By Michèle Rafferty - 6th March, 2021
Organizations have shifted to telework en masse during the pandemic. Many will never return to the physical office or will hybridize it telework and coworking. While the last year has demonstrated that more jobs can be done remotely than was previously thought, the continued need for community and connection while people are distributed has not been adequately addressed. To explore how organizations and individuals can nurture and sustain culture across geographic boundaries, we hosted “Enriching Culture Within a Distributed Workforce,” the latest in our ongoing series of webinars dedicated to navigating the challenges facing workplaces.
Our panelists were Ashleigh Brookshaw, Community Engagement Manager at American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP); Evelyn Lee, Senior Experience Designer at Slack; and Lisa Hendrickson, Adjunct Professor for the Sustainable Design Program at FIT. Amy Rosen, Sociospatial Designer at PLASTARC, moderated the discussion, which was a constructive and informative exchange on how the pandemic has encouraged companies to envision work in a new way.
The conversation began with all agreeing that changes in leadership and management are necessary for a positive shift in the workforce. Hendrickson acknowledged that the pandemic has catalyzed changes that were previously thought impossible, including the rapid shift to telework. She went on to say that making the most of this moment will require companies to adopt a more flexible mindset and clarify their mission, their vision, values, and purpose.
Hendrickson emphasized that high value collaborative and social activities can still happen without people being physically face to face. Leadership needs to revisit essential questions that may not have been considered for some time—big questions like: Why are we here? What value is the environment providing?
Lee highlighted that culture is not about social events. It is transmitted through every interaction. She pointed out that onboarding in the tech space often lasts only a week and emphasized that it should last longer. Hendrickson agreed, and explained that how we teach and train people will maintain the culture, especially in the way we use language and how it informs us.
Hendrickson continued with an example from her own company, where she dispensed with the traditional department structure and replaced it with a neighborhood model. This encouraged people to treat one another with more respect and promoted a sense of belonging. Hendrickson recognized this might sound too ‘fuzzy’ for the attendees, but she believes that if we can implement new ways of thinking that this can become more mainstream. Brookshaw added that there is a need to normalize finding the space to disconnect and take care of one’s mental health while participating in the digital culture.
Changes in how people work have also been accompanied by an overdue push for diversity, equity and inclusion. Even though more diverse teams have been shown to have better performance, many companies were continuing to fall short—even in traditional physical settings where, in theory, everyone has equal access to each other and to information. Digital work practices can potentially introduce a new set of barriers unless organizations are purposeful about inclusion
Businesses can successfully nurture culture through technology, but they first need to understand how their employees want to receive it. After all, the most successful change strategies put people first. Brookshaw, as a Community Manager, stressed that simply asking the same question over and over again won’t necessarily engage a community; instead, pay attention to how questions are answered by the community to find out whether or not it is flourishing. Choosing the right technology platforms requires planning and taking the time to understand how its employees work. For example, it certainly doesn’t make sense to have a desktop-based system if people are always on the move.
Making effective change means letting go of micromanaging people, and boundaries need to be recognized in a remote setting, just as in a ‘traditional’ work space. Managers will also need to set standards for behavior under the new model. They need to not only encourage work-life balance but also model it themselves.
As long-time proponents of distributed work, we applaud the energy now being poured into making workplaces better for their people. As organizations continue to navigate the challenges of making their business work under new models, their people must come first. Culture and community, while not always top-of-mind, make the whole enterprise possible.