Three things that foster positive working-from-home workplace culture

“Culture can go south really fast if you don't have a handle on it”

Working from home probably isn’t going to be just for the pandemic. Maybe it won’t be permanently en masse, or five days a week, but it’s something to get used to, for employers and employees alike.

One study unearthed in response to coronavirus shows that workers involved in a human resources experiment at a Chinese travel agency were 13% more productive at home. They made better use of time and took fewer sick days. They also reported higher job satisfaction. Once the experiment was over, about half opted to carry on indefinitely.

There are drawbacks, of course. One is the challenge of maintaining positive workplace culture when no one is around to be motivated by it, and so to strengthen it. 

“Your culture can go south really fast if you don't have a handle on it,” says Dayle Pett, an instructor on team dynamics and HR management in NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business.

Culture is important for a number of reasons, she adds. It can attract employees whose values align with those of the organization. It helps in setting clear expectations and goals. It can influence how employees feel. Overall, says Pett, “It can be very powerful, for good and for bad.”

Here are three things that she believes can help the positive prevail.

1. Intentional leadership

leader on camera from home

When Pett thinks of culture at the workplace, she thinks of an iceberg. “It's based on what's called the waterline theory,” she says. “Everything above the water [are] the things we can see. [These] artifacts are a big part of the culture.”

These artifacts can be anything from physical objects, such as the quality of office furniture, to the way employees are treated. They directly link to the organization's values, says Pett, as well as employees' beliefs about those values – the two unseen things beneath the waterline.

Now that the tip of the iceberg is no longer obvious, it’s up to leaders to ensure employees remain aware of its foundation, says Pett. 

"The job of leadership has become more difficult.”

“Virtual leadership is probably one of the most intentional practices that a leader is ever going to experience.”

In normal times, when leaders are more visible, they can lead by example, Pett adds. Now, fostering workplace culture through leadership means more frequent check-ins with staff, more “vulnerable, personal conversations,” and more mentoring, whether directly or by pairing up employees.

“So, the job of leadership has become more difficult,” says Pett. “In a virtual space, you have to put more energy towards it.”

2. Hiring for values, not just skills

virtual job interview

Skills are essential, but not everything, and especially now.

Fostering a healthy culture “starts right out of the gate, in your recruiting process,” says Pett. Hiring practices should also focus on behaviours.

Hiring practices should also focus on behaviours.

“If you're not hiring [for] a type of behaviour, then you're potentially bringing someone in that [may not] meet the culture of the organization.” Those behaviours – another element that makes up the visible tip of the iceberg – should align with an organization’s values.

“It doesn’t matter how good the culture is at the top,” says Pett. “If you don't have a handle on who you’re hiring, then you're starting right at the beginning.”

3. Empathy and trust

working at home with kids

Culture can be expressed in subtle but impactful ways. “You’re going to see it, you’re going to hear it,” says Pett. But, perhaps most significantly, “you’re going to feel it.”

That can come of how things are said. Pett offers this hypothetical HR scenario as example: “For example, [let’s say] I said, ‘If you want to enter into remote work, you need to sign this paper saying that you have childcare provided for your children.’

“Or I can say, ‘Productivity matters. Please set yourself up to meet the outcomes that are expected of you as an employee,’ meaning the same thing.”

The difference is that the latter shows empathy in light of the ‘new normal,’ as well as trust that employees will find appropriate ways to strike a balance between serving the organization and their families.

In the absence of what people might see everyday at the office, “it's those certain accommodations that are going to show what the culture of the organization is in a virtual space,” says Pett.

Banner image RgStudio/

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