Whether you’re new to managing remote or hybrid workers or you own a company with teams scattered across the globe, one of the biggest challenges you likely face is developing the trust and camaraderie that are so necessary for collaboration and innovation. A commitment to articulate and communicate your company’s values and foster employee connections can engage hybrid workers, strengthen their loyalty to your business and improve productivity.
“Lots of people could get away without being conscious of their company culture when everyone was in the office,” says Dorie Clark, a communication coach, executive education professor and the bestselling author of The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. “But now that people are working remotely or in a hybrid office, that forces leaders to be deliberate, even if they could skate before.”
When employees don’t feel they’re part of a team or don’t have a sense of the culture of their company, Clark says, they’re more likely to leave because there’s nothing to tether them.
“We’re in a time when people are rethinking how they make decisions and how they measure success, so I encourage business leaders to bring an experimental mindset to their work while letting their employees know they’ll support them through a series of transitions,” says Lia Garvin, a former senior team operations leader at Google and the author of Unstuck: Reframe Your Thinking to Free Yourself from the Patterns and People That Hold You Back. “I encourage people to move away from thinking, This is how it was, as if pre-COVID was better. This is a good time to acknowledge that we’ve all changed and to create a new culture.”
Here are a few techniques workplace experts recommend to strengthen your company’s culture:
1. Establish and articulate your organization’s identity.
It’s important to align people around a purpose—either the company’s mission or a cause that’s adjacent to the business, says Sophie Wade, author of Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work.
“You need a strong element to connect people and to make sure everyone understands what each person does that supports the overall objective of the company,” Wade advises. “You also need to articulate the values of your company. One company I work with picks a value of the week, such as respect, and everyone leans into that value. At the end of the week, every employee talks about how they lived that value, such as listening more carefully and not interrupting.”
2. Give reasons for interconnection.
When employees work in separate locations, they often miss out on the side conversations that can put their work into context, says Ngan H. Nguyen, author of Self-Defined Success: You Already Have Everything It Takes and founder and executive director of Cintamani Group, an executive coaching and consulting firm.
“It takes an extra effort to give people their why and help them understand the broader picture of how their work fits into an overall project, brand or multi-year set of goals,” Nguyen explains. “It helps people’s morale to understand that connection, especially if they’re new to the company.”
Getting a customer in front of people who don’t normally have direct contact with them can be a great way to help everyone feel a stronger connection to the business, says Deb Boelkes, a business development leader and author of The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture.
3. Foster an ownership mindset.
A strong sense of trust is needed when people don’t see their boss all the time, so Garvin encourages managers to provide clarity around goals and offer freedom for people to do their work however they want. “We need to reframe accountability away from micromanaging to an ownership mentality that gives people the power to be successful,” Garvin says.
To accomplish this, Wade recommends asking employees what they want from their managers and their company to help them feel more empowered.
4. Open multiple lines of communication.
Employers should ask their staff how they prefer to communicate and how often, Boelkes advises. “It’s the manager’s job to remove the roadblocks and meet people where they are. That could be a weekly phone call, an in-person lunch or a bimonthly Zoom.”
Nguyen recommends a group Slack channel and weekly team calls where people share what they’re working on. Team or full-company meetings, depending on the size of the business, can give everyone a chance to talk about what they’re working on, what’s going well and what’s not. This practice also promotes cross-communication by connecting employees who can help each other. Boelkes also recommends actively encouraging people to ask for guidance from their managers and peers.
“People want flexible work hours, but that requires everyone to lean into asynchronous communications,” Garvin says. “You need to decide when and how people weigh in and how decisions get made when everyone isn’t in the room together.” She adds that new employees who have no sense of the office culture should get paired with a work buddy or mentor to help them get oriented: “Make it clear that there are no dumb questions and that these relationships are meant to be supportive.”
5. Organize events to connect people.
On a basic level, every company needs to develop a strategy to connect people, Clark says. In the nearly three years since the pandemic began, a significant number of new hires have never been onboarded in person or met their coworkers.
“Organizations today need to consciously force people to connect one-on-one for getting-to-know-you conversations,” Clark says. “In most cases, people haven’t done this, so they don’t know their colleagues or what their interests are. There’s no cohesion without connection.”
Clark says employees may not feel empowered to make these connections on their own, so bosses need to establish this as a norm and set the terms. “This is one place I think managers need to impose on their employees and not worry about being too heavy-handed,” she argues. “When I have a party of more than 10 people who don’t know each other well, I require name tags, which most people hate. But they’ll do it if forced and it makes it easier to make a connection.”
Scheduling brief one-on-one conversations in person or virtually during which people can’t talk about work forces them to get to know each other, Clark adds. She recommends providing sample questions to get the conversations started.
“I think it’s a great idea for managers to set aside an hour or so during work hours for mandatory non-work conversations,” Wade agrees. “If this isn’t mandatory, people might not join in. It’s important to reinforce that this is not for talking about work and to regularly set aside a few minutes for social connections during meetings.”
Events such as virtual team lunches, virtual happy hours or in-person lunches when team members are local can develop relationships between coworkers, Garvin recommends. “Managers can organize 15-minute virtual coffee chats between people who have never met or a 30-minute virtual session with 10-minute chats in breakout rooms to emulate watercooler conversations. It reduces the awkwardness if there are thought-provoking questions given to participants, such as, ‘What’s a transformational moment from your career?’ or ‘What’s a piece of feedback you’re working on now?’ It’s important to set up situations where people can discover they have something in common.”
6. Plan occasional in-person meetings.
Wade suggests organizing in-person meetings at least quarterly if possible. “Relationships are built on common ground and shared memories,” she says.
Clark agrees that it’s much easier for people to connect virtually once they have a baseline of an in-person connection.
“Switching the venue for a semi-annual strategy meeting from one region to another can make it easier for everyone to have a chance for an in-person meeting,” Boelkes adds.
7. Develop a system for recognition.
The most important thing an organization can do is identify what they aspire to be and then look for organic examples of this among their employees, Clark advises. “Recognize your employees for lived values and make them heroes to their colleagues. That’s powerful validation for them and powerful for their coworkers to see that anyone can and will receive recognition for showing the company’s values,” she continues.
Avoid getting in a rut with appreciation—such as handing out Starbucks cards too often, she adds: “You want it to be a surprise, not an expectation. It’s especially meaningful if the reward is personal, such as bags of coffee for a coffee aficionado or a pass to the local independent theater for a film buff.”
People need to know they’re valued and that they’re not invisible even if they’re not in the office, Garvin says. “You have to develop a language of appreciation that works for each employee,” she says, “whether that’s a one-on-one conversation or public recognition in a weekly email or a monthly newsletter.”
It’s best to recognize people in front of their peers, especially in an unscheduled moment such as a team meeting or a group email rather than an annual awards ceremony, Wade adds.
8. Set expectations.
Nguyen recommends setting expectations based on performance goals rather than hours and letting people clarify for themselves how they can reach those goals.
“You also need to set expectations for meeting participation, especially if they’re hybrid, such as not allowing people on video to use the chat function and restraining debriefings with the in-person people,” Garvin says. “You don’t want to create an ‘othering’ situation, so you need to set ground rules for complete transparency for everyone.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 Issue of SUCCESS magazine.