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How to create a successful remote work culture in times of crisis

Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay
(Image credit: Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay)

While we’ve all happily waved goodbye to our daily commutes, many are missing the office coffee chats, the ease of popping over to a co-worker’s desk for a quick question, or the reassurance of a nod from your boss after making a suggestion during a meeting. Covid-19 has plunged the world into a social and economic crisis that has drastically changed the way we work.

While many organizations have focused on the technological side of remote work, such as enabling employee productivity through collaboration software, the cultural impacts are much more significant for ensuring that an organization is able to survive – and even thrive – through this crisis. Here are four key behaviors that business leaders should incorporate in their organizational culture to make it more resilient, helping team members to prevail through these turbulent times.

Behavior 1: Create an environment of open vulnerability

Uncertainty and lack of information in times of crisis force our brains to fill the gaps with interpretations, often incorrectly, based on personal experience and perceptions. This is intensified when working remotely because we don’t have common physical spaces, like the coffee machine, to meet other people, exchange information and resolve doubts.

Research has shown that organizations with high levels of trust increase their average employee engagement by 76% over those with low levels of trust. The core element of trust is transparency, particularly between leaders and team members, which requires vulnerability from leadership. Creating an environment of open vulnerability requires three steps.

First, build transparency as a leader. Regularly share what you know about the company’s present and future situation and give honest, clear answers to your team’s questions. If you don’t have the answers or are not authorized to share them, be honest about that, too. Continually keep your senses open to identify personal or professional concerns that the team may not be sharing.

Next, frame your expectations to take people’s needs into account and show that you care. Demonstrate respect for your team members’ autonomy by refraining from micromanaging. Walk away from binary mandates, such as, “I need everyone to start working at 9 a.m.” Define a daily window of no more than two hours where you’d like everyone to be available to participate in team meetings or make decisions. And for the rest of the time, let your team arrange their agendas to best suit their needs.

Finally, foster conversations where your team members can put their vulnerabilities, fears and problems out in the open with you. Explicitly guarantee confidentiality, especially for personal matters. When working remotely, you must rely on team members proactively approaching you with problems so you can overcome them early on.

After vulnerabilities are shared, ask questions that examine the potential outcomes if a fear occurs. Identify strategies to either prevent their fears from happening or to solve the problem if it does occur.

Behavior 2: Align employees’ meaningful work with company goals

In times of crisis, feeling that our work contributes to company goals reduces anxiety about job security. It also helps generate motivation and increase productivity.

Business leaders must identify what meaningful work is for each of their team members. Open a candid conversation with each team member and ask, “What makes you get out of bed every day to come to work?” Set clear expectations that you are simply exploring their idea of meaningful work to connect it with the company goals as much as possible; you are not promising a change of work. Actively listen to their response and discuss how their meaningful work could have a positive impact on the company. Finally, set a goal where the work they deem meaningful directly aligns with a company goal.

Behavior 3: Identify intrinsic rewards for each team member

Employees need more recognition in times of crisis than in normal times. This is even more true when working remotely, as employees may lose the visual signs of recognition that are present in an office, such as a smile during a meeting or an off-hand compliment when passing in the hallway.

Standard rewards and recognition are “backwards looking,” based on performance accrued. Intrinsic rewards, however, are “forward looking,” setting the foundations of engagement and motivation to nurture the future well-being of each team member and their productivity.

Intrinsic rewarding is based on the three major types of motivational needs present in all humans: the need for achievement, the need for status, and the need for affiliation. Every person has a fraction of each of those three needs, but one will be predominant. Find the predominant motivation for each team member and take this into account when recognizing them.

Behavior 4: Foster an environment where a sense of tribe prevails

As the social animals that we are, physical eye contact and proximity releases serotonin, an essential hormone to keep the balance between positive and negative feelings. Leaders must strive to create a “sense of tribe” among the whole enterprise that generates positive interactions to compensate for the lack of physical proximity in a remote work environment.

Here are a few ways to achieve a sense of tribe:

  • Create “rituals” that involve multiple departments. For example, organize a monthly virtual meeting with one or two more departments, in which, besides providing information about the current state of the company and new projects, all leaders recognize individual or collective successes of their team members
  • Set cross-departmental objectives. What company goals can be better achieved by collaborating with another department? Or is there a company goal where collaborating with another department will increase team members’ global knowledge of the enterprise?
  • Ask for an “altruistic” objective from each team member where they will help others to achieve their goals. For example, this can include mentoring a colleague on a new skill or helping another person to overcome a personal or professional concern.
  • Enable social network channels where people from several departments can share ideas and socialize. This could include something like a forum to overcome the personal or professional difficulties of remote work. Limit it to no more than two or three departments to avoid too many extroverts monopolizing the conversation and come prepared with thought-provoking questions to ask.

With these four behaviors, business leaders can help to drive employee motivation, engagement and, ultimately, productivity during a highly challenging time. This will help to ensure that enterprise-wide culture remains strong whether teams are in the office, working from home, or some combination of the two.

Daniel Sanchez-Reina, Research Director for Leadership, Culture and People Dynamics, Gartner (opens in new tab)

Daniel Sanchez-Reina is a Research Director for Gartner's Leadership, Culture and People Dynamics team in the CIO Research group. Mr. Sanchez Reina covers the complex challenges of High-Performing Teams, Organisational and Cultural Change, Leadership Skills and Competencies, and Digital Transformation initiatives.