How to Build & Maintain Company Culture Across a Dispersed Workforce

By: Christina Zurek
engaged employee instant messaging with coworkers

Just as the pandemic lockdowns hit in March, only 2% of the country’s wage and salaried employees worked from home full time. By May, more than two-thirds of white-collar workers in America were logging on from their residences.

With many organizations following national and local social distancing orders, an unprecedented number of Americans are working from home for the foreseeable future. This transition has upended many business norms, but especially company cultures. These displaced employees can no longer see visual culture cues, chat by the water cooler or physically interact in a shared workplace environment. Instead, working alone in makeshift home offices is causing feelings of isolation and disconnection. 

So what can companies do to nurture and reinforce cultural norms among dispersed employees? 

By proactively, strategically guiding the culture of your company, you’ll be able to meaningfully align, motivate and engage your people—no matter where they’re working. Here are our top tips for how to do so:

Gain Leadership Buy-In Upfront

First thing’s first: whether you’re doubling down efforts to maintain your pre-pandemic culture or you’re realizing that your culture needs to adjust to meet the new normal, you must get your highest levels of leadership on board and cascade that vision out from there. Ensuring that all levels of leaders understand what is (or isn’t) changing about your cultural norms and behaviors will help ensure the vision is communicated effectively across the organization. 

Building and maintaining your company culture with your remote workforce only works if the CEO and top leadership are deeply devoted to its success.

These include the shared behaviors everyone must exhibit in order to reflect the mission, vision and values of the organization, and to accomplish the company’s goals. These behaviors are implemented and modeled by leadership, setting the conditions for how employees behave. 

Communicate Transparently

Prior to the pandemic a number of companies started publicly publishing thorough explanations of their company values and cultures. In one of the most well-known examples, Netflix did this with their “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility” slides that CEO and Founder, Reed Hastings, published back in 2009.

A more recent example would be At GitLab, meetings, memos, notes, and more are available to everyone within the company—and, for the most part, to everyone outside of it, too. Part of this embrace of transparency comes from the open-source ethos upon which GitLab was founded. (GitLab offers a free "community" version of its product, as well as a proprietary enterprise one.) But it's also crucial to keeping employees in lockstep, in terms of everything from product development to corporate culture.

This gradual evolution of increased transparency in tandem with the unrest caused by the pandemic has created a unique opportunity for organizations to explore what they share with their people.

Whether it’s clearly articulating expected norms and behaviors, bringing visibility to DE&I efforts, supporting social issues, or any number of topics, it’s clear that employees expect improved transparency from their organizations. 

As you look to energize and support your culture during this time, look at today’s disrupted world as an opportunity to explicitly and directly address areas that may have previously been sources of confusion or contention. While what you share may not always please everybody, you’ll bring clarity to your culture and alignment of employee behaviors.

Communicate Regularly

A recent study found that nearly half (49%) of U.S. workers do not clearly understand what is expected from them as they work remotely. This isn’t actually surprising, as many researchers have found that when employees work from home, they can feel disconnected from their organizations.

But there’s hope: nearly half (47%) of participants in an MIT SMR survey cited effective communication as crucial to their transition to remote work. So, while the step we just covered about what you communicate is very important—how you communicate it is equally so. 

The survey went on to state that the most effective communication has five characteristics: It’s frequent, transparent, part of a two-way dialogue, easy to navigate and consistent. These communication principles are useful in general, but they’re crucial when a company’s workforce is distributed and you’re trying to create cultural alignment and clarity.

Now could be the perfect time to put a focused effort on helping employees internalize the values that are core to your culture. For inspiration, check out this example of how we helped a company align 20,000 employees after a major merger.

One final note: While all employees benefit from regular communication, it’s important to consider your most vulnerable segments to disengagement right now, including new hires.

Beginning a new job is stressful enough but when you have minimal (or no) face time with the team you’re joining it’s especially challenging. The more you can articulate your cultural norms and behaviors to onboard them to “how things are done” at your organization, the more likely they are to adjust well. 

While today’s world remains unpredictable, it presents opportunity, too. So, whether you’re looking to reaffirm to your cultural foundation or looking to embrace new cultural themes that have emerged over the past few months, now is the perfect time to recommit your people to your cultural norms and behaviors. When your organizational culture is aligned with your goals and your people share the same contagious enthusiasm, you’re setting the groundwork for financial success and an incredible reputation, both internally and externally.

Discover how to foster a culture that values resilience by supporting behaviors that embrace change throughout your employee experience with our ebook: How to Build a Resilient Organizational Culture: Your Guide to Boosting Your Organization’s Success in the Face of Change.

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.