HR Management & Compliance

Is Virtual Working A Culture Killer?

What can be seen, heard and experienced by employees and customers, is unique to every business, and is more successful in some than others?

Source: Poike / iStock / Getty

Culture isn’t tangible, but it is unavoidable and manageable; it’s the sum total of a business’s values, ethics and beliefs, perpetuated by its people through interactions with peers and customers.

So, what happens when you remove people from the equation: when there is no opportunity for camaraderie in the canteen or banter in breakout spaces?

Understandably, this is a major concern for HRs considering how a company-wide flexible working program would impact the business and dealing with increasing numbers of telecommuting requests from employees seeking a better work-life balance.

The Millennial Effect

Since 2005, the number of U.S. workers who telecommute for at least 50% of their working week has increased by 140%. Now 4.3million Americans—that’s 3.2% of the workforce—work from home at least half the time, according to figures analyzed by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.

That figure is bound to increase more rapidly over the next decade, because virtual working is popular among digitally discerning Millennials—also known as Generation Y—and, increasingly, the digital natives of Generation Z, too. These cohorts, born in the early 1980s or after, now make up around 35% of the workforce and counting.

Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, based on the views of 10,455 Millennials in 36 countries, plus 1,844 Gen Z respondents from six countries including the United States, found that top of the workplace wish list for young workers—after financial rewards and benefits—is a positive workplace culture, followed by flexibility of working hours and working location: two things that, to some businesses, appear mutually exclusive.

But, they are not. The problem is that businesses are failing to redefine their cultures so that virtual working is not only accommodated, but a part of it.

Virtual Working Can Redefine Culture

An overwhelming number of CEOs and HR leaders—82%—agree that culture gives businesses a competitive advantage, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report. But the survey also found that culture is not well-understood as a concept. Only 28% of CEOs and HR leaders believe they have a good understanding of their culture, while just 19% believe they have the “right culture”.

The trouble is, too many businesses make hiring decisions based on whether candidates fit their existing molds: a management consultancy that only hires from the Ivy League, or a disruptive startup that will only interview candidates who demonstrate a love of music, to offer two fictitious examples. What are the unique criteria your business insists on?

But a culture where virtual working is prevalent can alter its hiring methods and focus on skill, experience and output, rather than whether a candidate will conform to a narrow mold, or whether they could be managed by a notoriously troublesome boss.

What businesses get is greater diversity within their business, and the creativity that inevitably comes from putting different people, from different backgrounds, together and offering them greater freedom.

Culture Translates Virtually

Culture—like a business—is not tangible: you can’t pick it up, hit it, or throw it. It’s only an aggregation of the people who work for it. Put those people together and culture and business exist.

There’s more than one way to get your people together than forcing them to show up to the office every day at 9am. Business technology that supports all operations from one place, accessible to everyone, is crucial if you want to support telecommuting and let culture thrive.

Culture can be reinforced through internal social media feeds and through internal websites managed by HR, hosted within the digital workplace, and populated by content demonstrating the best examples of your company culture in action.

Increasingly businesses want employees to drive culture, creating their own unfiltered content that is shared company wide.

There’s not a single cultural pillar that cannot be replicated virtually with appropriate technology.

Let’s pretend one of your business’s core values is to create good karma by giving up a little time each day to help someone else. An employee from the PR team posts on the company’s social media feed that they are helping a journalist who is writing a feature about employee benefits, and they need to know which are the most popular.

That post garners 150 responses from colleagues in all departments and they receive even more responses on email and live chat. Those who responded gave up 1 minute of their day to help a colleague out, resulting in a great bit of press coverage for the business. This is a great example of culture in action, in a virtual space.

If one of your core values is ‘time to innovate’, you could create a dedicated forum in your digital workplace, where everyone in the company is invited to post ideas they’ve had to improve and innovate existing business processes. Others can offer encouragement and feedback and help them to develop the idea. Employees are engaged and the business wins.

The only limit to culture thriving away from the office is the limitations of your own creativity. Support culture and virtual working with technology and the possibilities are infinite.

 Nigel Davies is the Founder and CEO of digital workplace Claromentis.