Thoughts on Remote Company “Culture”
Up here in New England, spring finally seems to be on its way. Warmer weather means you may run into neighbors on the front porch and find yourself chatting, as I did this weekend, with the family that lives below us in our apartment building. Making sure to stand six feet apart, we didn’t talk about anything particularly noteworthy; we caught up about our lives, our work. We commiserated about toilet paper. Then, it dawned on me that this was one of the first extended conversations I’d had in the physical world — not via video chat — for a very long time. And it felt so good!
For me, there’s something about in-person contact that can’t be re-created via video chat. And I feel a deep sense of loss about that. Video flattens the nuances of body language. It forces interactions, especially among teams, into something different from a conversation. It feels like a parade of presentations, of “now it’s your turn to be on camera” moments. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that video conferencing is more stressful and exhausting than in-person conversations. And I feel that way, too.
Instead of recognizing this, the response to our new reality from many organizations has been to exacerbate that stress by hosting all manner of video-based social meetups, happy hours, and other gatherings in an effort to maintain company “culture” and morale through a trying time. The goal seems to be to re-create the way things were in an effort to protect employees from the way things now are.
But that’s impossible. The world is different now. My feeling is that organizations and the people of which they are comprised should be given the space to grieve that lost world. I think we are just now in the first stages of that. It has been said that denial is the first stage of grief. Perhaps the desire to keep things as close to the way they used to be is part of that denial.
So, what are some practical solutions for maintaining a sense of team cohesion in times of change and stress? What does a more authentic culture look like, one that acknowledges that we are undergoing a trauma? Here are some thoughts:
- Recognize that this is hard. Don’t try to protect employees from the hardship by denying it or reframing it as something that can be solved via video chat or other forms of technology. This is hard. This requires grief. Own that.
- Be transparent. If you lead a team, show your vulnerability. Maybe you’re scared, or overwhelmed, or just plain weirded out by all of this. Show that, so that others can feel like they can show it too. (Maybe even write a blog post about it and post it on your website?)
- Lay off the meetings and let people be so they can figure out what works best for them. Let people know you’re there for them, but let people discover their pathway forward.
- Connect authentically. Find a way to connect your team in ways that let them show what their real lives under social isolation are like. One strategy is to do a show and tell. We’ve been doing that each week for nearly a month now. We each show something meaningful from our homes. For me, it’s often bike stuff. For Sam, it’s inflatable unicorns with a gorilla on top. It’s a little ritual that acknowledges the oddity of our times, while giving us a real way to connect, to get to know more about each other, even when we can’t be with each other.
Things are different now. Let’s challenge ourselves to feel the loss of what came before, but to also find authentic joy in new places.