How to retain company culture and keep watercooler moment flowing remotely

How to retain your company culture and keep watercooler moments flowing remotely

As we approach week 12 of lockdown, it feels as though there is light at the end of the tunnel. But even as we make a slow, anxious return to day-to-day life, there is an understanding that ‘normal’ has changed.

For the last three months a huge swathe of the workforce has been working remotely. And while many businesses are putting together their plans to return to work, many others are debating the role of the workplace in this new world. With working-from-home proving successful for many, and workplaces a known incubator for illness, it seems likely that many companies may continue to work from home for longer – even after restrictions are eased – and maybe indefinitely.

But how successful can a business be remotely? And when it comes to innovation, is there really a stand-in for those informal, spontaneous ‘watercooler’ conversations that act as a breeding ground for new ideas? Here we look at several ways to keep your culture going and the watercooler moments flowing, even at a distance.

Revisit your company values and your purpose

Go back to basics and revisit your company values, vision and mission in light of this new era. Company purpose gives employees a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. So it’s important to find ways to ensure that your people are still living and breathing your values, even when they’re not in the same place. Having a clear, visible and centralised statement on your vision and values will set a rubric for individual performance and keep everyone pointing in the same direction. You can use this to set objectives, monitor performance, build workshops around and develop incentives to keep people connected to each other and the core company purpose.

Recreate shared experiences remotely

It’s more important than ever to make sure people don’t feel untethered and alone. So, it’s good to keep up traditions and shared experiences to give a sense of belonging and unity. At Lorien, we have kept rituals like our 4pm payday finish, our weekly business-wide round-ups on a Friday and our team wind-downs on Friday afternoons.

This is equally important for new starters as it sets the tone for what it feels like to be part of your company. Helping new starters to build out networks by introducing people on video chats and arranging a buddy-up helps to simulate the feeling of joining a new office – meeting the people you’ll be working with, and sitting next to a colleague that looks after you. Getting new starters stuck-in is also valuable for the team – new starters breathe fresh energy and ideas into businesses, so it’s important not to lose that.

Give equal parts autonomy and accountability

It’s wise to set out clear expectations around roles, responsibilities and how performance fits into the wider arc of the business. Having a clear focus and a sense of purpose will help workers to feel grounded in your organisation.

But employers should likewise beware of placing too much emphasis on hard graft and rigid responsibilities. In the workplace, no-one works at 100% capacity all of the time, and this leaves room for organic ‘free time’ to explore and discuss new ideas. Micromanaging – whether in-person or remotely – can suffocate creativity.

As a result, as well as finding new outlets for ‘watercooler’ chats, companies should also look for ways for employees to continue ‘free thinking’. Google’s famous 20% Time policy – which enables staff to spend up to 20% of their working time on personal projects beyond their day job to breed innovation – has its critics, but is a good example of how a business can drive out-of-the-box thinking. Considering that the vast majority of people are currently working in an unfamiliar setting, this could be the perfect breeding ground for innovation – it’s just about unlocking it.

Foster collaboration and transparency

When we’re in our own remote bubbles, it can be easy to forget how isolated we are. In a typical, open-plan workplace, news spreads like wildfire. And that news isn’t always idle office gossip. Important information related to what’s going on in the business gets passed along, keeping everyone in the loop and pointing in the same direction. And it can also unlock new opportunities, as business decisions in one department can have an incidental, knock-on effect in others.

To ensure that no-one is left in the dark, it’s therefore important to put extra effort into transparency when working remotely. Daily team catch-ups and weekly company newsletters or company-wide video chats can bring clarity and insight. At Lorien, our Managing Director David Gettins continues his weekly round-up in a virtual setting to share good news stories around the business and keep everyone up-to-date. 

And horizontal, cross-departmental transparency is equally important. Randomised buddy-ups, cross-discipline hubs to chat (such as a weekly Zoom call, available to all or randomly allocated teams), all help to break the silo effect which can affect offices, but is particularly evident when work remotely.

Vary communication approaches

In the same way that at work we have different conversation styles – board meetings, team meetings, one-to-ones, run-ins and catch-ups – so too is it important to mix-it-up when you’re communicating remotely.

There’s a huge range of tools out there to support different communication styles. Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams help us keep meetings natural, while communication platforms like Slack, Yammer or Workplace support different conversation threads (from projects to the latest binge-worthy TV series) to bridge the watercooler gap. Meanwhile, instant messaging tools like Skype and Whatsapp enable communication to be light, rapid and informal.   

Using these different platforms sets the tone for different conversations, and enables people to engage more naturally. For example, a Skype message might require an immediate action (much like someone coming up to your desk), a zoom meeting with your manager might be more like a weekly report and a catch-up, and a chat on Slack is like a conversation in the kitchen – one you can dip in and out of. 

Make time for watercooler moments

That means that as well as ‘work meetings’ with specific agendas, there should be the opportunity for regular team catch-ups and manager one-to-ones. The ‘lightbulb’ moment doesn’t always come from structured meetings and strict agendas. Informal, unenforced group activities like puzzles, games, quizzes, ‘brown bag’ meetings and interest-based chats on platforms like Slack all help to break the day up and give way to new conversations.

Building these informal, warm relationships translates into greater confidence to share ideas, better collaboration and ultimately, more innovative sparks. So keep the drinks trolley rolling (alcoholic or not), and keep talking.

Whether you’re planning to make the move back to the office soon or not, it feels as though ‘normal’ has been shaken up, and the traditional idea of the 9-5 might be about to change. While remote working may only exist in a shadow of its lockdown-self in the future – such as a day a week or flexible hours – it seems inevitable that businesses may need to adjust to a workforce that isn’t always present. Understanding how to keep those watercooler moments, protect innovation and maintain company culture from afar is therefore a lesson it is likely we will all need to learn. And while we’ll waiting for what’s next, we may as well start.

But what about finding the right people to fit your culture in the first place? Reach out to us at Lorien for help with recruiting, on-boarding and securing top tech talent remotely.

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