having a clear mission that unites employees behind a larger goal is crucial, no matter what your organization does.
Deliberately create social interactions online. “Casual collisions” is shorthand for the ideas that sprout and relations that grow from bumping into someone at a water cooler. But people can still have casual conversations online. Companies only need provide the means (and excuse) to do so. Fifteen years ago while working at a newspaper, a remote colleague introduced me to his fantasy sports league, it brought us closer as we spent time outside of work talking about something other than work. With today’s technology, it’s even easier to create those interactions that remove hierarchy and reporting structures: virtual coffees, virtual book clubs or online group exercise and wellness activities.
I currently lead a company that aims to do exactly this—for both our geographically dispersed employees as well as those of our clients. We provide an online video health and wellness platform, with relatable trainers and social supports, which allows employees of companies to take classes live with colleagues (or with family and friends) wherever they are in the world.
I’ve seen these tactics even work with tough-as-nails law enforcement agents. As Chief Strategy Officer for The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy, I worked with intelligence and law enforcement from across continents to help prevent convicted terrorists from re-engaging in violence upon release. Operatives from Singapore to Belfast were not only able to collaborate effectively but also build relationships with each other across global time zones using frequent communications, a clear mission and opportunities for casual interactions.
As restrictions lift, it’s not going to be all or nothing, remote or in-person. The future is hybrid. The companies that exit the pandemic best will be those that adapt to greater distance with more dynamic cultures. It’s been done before, and it can be done again.
Originally published in RealClearMarkets on May 12, 2021.