Five Practical Considerations for Shaping Culture in Decentralised Teams

January 7, 2022

The “Great Resignation” of 2021 may have resulted in a record year for recruiters, but it has left managers in many industries, particularly white-collar sectors, on the edge of their seats.

The pandemic and the shift to remote, more decentralised ways of working has led to many employees re-evaluating what’s important to them. At the same time, the transition poses new challenges for leaders as they learn how to manage and build teams, often with predominantly virtual connectivity, across boundaries that now include the physical.

The pressure of the Great Resignation means there’s no shying away from the imperative to step up to this leadership challenge. Employees have made it clear in multiple surveys that corporate culture is among the most important reasons for staying with an employer. In fact, culture is so highly valued that researchers from MIT Sloan went a step further. They conducted an in-depth study using AI to analyse over 1.4 million employee reviews. The results, published in September, were quite surprising. The researchers found that employees were more likely to cite factors such as feeling respected and supportive leadership above those such as a flexible schedule or manageable workload.

In a predominantly virtual environment, the idea of corporate culture feels more nebulous, and establishing a positive corporate culture can seem like a daunting prospect. My own learning curve leading a team at a busy startup, where all hands are on the virtual deck at all times, has given me some practical insights into the challenge.

1. Establish the collective baseline and walk the walk

Defining culture is always a tricky business, but at its core, it involves established norms. In some cases, this is codified into policy documents or employee handbooks, like The CW8 Way, our “bible,” which is updated on an ongoing basis.

It’s a leader’s job to know, shape, and direct these cultural norms and exceptions. Where there is documentation to support them, it should always reflect the current reality if it’s to have any perceived value. For example, there’s little point in having a flexible working policy on paper if the expectation is that everyone is at their desk by 8am. Leaders must walk the walk if they expect others to follow, and when something needs changing, take action.

2. Onboarding is key - first impressions matter

Onboarding is the way that people find out how “things are done around here.” As such, a proper induction process matters to ensure that employees can integrate and assimilate,” so into the company culture. As a startup, we found out early on that it’s an easy mistake to throw a new employee in at the deep end simply because things are so hectic. We aren’t alone - apparently, six out of ten managers have made the same mistake. But there’s no second chance to create a first impression, and, as we found, this approach means that newcomers miss any opportunity to absorb positive company culture because they’re so overwhelmed.

Having invested the time and cost in advertising the role, sifting through CVs, interviewing candidates, and selecting the ideal recruit, why ruin things there? It only makes sense to put similar care and attention into bringing a new employee up to speed, allowing them the time and space to learn the job and embed into a new culture.

When managing this process remotely, it can really help to have a defined structure such as a roadmap for their first month in the job, including time for networking, on-the-job training, and short-term goals.

3. Nurture informal connections and team rituals

In the absence of social lunches and water-cooler chats, workplace interactions risk becoming limited to the transactional, which can erode positive sentiments between team members over time. Leaders need to ensure they’re creating time and space for non-work-related calls to get to know one another.

Often, in an office environment, this kind of contact works best when incorporated into a kind of ritual, which promotes feelings of team identity and inclusion. A classic example is a regular team lunch or after-work drinks. In a remote context, it could simply be a scheduled non-work-related team Zoom call.

Other rituals might include virtual ways to welcome new hires, celebrations for work completed or landing a new client, or coming together to share external feedback from customers. The “why” doesn’t have to be so important, as long as there’s a positive reason to bring people together.

4. Feedback, feedback, feedback

In a similar vein to the above, the safety to give and receive feedback is a critical component in establishing a positive culture. Coming back to the MIT Sloan researchers’ findings regarding the role of respect and supportive leadership, one way to demonstrate both these factors is to help employees understand their role in the success of the organisation and feed back to them when their actions play a part in the team and organisational achievements. Similarly, providing constructive feedback in a respectful way can help an employee to improve their performance without damaging their confidence.

In a decentralised environment, promoting a culture of open and constructive feedback can become more difficult – but exponentially more important. Leaders need to make sure that they are both soliciting as well as giving feedback and resist the temptation to allow these conversations to take place on email or via chat messaging, where nuance is easily lost. Feedback conversations should be strictly reserved for a face-to-face conversation, even if it’s a virtual one.

5. Building culture is a journey, not a destination

Building a culture is something that happens over time in response to ongoing events. Whether you’re leading teams virtually or in-person, developing corporate culture isn’t a task that can be tackled in terms of weeks or months or a project measured in dollars or euros. Culture is the outcome that results from a set of inputs, so leaders should consider other ways to adapt their behaviors in the new virtual setting to ensure that their cultural outcomes are the most desirable and beneficial for the organisation.

By Caroline Sullivan
Simply put, we build trust.
Borderless, Agile, Purposeful, Impactful.
Contact us