Balancing a healthy company culture with remote working

Prior to 2020, remote working had largely been a novelty, trialed only by a handful of  companies in the search for a better work-life balance. Then came COVID-19, and with it the  weeks-long, then months-long nationwide lockdowns to flatten the infection curve. This triggered what has been called ‘the world’s largest telework experiment’ and catapulted remote  work into the spotlight. 

Today, many employees want remote work to remain an option and companies are exploring the idea. This has positive implications for recruitment and scalability – imagine being able to  hire from anywhere, instead of being bound by geography. But if this arrangement is to be  permanent, how will that impact company culture? During the pandemic, many managers  struggled with virtually managing their teams and building bonds between co-workers, which  is essential for synergy and productivity. 

I believe that a middle ground can exist between the flexibility of remote work and the cohesiveness of a good company culture. However, it will take a lot of communication,  tolerance, and open-mindedness from all parties to succeed. 

The dark side of remote working 

Better schedule flexibility, reduced expenses and little to no commute time are significant advantages of remote work. But if it is not managed well, there are downsides too. Many  remote employees struggle with social isolation because of insufficient communication and  support. Additionally, with homes becoming offices and people constantly connected to work  through their devices, it is more difficult than ever to ‘switch off’. This prolonged stress is a  proven precursor to breakdowns and burnout. 

I also find that there is a tendency for managers to micromanage when work is done remotely.  They have less visibility over an employee’s daily routine and are concerned that they may be  less productive as a result. I have heard incredible stories of apps that remotely track mouse  movement or webcams having to be on to make sure that the employee is in their seat. These excessive measures result in an oppressive company culture that is stressful for all parties  and not conducive for work. 

Building the future of work on trust

Trust is the backbone of any healthy corporate culture – especially for companies with dispersed teams. If an employee is producing good and timely results, and is responsive and  responsible, leaders can give them space to manage their own workloads. However, granting  autonomy does not mean abandoning them; a remote employee depends entirely on the  manager’s responsiveness for help and support, and an absent or unsupportive leader can be  detrimental to their confidence and productivity.  

Leaders need to train their people and empower them to make decisions, then trust the  process and focus on the results. Leverage communication and collaboration tools for visibility  and to stay informed. Keep expectations clear and consistent. Managers can set regular  sessions with remote employees – in groups or individually – to check in with them. Give them  adequate time to report on their progress and any obstacles they may be facing, then work  together with them to find a solution. 

Openness and transparency are key to build accountability and trust, which are, in turn, critical  ingredients for an enriched company culture. Leaders need to make their team part of the journey – instead of just telling them about new policies and processes and expecting  compliance, managers can get their team’s feedback on the changes they would like to see,  incorporate it, then show them what they have accomplished together. 

Driving culture-building through engagement 

There is a tendency for communication and interaction to become more purpose-driven in a  remote setting. People are more likely to only get on calls and meetings for work-related  matters, instead of the casual in-person chats that you might have over work lunches and at  the water coolers. This might sound like good news for productivity, but the absence of these  small, personal interactions can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection, which can  result in disengaged and unhappy employees. 

It is entirely possible to maintain a tight-knit culture with remote colleagues – it just takes some  extra effort. For instance, I started the ‘Samurai Soirees’, a weekly Friday bonding session  with my team where we just set aside an hour to do some fun, non-work activities. Once, we  split into teams and debated each other on popular conspiracy theories like birds being  government drones. Not everyone was a fan at first, but over time they started looking forward  to it and I think we’re all closer for it. 

Without downplaying the depth of virtual connections, I also think that companies should make  the effort to host the occasional offsite team-building activity. In-person meetings do wonders  for work relationships because you get to know people more fully, and offsites overall are  excellent for improving creativity, encouraging collaboration and boosting motivation. I have  been part of many company offsites, and have left each one with stronger work relationships  and a recharged spirit. 

Rethinking policy and procedure

Transitioning to a hybrid or fully remote work environment requires more thought than  companies may initially realise. Policies and processes that worked for a fully in-person office  may no longer be effective for remote employees. 

Take the onboarding experience, for instance. When we have new hires from all around the  world, how do we design an experience that helps the new member feel connected and  welcomed? Maybe that involves assigning them a work buddy or scheduling a virtual bonding  session with their teammates. Maintaining an updated, intuitive intranet with relevant 

collaterals is also important so that everyone starts off from the same knowledge base – no  matter where they come from. 

The key, I find, is to remember the original intent of why such policies were designed and find  new ways to adapt them for a remote setting. Some companies might change a travel  allowance to an allowance for ergonomic furniture – the goal here is to defray costs incurred  on the job. A manager that used to rely on Friday team lunches to bond with their team may  now choose to organise virtual scavenger hunts or sharing sessions instead. There is more  than one path to the same destination. 

Evolving with, not fighting against

There is no question in my mind that the workplaces of the future will be more flexible than  ever before, especially with advanced connectivity and cutting-edge technology transforming  work as we know it. Remote working is just the start of this phenomenon, and a business’s  ability to maintain a robust company culture against this fluid backdrop will be a strong  indicator of its future resilience.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Marienelle Castelino
Marienelle brings over 14 years of experience in Brand Communications and Corporate Reputation management. She specialises in strategic planning and development of communication platforms to build executive equity, introduce new offerings and create brand experiences. She has led and managed marquee clients like Emirates Airline, Sofitel, EXPO2020, Danone, P&G, Coca-Cola, Mondelez International, McDonald's and PepsiCo.

Marienelle is also a seasoned leader in travel & tourism communications with solid marketing experience in managing teams and high- profile events like Rugby World Cup 2019, McDowell’s Signature Indian Derby 2010, Mumbai Cyclothon 2010 and non-profit events. Spearheading Emirates Airlines' Brand Communication and Reputation for Japan, Cambodia and India, employing integrated approaches that are data-based, story-driven and unbound by channel to arrive at greater results. Collaborated with cross-functional partners to build successful events that achieved business objectives for Marketing, Consumer PR, Social/Digital. Applying an integrated approach for all her clients to ensure influence and engagement with the right audience so they pay attention, share & take action.

Strategic advisor and counsellor to multinational corporations & Asian C-suite across the globe. She is an expert in crisis management and public affairs advisory to large corporations in Asia along with leading operations as well as building portfolios of marquee clients. She has developed various crisis preparedness modules, conducted media trainings and managed issues & crisis for the most reputed brands in Asia.

Having worked with leading organisations and multinationals in Asia she has received numerous accolades throughout her career from organisations such as The Holmes Report and PRWeek Asia for her past campaigns with her ability to create compelling content which encourages viewers to become co-creators of their own brand experience. .