With COVID-19 fast-tracking remote work, organizations are experiencing a sea change—most critically, they are now forced to take their culture beyond the four walls of their organization. These organizations will fail to flourish post-COVID-19 unless they make a fundamental shift in how they understand their organizational cultures and values. It’s not just about outputs anymore—leaders need to think about creating cultures for remote employees that value and empower emotional health and wellness.
According to Fast Company research conducted with Georgetown Professor Neeru Paharia, most Americans wear being busy as a status symbol. Productivity-obsessed cultures just don’t work anymore for companies—we need to get rid of archaic language like “efficiency gains” when we talk about our company cultures. When you choose to emphasize wellbeing first, efficient work is a natural byproduct.
I believe that enabling this shift to occur can and will result in a new social contract, one that prioritizes happiness, family, and ultimately, community and belonging. The question of what a company culture should be has metamorphosed in the last decade, especially with the number of Gen Zs and Millennials (myself included!) entering the workforce. Even before COVID-19 hit, a pivot away from company cultures that value shareholders above all else was palpable. Remote work is the catalyst we’ve been waiting for—now it’s here en masse. There is no turning back, and that’s a wonderful thing.
What Even Is a “Workplace” Anymore?
Over the last several decades, the number of women in the workplace tripled—with two in five women acting as family breadwinners. Commutes increased, adding 43 hours of travel hours per person annually since 1986. The expectation, tragically, has been for employees to be more focused on work than their own health and wellbeing, no matter how hustle culture is packaged. Stanford research shows that workplace stress (the underlying factor in burnout) led to $190 billion in US spending and nearly 120,000 deaths each year. The World Health Organization now includes burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. Given the increased pressure due to the pandemic, I’d hazard that burnout is even more significant right now.
In a Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group survey of workers and companies, employee expectations for flexible, autonomous work was the new development most urgently affecting the business. The presence of Millennials and Gen Z in the workforce challenged the idea of employee expectations in a powerful way—the pandemic is only accelerating the resultant changes.
Post-COVID-19, the days of hustle culture are over. This pandemic-push toward remote work has created a dichotomy in which organizations must simultaneously embrace the strong cultural values of the past while racing forward with the use of today’s technology.
Values vs. Virtues
I get a little turned off by the overused and misunderstood word values—as CEO of my company, Guide, I refer instead to virtues. Values are merely words on a page—something you hang in a breakroom or post on social media. Virtues, to me and my team, denote inherent characteristics that we embrace inside and outside the company—they are timeless. This aspect of culture is paramount for remote teams.
Because we're building an education tech product focused on skills training & development, I’m avid about building our culture around learning. For example, one of our virtues is to be ruthlessly curious (full list below). We display this virtue in our “Daily Learnings” Slack channel where distributed team members can share what they are learning—including failures. Vulnerability is encouraged since authenticity is also one of our virtues.
We are not alone in creating timeless virtues, despite being the only organization that uses this terminology. Other remote companies, like GitLab, Toptal, and Doist have created actionable ideals for their remote workers, as well:
Imagine a company like a financial firm without prominent values, whose in-office culture used “always be efficient” as its north star. Their employees—now at home—only know to “be efficient.” Except now they’re in a work environment that includes taking care of family. They have to design their work around their life. In this case, “always be efficient” creates cognitive dissonance. These cultures only exacerbate problems like burnout—which ultimately lead to health issues and underperformance (less efficiency).
For companies that have a strong remote work culture, going remote because of COVID-19 is just a bump in the road. At Guide, we haven’t had to adapt our culture at all. We’ve simply pivoted in terms of product strategy and how to better serve our customers.
It’s All About Authentic Leaders
Employees model what they see, so to have a culture rooted in trust takes authentic leadership. I’m adamant about making sure that I emulate the culture that I want to see within Guide and with the people I work with.
To cultivate authentic leaders, organizations have to develop a leadership model or framework for what successful leadership looks like within the organization. This framework will match closely with the organization’s virtues or values. At Guide, we define successful leaders as ones that lead with compassion and build belonging.
To build this framework for leading remote teams, I recommend three steps:
- Determine the purpose of your organization. Why does it exist? Simon Sinek, author of The Origin on Why, suggests that everyone knows what their companies do and some know how they do it, but few know the reason why. This is fundamental stuff.
- Find the true leaders of your organization. These are not necessarily the people with big titles—they are the people who are influential. Look at successful teams and determine who is driving this success.
- Gather 7-10 of these leaders together to define your leadership model and then champion this new strategy across the organization, cascading the new strategy to the rest of your leadership.
Building a company with a long-term mission that your team truly cares about, focusing on building a company that can outlast you, and creating something of true value. I believe this kind of thinking should be the guideline for every company.
– Amir Salihefendić, CEO of Doist
Amazon is a good example. They have created a leadership framework that is essentially a list of virtues for leaders. It starts with customer obsession, delves into characteristics needed as a leader at Amazon, and ends with delivering results. Such a framework, when coupled with leaders who live and breathe the principles, produces successful teams and successful businesses.
Your Why Is Nothing Without Passionate Talent
Taking your culture beyond four walls means understanding your people first. In days past, employees were just seen as ambassadors of the business and had no brand of their own. This is no longer true. Millennials, in particular, see their careers as an extension of who they are outside of the organization. (Again, I’m speaking for myself here as well). This means, when hiring individuals, you have to be intentional about discovering their core values and whether these values match your own.
I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.
– Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
This is not to say that you need to hire clones. Guide has a diverse group of individuals from around the world, but each individual identifies with our virtues. We encourage our team to embody the virtues we represent and trust them to carry that out in their personal lives too—like embodying the Commit to Community virtue through volunteer work, philanthropy, or other means.
A Metamorphosis Is Afoot
As Cengage CEO Michael Hansen put it, “. . . you’ve got to get ahead of the curve, don’t try to deny it or put your head in the sand, and wish for the best. These are the times when a culture and an organization gets tested.” I couldn’t agree more.
Post-COVID-19, we are going to see a new social contract. Although organizations will continue to be global and interconnected, offline, your employees will be focused more locally. Their appreciation of their neighbors and energy spent cultivating relationships through clubs and classes will deepen. Our communities will be closer and more interwoven because of working from home.
COVID-19 represents a massive opportunity to shift to this new social contract—a better way of life. The pandemic highlights what’s wrong with a lot of organizational cultures because the values of these organizations do not translate to remote cultures. I've been to conferences where I've asked people to tell me the values or mission of their organization—they couldn’t.
COVID-19 didn’t create the culture crisis many companies are now realizing. It is the great awakening for what remote work offers organizations culturally and the catalyst for a return to strong communal values and fortified societal wellbeing.