How to Maintain a Strong Culture Amid the Shift to Remote Work

April 13, 2020
Steven Norton
BY Steven Norton
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Relentlessly communicating priorities and finding new ways to collaborate can empower and engage teams as working from home becomes the new normal (for now).

Technology executives continue to tackle urgent tasks related to the COVID-19 pandemic, from supporting a surge of remote workers to keeping critical business systems running. But as remote work becomes the new normal (at least for the next few weeks), many CIOs are also grappling with larger cultural questions, primarily how to keep teams engaged and productive while working from home.  

Below are a few practices leaders can take to maintain a culture of engagement and prepare their teams to emerge empowered on the other side of this crisis. 

Respect the adjustment period

This is a time of immense uncertainty for both companies and individuals. Personal and professional routines have changed overnight as people make the shift to working remotely. Regardless of job title, everyone on your team is making an adjustment. One of the easiest ways to help create stability is to acknowledge that adjustment and do what’s possible to help the transition go smoothly.  

A small but concrete way to do this is to provide training sessions on how to use various collaboration tools. While an IT team may be proficient in making calls on Zoom or communicating with Slack, others may using the technology for the first time. (One technology executive I spoke with recently said a training session for Zoom drew more than 5,000 sign ups.) Developing these opportunities is a simple way help your teams navigate the change and get to work faster.

“Every CIO knows change is not just about technology, it’s about people, process and technology,” Citrix CIO Meerah Rajavel wrote in a recent blog post. The company’s IT team worked closely with HR to craft the company’s work-from-home policy and develop a list of resources. “We decided to lean in and take a walk in the user’s shoes and collect feedback along every step of their journey that could be used to deliver a superior experience that would enable them to perform at their best.”

Relentlessly communicate priorities, wins, and lessons learned

When visiting corporate innovation labs in recent years, it has been increasingly common to see a company’s leadership principles hanging poster-size on walls throughout the building, a not-so-subtle reminder of the firm’s cultural tenets. With the switch to remote work, it is now more incumbent upon executives to ensure those principles remain top of mind. Consider posting your team’s strategic priorities in prominent places across virtual channels and reference them when communicating with team members. Doing so can serve as a reminder that just because employees are no longer in the office, the company is still guided by the same vision.

While CIOs should continue to share frequent business updates with their teams, they can also magnify key wins and lessons learned. When working together in an office, it can be easier to see and celebrate victories, or to notice when something doesn’t work as it should. Without a shared physical space, CIOs can help develop cohesion by broadcasting the stories of teams solving challenging problems or otherwise rising to the occasion during the crisis.

Regardless of the message you are communicating, be clear and tailor it to the platform you are using. A request delivered “face to face” via video conference may come across differently than a terse message on Slack. Also, while it may sound dated, don’t be afraid to use the phone. While there is a plethora of communication tools at our fingertips, sometimes an old fashioned phone call can help you deliver a message most efficiently.

Use remote work to spur new types of collaboration

It is easy to think about remote work as an isolated activity, but it’s worth considering how it can help create new connections. As Adam Ely, deputy chief information security officer at Walmart, said in a recent LinkedIn post: “I spoke to one company that said this drove (security teams) to have better relationships with people in business lines they didn’t know.” Those teams now have a better understanding of their colleagues’ business processes and plan to work more closely with peers across the business. It is a potential silver lining for IT, where strong relationships with business partners are increasingly critical to growth.

The surge in virtual communication tools can help foster these connections. Virtual coffee chats, lunch breaks and happy hours have sprouted up both inside and outside the office as people look for new opportunities to connect. At health technology firm Cerner Corp., which has 27,000 employees working from home, teams are using collaboration tools in new ways, such as creating specific channels for discussing health-related topics, sharing work-from-home tips or sharing photos of their home offices.

With your teams, co-create a vision for the future

While many companies are still in crisis response mode, it is increasingly important for CIOs to think about how their teams can emerge from the crisis in a position of strength. This presents an opportunity to bring a variety of voices into the conversation, working with colleagues across the organization to research the technologies and trends that are likely to rise in importance over the coming months. Even if your organization is unable to invest in those technologies today, exploring business cases now can prepare you to move quickly when the time is and give people a role in shaping the organization’s future.

As the shift toward remote work continues, leaders will be tasked with creating an inclusive work culture that also encourages productivity and innovation. Prioritizing health and safety, equipping employees with the right tools and fostering new forms of collaboration can go a long way toward making it happen.

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April 02, 2020
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