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Leading During Uncertainty: Building a Roadmap for Cultivating Company Culture Remotely


Expert analysis from Marina Bleahen, Managing Director of BusinessWorks Consulting.

Create Ownership. Drive Engagement. Energise Culture

Culture produces results - for better or worse, it’s either working for you or against you. Manage your culture for greater impact and success.  We are all navigating uncharted waters right now. As COVID-19 evolves and questions remain unanswered, major corporations and SMEs are focussed on emerging from lockdown to redefine a ‘new normal’ and get back to business success 

During times like these, reeling from uncertainty is normal. In fact, it’s completely justified. But being consumed by fear and confusion leads to paralysis — not the kind of mindset that helps us move through the uncertainty. It is important for leaders to become agile to learn fast and adapt in order to deliver results and optimise business performance.  

We have never experienced a pandemic like COVID-19. It is important for business leaders to redefine the key results that can be delivered and begin the process of moving their organisation forward.  The economy will recover, though we cannot be sure of when, as the threat of a second surge is a reality. A framework for problem-solving and increasing accountability — individually and collectively — amid uncertainty could provide a pathway forward. We call this framework the ‘Steps To Accountability’, and it has helped individuals, teams, and organisations regain a sense of clarity, focus, and control even when the future looks bleak.

The ‘Steps To Accountability’ are rooted in a simple practice: make a personal choice to focus on what we can control instead of becoming fixated on circumstances we have little agency over. Many things about COVID-19 are beyond our control — but not everything. For example, we can choose how carefully we practice social distancing to help flatten the curve of the virus. We can also choose to access science- and fact-based sources to make more informed decisions.

Leaders have a choice to make as well. How they show up during these times — whether they’re consumed by fear or calm and focused — impacts how employees react to crises. Decisions we make everyday impact our businesses, our families, and our own physical and mental wellbeing. If you’re trying to retain a sense of normalcy, the ‘Steps To Accountability’ is a powerful, but simple, approach that can help you respond with innovation and solutions instead of becoming overwhelmed by the chaos. 

The ‘Steps To Accountability’ Framework

People who exhibit high levels of increased accountability see problems and ask, “What can I do to move past this?” rather than saying, “Who is going to fix this?” These questions define the difference between what we call ‘Above The Line’ thinking and ‘Below The Line’ thinking. When leaders and employees are ‘Below The Line’, they focus on what’s out of their control, blaming others, making excuses, and passively waiting for instruction. This behaviour is entirely normal in small doses, but it stifles innovation and forward thinking when it permeates an entire culture. The long-term effects of this thinking can be detrimental.

Those who rise ‘Above The Line’ take accountability for the problems within their control through four steps — See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It. 

1. See It — This first step is about acknowledging, without panic or hysteria, the reality of the current crisis and accepting that it is beyond our control.

2. Own It — Once we have addressed the current situation, we can take psychological ownership over it. Ownership allows us to assess and focus on what we can control in an environment where so much is out of our control.

3. Solve It — After we see the challenges and own it, we can find innovative ways to reach the results we want to achieve. 

4. Do It — Do It is about follow through and taking action amidst uncertainty. It is our ability to adapt existing processes and procedures to meet the demands of ever-evolving situations. 

It takes intentional optimism to rise ‘Above The Line’ to deliver results. It does not mean we ignore what’s happening around us. It’s about acknowledging the current reality

Finding Community During Times of Crisis

While many companies are still surfacing from the shock of COVID-19, others have already re-opened their doors Navigating chaos is like paddling down a calm river, only to discover a swirl of rapids around the bend. We can choose to let those rapids disrupt our journey, or we can leverage them to accelerate the speed at which we paddle forward. When we harness the power of accountability, we see today’s disruption as an opportunity to drive greater operational efficiencies, unleash creative problem solving, and accelerate innovation. 

As everyone — CEOs, medics and frontline workers, educators, professional services, parents, and beyond — learns to navigate these uncertain times, it’s important to remember that every institution and organisation will evolve at its own pace. Some will sit in the See It phase for longer, tactfully observing new challenges before devising strategic plans. Others will push forward more quickly, launching new initiatives and promising alliances. This is no time for judgment, but rather a time for leaders and frontline employees to lift one another up, celebrate the small successes, and, above all, take accountability for the tasks at hand.

How to Remotely Manage Your Company Culture in Three Steps

Remote work has become the new norm as COVID-19 forces companies across sectors to temporarily close their doors. For many individuals, that means redefining the line between work life and home life when the two suddenly seem to have merged. Frontline employees and leaders alike are now educating children while answering emails, setting up “offices” at dining room tables, and relying on laptops over professional desktop devices.

This sudden shift has left many leaders asking, “How do I manage my teams from afar?” For those of us used to hosting impromptu brainstorming sessions, quick cubicle conversations, and other face-to-face interactions on a daily basis, it’s normal to find managing a remote team to be uncomfortable, daunting, and even ineffective — but it doesn’t have to be.

In times of crisis, leaders either step up or step away when managing from afar. Even the simple acts of being more visible, over-communicating, or providing additional opportunities become potent elements for remote teams to increase their levels of engagement. Ensure you are communicating with your team/organisation through video and blogs regularly, provide the engaging update that shows you care as well as the essential ‘need to know’ updates.

While video and blog streams may seem like a simple act, it has significant implications. Employees’ experiences — whether they are cultivated digitally or in person — directly impact their beliefs. These beliefs inform their actions, and actions drive results. This is the basis of the Results Pyramid, a framework that can help leaders as they transition to remote culture management.

Corporate culture — the way employees think and act — is shaped by everyday experiences.  The leader must be intentionally cultivating cultural beliefs centred on employee wellbeing and data security. As remote employees internalise these beliefs, their actions start to align. In accordance with the Results Pyramid model, these experiences are setting up for remote success, driving greater employee engagement, and improving customer satisfaction.

A Roadmap for Cultivating Company Culture Remotely

Leaders shift and shape cultural beliefs during times of calm and moments of crisis. But how do they show up differently as leaders to drive desired cultural beliefs when ‘showing up’ looks completely different?

Here are three straightforward, effective steps for managing company culture from afar:

1. Take Big Actions

Visibility and clear, consistent communication are vital when managing a remote workforce. Replace phone calls with video chats, send company-wide communications daily rather than weekly, and make the ‘why’ behind desired cultural beliefs more apparent than ever before.

Amidst the current climate, these cultural beliefs have become more vital than ever before. Some organisations are well into the flow of hosting weekly fireside chats discussing the status of the company’s operational updates as well as catching up on what’s going in each other’s lives. Employees ideally are encouraged to ask questions, share ideas, and simply just connect. These highly transparent conversations foster a greater sense of community among the remote team while underscoring the need for out-of-box thinking and innovation at this time.

2. Shape Beliefs in Every Meeting

Before diving into your virtual team meetings, ask yourself, “What belief do I need my team to hold by the time they leave this discussion?” When working remotely, your ‘face-to-face’ time with employees is limited, meaning it’s important to be intentional about the time you have together digitally.

Effective leaders step into a meeting and own the results they hope to achieve. They say, “Let’s maintain our 95% customer satisfaction rating during this disruption.” Or, “Let’s improve warehouse team safety efforts by 10% amidst this health crisis.” Then they outline how these goals can be accomplished, leveraging the virtual tools at their disposal to visually and impactfully depict the elements within their team’s control.

For example, we’re seeing leaders across sectors using digital whiteboards and interactive presentations to engage their teams and boldly communicate their goals. This guidance, particularly during times of chaos, provides employees with a clear picture of the company’s current objectives and sets the tone for future engagements and initiatives. 

3. Leverage the Virtual Experiences

Every virtual meeting is an opportunity to create new experiences — whether through storytelling, feedback, recognition, etc. — and intentionally cultivate your company culture.

There’s no question about it — the shift from the city office to the home office is challenging. Many of us have had little time to prepare and, like our employees, we’re redefining new routines and best practices.

But remote work doesn’t have to mean your company culture suffers. Through bold, consistent communications, clearly defined organisational objectives, and the intentional cultivation of experiences, we can create healthy, meaningful company cultures from any location and for any period of time.