Can You Influence Culture Virtually?

Dr. Jackie Freiberg
August 13, 2020

Dr. Jackie Freiberg

International Best-selling Author, In-person and Virtual Speaker, Culture Coach
Culture Leadership


Ready or not, the current crisis has forced many leaders to make very difficult, real-time decisions under the pressures created by the pandemic, decisions that are impacting culture as it once was. Whether you are aware of it or not, your culture shifted when your organization shifted.

Don’t be fooled, now is not the time to ignore culture. Culture is a critical topic many of our clients are concerned about. In response, we’ve developed a series of virtual keynotes and workshops addressing how you can influence culture as WFH continues and as life and work remain blurred and blended.

What is culture? 

Culture is that mysterious concept that seems so elusive yet so powerful in impacting peoples’ performance and attitudes at work. In simple terms, culture is the patterns of behavior, feeling, thinking and believing that influence performance. So, think about it, since the vast majority of us are now working from home, our patterns of behavior, feeling, thinking and believing have also been disrupted. 

Culture shifts when collective behavior shifts. If peoples’ behaviors are shifting, culture is shifting too. If people are feeling disconnected, your culture is disconnected. If people think their job is at risk, your culture is at risk because their performance is at risk. So now is exactly the time to get creative and find new ways to build culture virtually especially if you want to influence peoples’ performance in a healthy and productive direction. 

7 Strategies to Help You Shift Culture Virtually

Break the rules.

Playing by old rules isn't an option if you want to survive. Cultures are designed to protect themselves. Remember the definition of insanity: doing things the same way expecting a different result? Well, trying to adjust culture using traditional initiatives is taking a step toward insanity – since the majority of people are working remotely, culture has to become virtual and has to be delivered and experienced anew. Don't assume people will bring culture home, that's also a step toward insanity. And don't call it good if you've got a weekly Zoom Happy Hour or Town Hall.

Ask people:

What do YOU need to better connect in our virtual environment?

  1. What are some creative digital ways we can engage, connect and virtually support each other? 
  2. What digital arenas and activities allow for more collaboration and creative expression?
  3. How can we live our values, spread our values and celebrate our values in a virtual work environment?

Re-channel nervous energy.

When an organization is faced with change and disruption, alarms go off in people's minds. People may become highly sensitive as nervous energy flares. Act quickly or people will use that energy on self-protective behavior or by resisting necessary change all together. Come up with a compelling new vision or a challenge that infuses meaning into the new normal as a way to rally people and refocus energy in a productive direction.

Keep in mind, people are grieving the loss of life and work as they knew it in a series of stages. First is denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance and new meaning. And do not assume everyone is in the same stage of dealing with their loss, people move toward acceptance at their own pace. What’s most important is to support and assist each other through the journey without frustration, criticism or judgment.

Ask the team: 

  1. · Where are you (anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, new meaning) in this journey and how can we best support you?
  2. · What is our new vision or challenge?
  3. · How are we each finding meaning in our new vision forward?
  4. · Is there a way to shake up existing routines to work smarter and/or improve our workflow and efficiency? 
  5. · Can we reimagine how we’ve traditionally delivered experiences, services, and products? Is there a better, safer, faster approach worth exploring?”

Borrow from other industries.

Sadly, some restaurants are closed for good. Some are thriving by shifting to mobile orders fast and efficiently, others are surviving by pursuing city permits to expand outdoor seating into parking lots. To innovate through the crisis, rethink your processes and borrow from other success stories to shift and stay in business.

Track progress, measure results, and hold people accountable. 

Now is the time to double down on performance and accountability to engage, empower and enable everyone.

Gallup conducted a 12-year study on remote work trends and discovered that highly productive teams are focused on three things:

1. Accountability —set clear expectations with measurable and regular accountability checks. Some people may want and appreciate weekly or bi-weekly checks, others may find it disruptive. Ask and lean in respectively. What are the best strategies for monitoring and tracking performance? And what are the best ways to support yourself and your team?

2. Individualization — One size fits one. Discuss how things are getting done. Ask what is and has been your most efficient and effective workflow? Identify how to optimize performance. Some people may have learned they’re MORE productive working remote, some may be struggling in a blurred work/home/virtual environment. DO you know? If not, you need to know. The point is to find ways to optimize the performance of everyone. Do not demand consistency in this inconsistent environment; make flexibility and experimentation an option. Frequently revisit what is and isn’t working.

3. Engagement — Hone your strategies for communicating to grow connections and support. Is it time to revisit what has become normal? Don’t assume. Check-in and dare to ask your colleagues what needs to change and what might be helpful to grow opportunities for refreshing virtual collaboration and helpful connections.

Remove obstacles.

The recent blurring and blending of work and home for many people has heightened our focus on efficiency. As the uncertainty continues, we're also expected to be adaptive, relevant, and operationally flexible. Working virtually, we’re faced with less corporate bureaucracy which allows greater opportunity for people to show initiative and creativity.

You'll gain respect and credibility by removing obstacles and breaking unnecessary chains of bureaucracy. During weekly performance and progress check-ins, it's crucial to include conversations about obstacles that may be inhibiting progress. 

Ask yourself and your team:

  1. In our virtual environment what obstacles have been removed allowing for greater efficiencies? 
  2. What obstacles are still getting in our way?

Celebrate visible results quickly through small wins.

Tangible pay-offs fuel motivation. Creative forums for people to share lessons learned amid the uncertainty will accelerate engagement and inspire greater levels of creativity.

Share best practices for:

· getting stuff done, 

· having fun, 

· pivoting in crisis. 

The key here is to invite people to share wins, failures, and lessons learned. Wins build team chemistry, failures build trust and lessons learned build team resilience. And virtual high fives will inspire ongoing engagement.

Be transparent and decisive.

Courageous leadership during times of uncertainty is about facing challenges head-on. Businesses across industries are fighting to survive. Leaders are having to consider distressing "essential vs. nonessential"; people's decisions. It’s normal for people to feel disheartened and anxious, so please, don’t avoid the inevitable, do not allow death by a thousand cuts. Amid the unending uncertainty, people need transparency and decisiveness. 

If staff must be laid off, courageously step into the arena with your armor off, and communicate the best options for the business's future. Let people know the best way forward for the majority will require difficult but timely layoffs and furloughs for some.

If and when this happens, it will be painful and uncomfortable, so be prepared and deliver your decisions with EMPATHY. Empathy is an act of courage that requires us to be vulnerable by connecting, supporting, and figuratively stepping into what others are experiencing without trying to FIX them. That means pause, listen, and show support. Empathy is sharing in what others are experiencing—the good, bad, and emotionally jarring.

And if returning to work is still a moving target, do not wait. It’s in the best interest of everyone to address concerns and questions now as a way to mentally and emotionally prepare people for more changes ahead. Let’s face it, with distancing and other safety protocols required, going back to work as we once knew it will be radically different.

In the chaos of these changing times, the survivors will be those who are leading with a strong bias for action, empathy in the uncertainty and a vision of victory for achieving a better tomorrow. Leaders shift culture by meeting disruption head-on and modeling the behaviors, feelings, thoughts and beliefs they want others to embrace and emulate.

Dr. Jackie Freiberg

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