Intentional culture

A bouquet of spring flowers viewed from above, against a white tabletop

Imagine it’s your first day on a new job. You’re excited about the role that you’ve taken on, you’re excited about the company – what you know about it so far, anyway – and you’re eager to get started.

How do you start to understand the culture of the organization? I’m not talking about the mission, vision, and values – although you should definitely also know what those are – but the concrete ways that those values play out (or don’t) in your relationships with your coworkers.

In a co-located space, you can rely on clues from the space around you, especially visual cues if you’re a sighted person and auditory cues if you’re a hearing person. Without consciously thinking about it, you can glean the answers to a lot of questions:

  • Is the unofficial team motto “work hard, play hard”?
  • Are people around you eating lunch at their desks or getting up to go outside for a walk?
  • Is there a lot of non-work “water cooler” chat?
  • Can you see the various office cliques that form around non-work conversations?
  • How are people dressed?
  • Are plans being made to spend time together outside of work? (Who is left out of those plans?)
  • When talking about work, are there a lot of silos and territorial approaches, or are projects approached more collaboratively and cross-functionally?

These are all cues about how we act and relate to one another that don’t exist if you’re working remotely (and, by the way, are a lot harder to pick up if you don’t have access to sight or sound, or if it’s difficult for you to read social cues for whatever reason). Often, we pick these kinds of things up organically, by observing how our more established coworkers interact with each other (and, if they are especially nice or have a good onboarding protocol, how they interact with us).

When we’re new to a remote environment, whether we’re used to physically working together in person or not, we have to build up those elements of culture intentionally as if we were asking those questions for the first time. Left to our own devices, remotely, most of us won’t initiate a conversation that isn’t directly relevant to work, so we lose some of the connections that we establish with co-located colleagues that way; plus, in work-related conversations, we have to learn how to convey our intended tone without always relying on in-person social cues.

As a manager, it’s important to ask yourself: how do you think questions like the ones I’ve framed above should be answered on your team? What are the answers to those questions that best reflect your company’s core values? Then, make that answer explicit and work with your team to figure out the best ways to enable it to happen. Some considerations that might come up:

  • How will you approach scheduling in a remote environment?
  • What channels work best for which types of communication?
  • Can you identify cliques that already exist and what impact they’re having on who has power and influence at work? (I promise there are cliques influencing power at work, and if you’re not thinking about who’s in them and why, they are very likely to leave behind your colleagues from minoritized and underrepresented backgrounds.)
  • How can you provide intentional space for non-work conversation in meetings that you run?

It will feel forced and awkward at first to do things like announce in your chat app that you’re going to lunch or stepping away to take care of your family: you are forming new habits, and if new habits were easy to form, we would all have impeccable flossing routines. Be candid about the fact that it feels forced and awkward, and encourage your team to let you know (maybe by means of an anonymous form they can fill out) if “forced and awkward” starts to cross a line into “uncomfortable and invasive.”

I’m not the first to observe that remote management requires a level of intentionality and focused communication that’s easy to let happen naturally in a co-located context. In this article by Juan Pablo Buriticá, and Katie Womersley, Buriticá writes “Remote teamwork doesn’t happen by accident, but through deliberate systems and practices around communication, coordination, collaboration, organization, operations, and culture.” Those deliberate systems and practices, I’d argue, are worth your time to create even if you think you’ll be fully co-located post-quarantine.

Establishing a culture that’s intentional, explicit, and focused on your core values is critical to the success of a remote team. When applied to co-located teams, it helps to ensure that the culture that develops among your staff is aligned with the values you want your organization to reflect and the mission you want to achieve. Even if your organization is entirely co-located, you shouldn’t be relying on teamwork happening by accident; instead, I encourage you to consider the ways you’ll do things now that you don’t get to rely on happenstance.

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