Last year saw the world turn completely upside down for many businesses. For those that were able to, working from home became the norm as social distancing, lockdowns, and other COVID-related restrictions meant that staff were unable to be an office space together.
The success of working from home has meant that many businesses, Search Laboratory included, have implemented some form of permanent working from home policy. There are many benefits of flexible working policies like working from home, including a much better work-life balance and the removal of barriers which might exclude otherwise great candidates.
However, one area that can suffer because of companywide working from home is company culture. Company culture is the shared values, systems, beliefs and behaviour of the company and its employees. While the values may be implemented from the CEO, founder, or board, it is manifested through the day-to-day interactions and behaviours of all members of staff. When those interactions are limited for any reason, including remote working, the company culture can become diluted or lost.
Renae Shaw, Head of People at Search Laboratory, can explain much more cohesively than I can on why company culture is so important:
“A cohesive and positive company culture is the glue that holds everything together. It is the shared understanding about why a person joins, why they carry out their work in the way they do, and why they stay.
“The company culture is also what gets shouted about outside the organisation too, which is why a strong company culture attracts better talent, and it plays a huge role in helping businesses to keep hold of their best people. When people feel like they ‘belong’, they are more likely to stick around for the long term. That means better chemistry, higher levels of productivity and engagement, and lower staff turnover. Culture can make or break a company, big or small.”
Remote working removes the everyday conversations that happen between individuals in your organisation; there is no bumping into a friendly colleague in the corridor, or chitchat in the kitchen. Without these organic interactions, it becomes all too easy for those working from home to only talk with their direct teammates – and these conversations mainly revolve around work.
Regardless of whether working from home is a temporary or permanent solution, is up to business leaders to encourage ways of keeping and growing company culture even in the absence of an office space.
Company culture is of huge importance to Search Laboratory and we view it as one of our strongest assets. With COVID came a completely new way of working, bringing less social interaction and a blur between work and home life. As an office-based digital company, we have been able to easily transition to working from home and provide the same standard of work for our clients. However, learning how to maintain and grow our company culture without an office environment has been a complete learning curve for everyone involved.
While the process has not been without its struggles, I believe that we are now in a much stronger position where our company culture can be maintained and grown regardless of employees working from home.
Shortly before the first lockdown, we had reviewed and renewed our company values using feedback from the whole company meaning they were fresh in everyone’s heads. This worked out really well for us as it gave our staff a renewed sense of working towards our values.
Over time, people can forget what your company values are. It is natural for behaviour to shift over time and for people to need a refresh on what your company stands for. When day-to-day interaction is limited, people can slip into their own ways of working which may not necessarily always align with your values. Providing a refresh on what your values are and how these are played out in the way your employees work helps to bring people back and brought into your values and company culture.
Without a physical presence, it can be all too easy for managers and team leaders to worry that their staff is not doing the work they should be. Distrust and micromanaging that occurs as a result breeds resentment and dissatisfaction and can lead to your employees looking elsewhere for a job.
It is important to remember that you hired these people because you thought they were valuable, trustworthy individuals. Giving your employees greater autonomy and trusting that they will do the work regardless of where they work from leads to more motivation and productivity to get things done.
When working from home, it is all too easy for conversation to become strictly work-based. Social conversations are crucial in building and maintaining rapport between members of staff; having these relationships is a huge part of a company culture, and without them the culture can get lost.
We found it is important to encourage more contact between employees. Many of our managers have set up regular video meetings with their teams to encourage natural conversation that doesn’t revolve around work; we have also found virtual events and companywide friendly competitions to help with this engagement.
A good company culture allows employees to develop and grow: it is important to ensure remote working does not get in the way of your employees advancing.
Renae notes this might be more difficult currently, but that there are ways to encourage progression:
“Many businesses may have restricted learning and development budgets as a result of the pandemic, but it is so important that development plans do not stall. Mentoring, skill-sharing and assigning projects to cross-functional teams can empower development with minimal cost, and also helps to deliver business outputs.”
Being transparent with your employees is so important, and more so than ever when staff are working from home; Renae explains why here:
“Company culture can be enhanced through effective communication and support. Trust is the foundation of any good relationship, so it is important to review how transparent and authentic your company communications are – on both a company and departmental level.
“Work hard to make sure goals, as well as any challenges, are communicated effectively and widely understood. Away from the office, we can’t rely on the natural filtering down of messages in the same way, which means we need to be more deliberate with our communication – and strategies will need to consider the different needs of those who are working, as well as those on furlough.”
The best way to understand how your employees are handling remote working is to ask them. Hold regular feedback sessions and address any concerns as quickly as possible. By working with your employees to overcome any issues they have, you ensure they feel valued and part of the team. This is a huge part of building the company culture.
Renae and her team have been working on how we improve our listening strategy to combat remote working:
“A small but major change we have implemented is asking staff more regularly for their feedback through surveys and focus group, and we set up 121 chats between our directors and all staff to ask how they are finding working from home and whether we can help in any way.
“We are now in the process of taking action on this feedback, including implementing more regular company updates, involving teams in our decision-making as much as possible, and investing in better tools to measure staff engagement.”
Building culture is a continuous process, and there will always be setbacks and challenges. Enforced working from home has certainly been a challenge, but by learning from and adapting to the challenges we have faced, we believe that we can continue to grow a strong company culture in the face of remote working.