This article was originally published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in a massive shift to remote work. Its insights remain helpful for companies and individuals adapting to this way of working.
Top-level executives understand the right company culture can improve performance, retention, and profits. Does this hold true, however, when the company goes remote? Based on his own research and experience, PeopleG2 CEO Chris Dyer, leadership speaker and bestselling author of the award-winning book The Power of Company Culture, says yes... if: “Remote and on-demand workers have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line, but only if corporate culture is set up for their success.”
After dedicating years of research to uncovering productivity and profit drivers, Dyer uses his knowledge to transform organizations by leveraging the power of company culture. In an interview with Staffing.com, Dyer offered his insights into how to successfully create a remote culture that boosts performance and creates an edge in the marketplace.
What Is Culture in the Workplace?
Before diving into how to include remote workers in corporate culture, an organization must first define these words. What does corporate culture mean? Pop-psychology business books and websites suggest that company culture is simply the personality of a company or the vision and values an organization holds dear.
Although Dyer agrees that company culture must include these elements, there is so much more to culture than a list of values or a statement on a website. In addition to vision and values, culture also has less tangible elements. These are the pieces that employees feel while working, such as:
- Social norms (e.g., wearing company swag on Fridays or celebrating birthdays with pizza)
- Expected and accepted behaviors (e.g., turning video on for conference calls)
- Beliefs about employees, managers, customers, work, products, and more (e.g., taking pride in a customer-centric philosophy)Systems used to complete work, track progress, and define success (e.g., project management technology like Asana or Trello, or internal communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams)
Even companies without a defined culture do, in fact, have a culture. Every employee knows intuitively what actions are rewarded, whether they need to worry about quality or quantity, and if they can act autonomously or need permission from someone up the ranks.
Incorporating Remote Workers Can Be Challenging
Nailing down culture is a challenge that only becomes greater in a remote workspace. “The task has its own special nuances, particularly when people are dispersed,” Dyer said. “I know this first hand because, though I don’t like to admit it, I was not a very good leader when I started my company. I focused more on process and goals. ‘How do I get a certain number of sales?’ ‘How do I get X amount of clients?’ But when the recession hit in 2009 and we switched to remote workers, I had the opportunity to reflect and think about what I wanted my company to do, and why we had not reached some of the goals. It became very apparent that I needed to do a much better job with our culture.”
As Dyer studied culture, he realized that PeopleG2’s culture was all about him. As an entrepreneur, he started the company with just a few employees. He taught them the business, and everything flowed through him. At the time, it was easy because everyone was in the same office, eating lunch in the same breakroom. Although not an intentional decision, that culture didn’t change as the company grew.
Additionally, Dyer stated that his leadership style was similar to that of a sports coach because that is what he knew. “When you are the captain of a sports team, you have a certain authority, and you can make your team do what you want them to do. But when people work for you, it’s a different atmosphere. You can’t make employees do pushups or run laps if they don’t finish a report or win an account. Even so, I still tried motivating people with a top-down, control every detail approach.”
As Dyer’s company became remote, the “control from the top” culture no longer worked. Assignments were not assigned democratically. There were no ways to measure performance. He realized that they had relied heavily on what they could see. “People look busy. If you hear the stapler going and paper shuffling, they must be busy, right?” He now readily admits that is a terrible way to measure performance, but it was not apparent until his employees were no longer in the same office space.
How to Build a Great Culture with Remote Workers in Mind
In his book, The Power of Company Culture, Dyer explains that there isn’t one right culture. What works for one organization will not work for another. However, he has uncovered seven factors that should be present in all company cultures.
- Transparency. As an organization, share as much information as possible with employees so they can make good decisions and understand what is happening within the organization. Organizations operating with a “need to know” culture often do not share information with remote employees out of a lack of trust. Dyer insists that the foundation of building trust with remote teams is first based on the trust established throughout the entire organization. His organization’s policies are designed to elicit trust by demonstrating trust.
- Positivity. It is important to have a positive leadership style. “We focus on what’s working. We try to let people do more of what they are good at instead of asking them to be better at something they don’t enjoy.”
- Measurement. Through proper measurements, organizations can determine the work that’s adding value to the company, who’s doing a great job, and where they make the most money. It isn’t about catching people slacking off. On the flip side, measurement also helps remote employees demonstrate they are doing a great job since they can’t walk down the hall announcing they just landed a big client or solved a giant customer issue.
Shortly after putting new measurements into place at PeopleG2, Dyer’s top background verification employee became the lowest performer, while the slowest employee became the best. “The employee who had been our best verifier had been cherry-picking the work, taking out the easiest things to do and leaving the hardest work for everybody else. Our least performing employee in that department was slower because she was doing the biggest, heaviest lifting without complaint. Our previous top performer very quickly resigned and our least performing employee went from almost being fired to getting a promotion. We learned that you can’t measure productivity with face time, politics, or personalities.”
- Acknowledgment. Have a recognition program that acknowledges employees and their accomplishments. In his book, Dyer describes very loose programs that are not documented and are very peer-to-peer as well as those that are highly tracked and coordinated. It doesn’t matter what program an organization uses as long as one is in place.
- Uniqueness. Company culture should celebrate what makes employees unique to defend against groupthink. Talk about what makes individuals different.
- Listening. Organizations with great cultures listen to everyone: employees, vendors, clients, and even potential clients. The point here is to listen for understanding.
- Mistakes. Mistakes are not errors. According to Dyer, “An error is paying people the wrong amount of money time and again because you don’t know how to use a calculator correctly. A mistake, on the other hand, happens when we try to extend ourselves and do something bigger and better.” For instance, Southwest Airlines has a policy that, if an employee believes they are doing the right thing, the management will back them up 100%. They measure the intent.
Organizations with outstanding company cultures don’t do well in just two or three or even five areas but in all seven. As organizations work to improve their cultures, Dyer says they need to focus on the areas that have the most impact.
“I often see companies identify small things because they think if they get a small victory that people will want to do more of it. However, I find it's the opposite. Instead of achieving something worthwhile, you wasted everyone's time and effort on nothing of worth. So, the next time you ask them to work on something to make it better, they're less motivated. People often say you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. We already know how to crawl and walk. We need to figure out how to run.”
Corporate Culture Is an Important Element of Success - But Why?
Study after study, and expert after expert, has shown that a strong company culture improves business performance and predicts company success. Positive cultures can:
- Attract and retain high performers. Company culture helps like-minded candidates find the right organization and stay there. According to the 2019 Retention Report, the average cost to lose a US worker is $15,000, which totaled $617 billion in voluntary turnover for US employers in 2018. By 2023, that number could be $800 billion.
- Increase employee engagement. When an employee is engaged, they are involved in their work, have a positive attitude, and contribute to meet company goals. The Gallup State of the American Workplace report shows that organizations with high employee engagement see absenteeism reduced by 41% and productivity increased by 17%.
- Increase productivity. Happy employees are productive employees, and employee happiness relates directly with the right cultural fit. According to the 2018 Workplace Happiness Survey, approximately 39% of workers say they are more productive if they are happy.
- Increase profits. 85% of companies who articulate their culture and purpose show growth in revenue, while 42% of companies without it show a drop in revenue.
- Increase innovation. When 3M began a program called 15 percent time allowing employees to use paid company time to ideate, Art Fry invented the post-it note. Similar programs at Google, Hewlett Packard Labs, and others brought about such creations as Gmail, Google Earth, and clear bandages, all of which brought in large revenue streams for their respective organizations.
Whether defined or assumed, a company culture affects all areas of the business, positively or negatively, which is why it is so important to consider.
Remote Work and Company Culture
There was a time when an organization could focus on traditional employees, without regard to workers who fell into an alternative category such as temp, contingent, or remote. However, that time has passed. Twenty-six million Americans—approximately 16% of the US workforce—and more than two-thirds of global employees work remotely in some fashion each week (that was before the COVID-19 pandemic that forced more companies to go fully remote).
With so many remote workers, companies must consider their needs when creating a company culture and the systems that support it. These needs include such cultural elements as:
- Technology use. 82% state that workplace technology influences their decision to take a new job. Millennials are the most likely to quit a job if the technology is not up to par.
- Flexibility. 75% of millennials want flexible work arrangements without losing the opportunity for promotion, and by 2025, they will make up 75% of the world’s workforce.
- Growth mindset. 59% of millennials state education and professional growth are critical to job satisfaction.
This means that organizations have to determine how to create a culture that fits remote workers. No matter where or when an employee works, the company culture must feel consistent and welcoming.
Disadvantages of Remote Work: Why Not Everyone Is a Fan
Several large corporations, including Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, IBM, and Best Buy, cut back or stopped their remote work programs in recent years despite the strong evidence that remote workers are more productive and happier. Many are now forced to reinstate those remote programs, or risk closing entirely.
The Society for Human Resource Management suggests the following reasons why corporations may be having second thoughts on remote workers:
- Managers and employees lack proper training or resources.
- Managers feel as if they’ve lost control and don’t trust remote workers to do the job.
- Attribution error, i.e., attributing negative personal motivations to remote workers because they do not have a connection with them.
- Social facilitation, i.e., the belief that people work harder when surrounded by people working hard.
- Remote workers feel unengaged and are more likely to change companies than their on-site counterparts.
Additionally, some studies like “How Effective Is Telecommuting?” found that those working remotely often feel professional and social isolation, don’t have as many opportunities to exchange information, and have trouble separating their home life from their work life.
Dyer agrees that there are some people who prefer to work on-site and that there are some jobs that require in-person collaboration. However, these are the minority. He has his own theories about the real reasons behind the resistance to remote work.
The first is that the company is experiencing financial difficulties and needs to cut their workforce but doesn’t want to publicize it. “They use this strategy because they know at least a quarter of them would refuse to come back to the office and will simply find another job. This is a great way for them to cut their workforce without having to admit to a layoff.”
The second issue Dyer sees is that a company gets a new CEO who doesn’t understand remote work. “They make an old school decision that everyone has to come back in because they don't know how to manage people unless they can see them, touch them, and control them.”
It all comes back to culture. Organizations with the right remote work culture can alleviate any issues through proper training, communication, and team building. Organizations have a choice to make, and the time is at hand. Those who choose to stay with the old-school cultures will not find success using remote workers, and in the long run, will not thrive. However, by incorporating the elements of a successful company culture he has discovered through his extensive research, organizations have the opportunity to increase performance and profits.