The importance of each leader’s role in building a strong remote work culture cannot be understated. Yet, as many are leading remotely for the first time, few have been given the skills to lead this way—and many don’t even know what those skills are.
When everyone was back in the office, a charismatic leader with positive energy and an empathetic style enhanced the company’s culture as an organic result of being who they were. But some managers struggle to fulfill the same role in remote work culture. The moves they need to make don’t come as naturally. And many are first-generation remote leaders—meaning the skills to lead virtually were never role modeled for them.
But what’s the danger in having leaders who don’t know how to nurture a healthy remote work culture? Take this example:
Dream Job, Deflated
Last year, a friend landed a dream job in a top company in her field that had recently become fully remote. It was a big step up, and the compensation was great. She’d heard great things about her new boss and team. Everyone raved about the company culture.
She quit that job in less than a year. She’d later say, “I don’t know what went wrong. I got the job and colleagues I expected. Yet it just never seemed like it was working out.” As a result, her company lost a true high performer. And I’d bet her leader never saw her departure coming.
With further reflection, she realized why she never thrived. The role required collaboration with a diverse set of stakeholders, yet she struggled to build strong relationships with the right people. Her peers were whip-smart, interesting, and funny, but she rarely had the chance to connect with them. While her boss was eager to support her, he was often too busy, leaving her stranded and feeling vulnerable when she needed advice the most.
Simply put, she left because she never found her place within their remote work culture. And her leader’s lack of proactive support meant she never got to experience the culture everyone raved about. Cases like this beg the question: are these failures an inevitability of remote work culture? Is this another reason to send teams back to the office?
In traditional office environments, good leaders were culture amplifiers. But in the virtual workplace, they are culture funnels. So much more of an employee’s perception of culture is now based on their leader. If leaders don’t take the necessary and deliberate steps to create a positive remote work culture, it just won’t happen.
Why Do Employers Not Like Remote Work?
Several major companies are requiring workers to return to the office. Many fear productivity loss and question whether employees still work hard at home. And they worry about a loss of collaboration and the traditional office culture that once bonded workers.
In reality, the link between being in the office and employee productivity is tenuous at best. Many employees report that at home, absent from frequent interruptions and an hour or more lost to commuting—they get more done.
It’s all even fuzzier when we account for the fact that our perceptions of how hard people are working are really a result of “productivity theater.” In the office, that looked like coming in early, staying late, or being physically present for important meetings (even when their attendance wasn’t necessary). In the virtual world, it’s about how quickly someone responds to an IM or moving the mouse cursor enough to look like you’re always working.
But as remote work is here to stay for some, many wise HR leaders are thinking beyond productivity to culture and retention. How do we keep the camaraderie and team spirit we associated with the office in the virtual workplace? And how can we still offer flexible work to retain and attract talent who are demanding it? The last question is especially pressing as employees under 35 are 2.2X more likely to leave if flexible work is not supported.
Many leaders struggle with the idea that the only way to build culture is to physically see it. It’s much more complex to define work culture in the virtual world.
What Does a Strong Remote Work Culture Look Like?
A strong remote work culture, at its fundamentals, is the same as a strong office culture. People feel supported and empowered to do their best work. Leaders and colleagues trust one another, collaborate well, and demonstrate inclusive behavior. Their personal and practical needs are met, and they feel like they belong.
Ideally, the sum of those parts is a culture that engages employees, reduces turnover, and inspires greater levels of commitment and innovation.
We’re trying to create the same dynamics with remote work, but the path to get there is totally different. What used to happen automatically now requires constant planning, intention, reflection, and recalibration.
Each leader has a role to play, and the leaders who are falling behind in creating a strong virtual work culture are feeling the pain. After all, it’s harder to work around a toxic boss or a team that lacks cohesion in the virtual world. What might have been an acceptable shortcoming in the past is now a fatal flaw.
This raises the stakes for each leader’s role to support individuals and build cohesive teams.
What NOT to Do to Build Your Remote Work Culture
One pitfall to avoid is simply overlaying old frameworks for leadership onto the virtual world. Things like Zoom happy hours and virtual team-building events often fail to achieve the desired result.
It’s also a risk to rely too heavily on in-person meetings that occur a few times per year. While those times of face-to-face bonding do strengthen existing relationships and help to build new ones, they don’t fully make up for a day-to-day work culture where employees don’t feel supported, valued, and included.
The biggest mistake is to let aspects of culture shape themselves organically, as they once did in the office. Leaders can no longer rely on teams to bond by virtue of physical proximity. Gone are the days of learning by osmosis. Information and ideas that were disseminated in overheard conversations and chance encounters don’t factor into virtual work culture.
6 Leadership Shifts that Support Remote Culture
So how can leaders create a strong remote work culture? It’s not by leadership as usual. Leaders must make several paradigm shifts in their understanding of their role and its impact on the teams they lead.
1. From Open Door to Open Calendar
The idea of an open-door policy is not good enough in the virtual world. Statements like, “I’m here if you need anything” ring hollow. Why? They put responsibility on your team members to know how, when, and to what extent to leverage you as their leader.
And, for leaders with a jam-packed calendar, the sentiment is especially empty. If the next block of time on your calendar is next week and the issue is urgent, a remote employee is left feeling stuck and on their own in their moment of need.
To make sure team members get the support they need in a remote workplace culture, leaders must consciously create space for connection. Leaders trying to do this better might consider:
- Mixing formal and informal check-ins. Having a regular cadence of check-in meetings (and honoring your commitment to keeping them) is a strong start. Also, leaders can intentionally add informal check-ins to the mix. While the explicit purpose might be to ask for an employee’s input or provide a timely update, they can also help maintain connection and give the employee more opportunities to seek support.
- Making sure your team has greater access to you than anyone else. Leaders can accomplish this by blocking off time on their calendars that shows as “busy” to everyone but their team, who know they can schedule in these blocks. Leaders can also be more transparent about their typical working hours and preferences. Do they typically start early in the morning? When do they take a midday break? How open are they to a five-minute chat if they show as available in between meetings?
2. From Tactical Advisors to Career Strategists
The virtual world favors shorter interactions. The format of a 30-minute call lends itself to playing whack-a-mole with the issues of the day. It primes us to react, not to plan.
Team members do indeed need more help with the tactics of getting their job done in the virtual workplace. But in a positive virtual work environment, leaders balance providing that support with carving out time to discuss career growth and development planning.
Leaders should set up meetings with team members to solely focus on their development. In these meetings, they can explore career aspirations, the skills an employee wants to develop, and what support they need. The more frequently these conversations occur, the more likely the leader is to be able to match someone with a developmental assignment aligned with their goals, identify a mentorship opportunity, or make recommendations for formal learning offered by the organization.
3. From Clear Communication to Creating an Inspirational Vision
In a strong remote workplace culture, leaders need to be excellent communicators. In fact, they need to be even better than they were in the office. Why? Information tends to flow less freely in the virtual workplace. A leader who is a poor communicator will be the bottleneck preventing employees from receiving critical information in a timely manner.
But virtual leaders now have a greater level of responsibility not just to pass messages along. They need to inspire their remote employees and rally them around organizational changes.
In the virtual world, it’s easier for employees to become siloed and focused on their small piece of the puzzle. This creates a disconnect from a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. Great virtual leaders make sure employees understand the big picture of what is changing, the rationale for the change, and the team’s criticality to its success.
Additionally, navigating change means leaders seeking input from their teams. What short-term challenges does this change create for them? What support is needed? In a strong remote company environment, employees have the psychological safety to speak up and voice their concerns.
Having an excellent strategy and plan of action simply isn’t enough if leaders in your remote work culture don’t have the emotional intelligence to champion change and lead their teams with a strong vision and purpose.
In addition, when leaders themselves feel a strong sense of purpose, they’re better equipped to help their teams feel it, too. According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023 research, when leaders feel a strong sense of purpose, they are 9X more likely to feel engaged in their role and 2.4X more likely to intend to stay at the company for the next year.
4. From Facilitating Introductions to Purposeful Networking
Without the benefit of serendipitous run-ins at the office, leaders need to help their team members build and nurture networks. In the office, that may have looked like introducing them to the key partners they needed to know and letting the employee take it from there.
The virtual work environment requires more focus on the steps beyond that—helping employees nurture those networks and leverage key relationships.
This is especially relevant when onboarding new team members. An initial introduction is unlikely to be enough to serve as a springboard to a strong relationship with someone who the employee will otherwise not commonly encounter. While facilitating an introduction, a leader can make suggestions about how to foster the connection in the long term. For example, a leader can suggest setting up a quarterly meeting and making sure their employee is clear on what types of problems this colleague can help them solve.
Leaders shouldn’t just focus on their extroverted employees. Introverts may need even more help in this area. While they may appear content to keep their heads down and work independently, a weak network will ultimately create fertile ground for lack of collaboration partners, poor grasp of the stakeholder environment, and loneliness.
According to Gallup, just 2 in 10 U.S. employees say they have a best friend at work. That metric has long been known to be a predictor of employee engagement and culture. Workplace loneliness is on the rise. And it can be one of the silent killers of remote work culture.
We often think about networking employees based on who they need to know to get the job done. But to have a strong virtual work culture, employees should also get to know like-minded individuals who share similar interests, are at a similar career stage, or are likely to have some other reason to bond.
5. From High-Performing Work Groups to Team Hyper-Collaboration
The importance of having a strong team dynamic with a shared sense of purpose, clear accountabilities to one another, and interpersonal dynamics that foster a sense of belonging has never been higher.
This is one area where each leader has the most control over their team’s experience of the company’s culture. Leaders need to proactively create opportunities for team members to brainstorm. They also need to create space to allow their employees to learn from one another and lean on one another in tough times.
Inevitably some team members will need team collaboration more than others—based on personal preferences, tenure, career stage, or the extent of their need for affiliation and socialization—so leaders need to ensure everyone is contributing equally to a collaborative team dynamic.
Leaders can tell if they’re falling short when team members over-rely on them for support instead of reaching out to their peers for advice. So, it’s worth considering the balance of problems leaders help the employee solve directly and what problems serve as good opportunities for the employee to reach out to other members of the team.
Adding some structure is useful for shaping the virtual team dynamic. Leaders can assign rotating peer coaching partners or pods to solve problems together. Leaders should also leverage collaboration tools (like Teams or Slack channels) for informal, just-in-time peer support.
Finally, in a strong remote culture, leaders would be wise to constantly reinforce the team’s shared goals and purpose. This includes tracking team metrics and recognizing progress made toward goals. It also means highlighting examples of strong collaboration among team members to show that collaborative behavior is valued and rewarded.
6. From Defense to Offense When It Comes to Retaining Top Talent
It’s nearly impossible to maintain a strong remote work culture when teams are constantly losing members to attrition. And while many leaders view turnover as an inevitability of the labor market, they must recognize their role in creating a virtual work culture that makes people want to stay.
In fairness, without the benefit of in-person interactions, it’s harder to spot the signs of disengagement and burnout. Interactions on Zoom calls create both an easier way for employees to mask that they’re struggling and a greater challenge to opening up and discussing concerns.
What proactive steps can leaders take to avoid preventable turnover?
- Take employee feedback seriously. If an employee brings up a concern repeatedly—or it sounds like it’s having a great impact on their work—leaders should give serious thought to how they’ll address it. Is there a barrier they can remove? Can they coach the employee to better handle the situation? When it comes to retention, feedback is a gift, and leaders ignore it at their own peril. It’s much more helpful to listen to and act on feedback in the moment instead of reading it in an exit interview or on Glassdoor.
- Check in on employees’ wellbeing. While managers themselves may feel exhausted with over-filled calendars, they still often must be the social safety net for struggling employees. When an employee expresses feeling burned out or overwhelmed, leaders must seize the moment to help them. They can offer empathy and compassion and think about practical ways to support them.
- Conduct regular retention discussions. Leaders need to make a habit of having retention conversations with their employees. These often consist of simple questions like, “What’s keeping you here?” or “When is the last time you thought about leaving, and what prompted it?”
Leaders Foster a Healthy Virtual Work Culture
With virtual working and dispersed teams becoming increasingly the norm, companies must assess their remote work culture. If your company has gone virtual in the last few years, it’s nearly a guarantee that—for better or for worse—you don’t have the same culture you did before.
And without understanding your remote work culture, how can you expect to maximize performance, engagement, and retention?
The rallying cry in favor of remote work tends to drown out the voices in your company who are struggling with aspects of virtual work culture. To maintain the strong culture your company once had—or to build an even stronger one—all leaders must understand their role in shaping a healthy remote work environment.
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Mark Smedley is a Leadership Advisor for DDI. He is passionate about helping organizations hire the best leaders, build their leadership bench strength, and make leadership development a way of work in a fast-paced world. Follow Mark on LinkedIn where he talks about the modern workplace, the human side of leadership, and perspectives on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.