Company Culture in the Virtual Age

The art of getting people ‘together’ in a digital world

By Steve Garber

“Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him,
and to let him know that you trust him.”
– Booker T. Washington

What’s your company’s “culture”? You know it when you see it, feel it, work in it. However, ask your staff to define yours, and you would likely get vague, if not totally disparate, answers.

This can occur when staff members sit in the same office, congregate in the same cafeteria or meet by the same water coolers, let alone when they work remotely or virtually – even when working in small local companies. It’s much more of a challenge when we’re working regionally, nationally or internationally.

I don’t have a single person working full time in my office. I work from home, yet, I “manage” at least five employees’ performances. Our clients are even more virtual. Of all the people in the large U.K. bank we coach, only the senior-most executive sits at the same desk regularly. They go from desk to desk, building to building, and city to city. The consulting companies we coach work around the globe. How do they “manage” their people? How do they create a culture?

Forbes has defined culture as: “The set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems and rituals that make up your organization.” So, how do you create and sustain the best possible culture in the virtual world?

Communicate differently

The primary key to virtual team leading is communication. Avoid making all your meetings just about reporting data. Do your best to make your communication regular, consistent and as energized and engaging as possible. Managers of global virtual teams who sit rigidly at their desks, glued to Skype or videoconference screens, tend to lose their interpersonal or persuasive edge. Get people to literally stand and deliver. Tell local stories, both personal and business.

Lead differently and clarify expectations

We are often told to encourage ambiguity – to set targets and let people achieve them in their own way. That can be counterproductive in the virtual world, at least until the relationship and reliability have been demonstrated. While co-located teams often benefit most from a leader who acts as a facilitator, virtual teams need a manager who provides clearly defined direction and removes as much ambiguity as possible from the process.

Build trust differently

On remote teams, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability – not body language or watching your team interact and decide. Therefore, it is much more important that you manage reliable delivery more than any other aspect of your relationship.

Be really clear on what you want done, how it is to be measured, and manage it closely until that trust and understanding is built. It may take more time in the beginning to know, understand and trust each other’s delivery and performance.

Culture is hard to understand and create – and even more so when it is virtual and remote. These three guidelines will help.

Steve Garber is director of Third Level Ltd. Contact him at 561.752.5505 or sgarber@thirdlevel.com.

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