Sara was thrilled with the decision she had made to join the new company. The role was just what she wanted, her team was great, and she loved being a part of an organization she felt was more than just a place to work. She felt a very real, almost palpable connection to the mission of the company–like she really belonged, and her work made a difference. The inspiring vision and culture of giving back had been an important part of her decision to leave another organization where she had been successful and even assured of future growth. Beginning to work remotely due to the pandemic had been another plus. She had been looking for increased flexibility to balance her personal and work life. But a few months into remote work, something felt off. Her colleagues were supportive but the strong connection she had felt to the mission and culture was fading and her work felt meaningless. In some ways it was just loneliness, but it seemed to go deeper than that.
This increase in remote work is a well-documented shift brought on by COVID-19. What began as an urgent response for safety of the workforce quickly became a new norm that is likely to continue beyond the current crisis. Leaders who were hesitant to adopt these measures in the past have experienced the benefits first-hand and are increasingly open to flexibility as an on-going practice. Increased productivity, higher engagement, reduced cost of facilities, and greater ease of attracting talent have all been cited as benefits of flexible work.
While these benefits are real, an emerging challenge is the difficulty of maintaining desired social connection between individuals and teams. Frequent interaction through phone and video conferences help, but many are seeing this loss of connection as a real problem. Coupled with the realization that part of the increased productivity from remote work is that employees are working longer, this loss of human connection brings an increased risk of worker burnout.
Another dimension of this loss of connection that is less urgent but can have serious long-term implications is the potential loss of connection to the organization’s mission, values, and culture. In a remote work environment, the artifacts, messaging, and examples of leaders and other co-workers that typically reinforce culture may not be as visible or consistent. The sense of purpose and culture that often attract and engage highly motivated talent are at risk of being neutralized without deliberate reinforcing actions.
How can we guard against the potential erosion of the positive, purpose-driven, results-oriented cultures we’ve worked so hard to create? Here are 3 suggestions:
1. Reinvigorate your mission, vision, and core values. Make them a vivid part of regular communication and business updates. Increase opportunities for employees to interact with senior leaders and make sure the connection to these foundational elements is center stage. If the organization’s purpose and values have not been clear, now is a great time to get clear and connect employees to them. Don’t let the why of work get lost in the shuffle of the new how of work.
2. Reimage the onboarding process. The greatest risk of loss of connectedness is probably with new or recent hires. Joining an organization in a remote working role can mean less interaction with colleagues and fewer opportunities to connect with organization leaders. It also means not being around the artifacts of the physical environment that are intended to reinforce the culture. On-boarding processes need to include more overt steps to make the mission and culture memorable. Virtual culture scavenger hunts, video group chats with senior leaders, exposure to customers who articulate what the company means to them, or a series of experiences over time rather than a single experience in a new hire orientation are ways to make this connection real. In contrast to our normal approaches, we may need to go a bit overboard in making on-boarding more intentional.
3. Reinforce the role of managers in teaching culture. Leaders are teachers, and deliberately teaching and coaching the mission and culture accentuates these core messages. This is not the time for cultural training by osmosis. It’s time to actively re-recruit all employees to these essential principles. Leaders at all levels can deliberately teach and reinforce the desired culture by making it an explicit part of the work experience. Regularly taking 2-3 minutes in team meetings to discuss a cultural principle, share an experience that illustrates a cultural principle guiding a leader’s action or influencing a key decision, or inviting employees to share ways they see the principles in action, can reconnect people to the culture.
…Back to Sara–One of her co-workers noticed she seemed frustrated and asked how she was doing. She shared her concerns and the coworker helped her see how her work really mattered. Sara also shared her feelings with her manager who spent time reinforcing key elements of the culture with her, introduced her to a senior leader, and invited her to share her experience with that leader in a team discussion. She was beginning to recapture her earlier passion for the company and her role.
Our experience in these uncertain times is changing the way we work together, but it doesn’t have to mean we lose what ties us together. As I listen to the experiences of co-workers, friends, family, and others, I hear them longing for 2 types of connection; a social connection with each other and connection to a meaningful cooperative purpose. In our organizations, that purpose is communicated through mission, vision, values, and culture. Deliberate steps like those above can help ensure that while we reap the benefits of increased individuality and flexibility, we also strengthen the purpose and values that drive us toward collective achievement. And we make it easier for talented people, like Sara, to fully engage in our organizations and do their very best work.