Stephen Fortune offers insight into what makes for a successful virtual workforce.
A company’s culture is rather like DNA. All businesses are 99% alike, with equal access to the same talent pool, working in the same offices and accessing the same technology. The remaining 1% is the crux of the business; it is the culture.
It may be a minute factor, but it is defining. Company culture is ‘the way things get done around here’ and comprises behaviours that are made visible, demonstrated and rewarded in the workplace. But what becomes of this culture when a significant portion of your workforce is located outside the main office environment?
Although the virtual workplace is not a new concept, it continues to rise. A study by Gallup1 reported that in August 2015, 37% of workers in the US telecommuted (worked remotely) for their role, for an average of two days every month.
Further figures from the Office for National Statistics2 revealed that in June 2014, 13.9% of British workers operated from home, while a survey conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce and BT Business3 reported that 91% of British SMEs had at least one member of staff working from home. An additional 19% of small companies said that more than half of their employees worked remotely, outside of the office.
When working virtually, I see a lot of teams and leaders neglecting the meeting margins and focusing entirely on the work at hand.
In spite of its popularity, we still haven’t managed to make a real success of virtual working cultures. What does the average remote working day involve where you work? Are you employed by one of the many companies that find virtual working is, at best, a backup option for when you cannot meet in person or, at worst, an unsatisfactory working style?
I have worked for the last 10 years with teams and their leaders, assisting them in leading, coaching and working in a virtual world. In this time, some of the strongest teams I have dealt with have never actually met in person, but work well virtually because of two factors: they agree on how they want to work together (ie what behaviours they will exhibit), and they show great leadership.
Crafting a strong virtual working culture is easy to do, but difficult at the same time. I’ll elaborate: there are several good practices that I will explain, which you will have an intuitive understanding of; the challenge of leadership is in introducing and sustaining these new working styles.
Here are three ways you can start to establish a virtual working culture that is engaging, congenial and inclusive.
‘Meeting margins’ are where we develop trusting relationships. When we meet in person, we mingle a bit, sharing about our journey into work, or perhaps the weather or recent political developments. These conversations are central to building trust: they demonstrate concern for those around us and give us a more human dynamic.
On the other hand, when working virtually, I see a lot of teams and leaders neglecting the meeting margins and focusing entirely on the work at hand, ignoring the need to build relationships between teams and individuals.
So make sure that everyone arrives at virtual meetings on time – or early, preferably – as people seem to slack on their commitment to meeting etiquette in the virtual environment in ways they wouldn’t in person. This tends to be because of an unspoken impression of virtual work not being ‘real’ work.
To counter this unhelpful myth, ensure you set expectations about time-keeping and take adequate time at the beginning of each meeting to acknowledge everyone and hear their contribution.
About the author
Stephen Fortune is principal consultant at The Oxford Group. Find out more at www.oxford-group.com.