If it feels like your team has been working remotely for an
eternity, well, that’s likely because it’s true. Relatively speaking, anyway.
Some businesses are embarking on a tenth consecutive week working from home.
With the novelty of an alternative work set-up likely worn off, all that time
away from each other may be taking a toll.
Working remotely for an extended period can be a threat to your
company’s culture, especially when it’s being performed during a pandemic. Circumstances
seem both unpredictable and indefinite at a time when coworkers can’t connect
face-to-face. Establishing empathy is tough under those conditions.
The Fearey Group, a
public relations firm based in Seattle, instituted a partial work-from-home
format for its employees before the coronavirus upended normal operations. Despite
already being acquainted with a remote set-up, Vice President Chris
Guizlo says keeping team morale up and company culture intact has not been
“Quite frankly, I think it’s an ongoing challenge that is
evolving week by week with us. At first, I think everyone’s expectations were
like, ‘Oh, we know how to work from home. It’s not a big deal. This will be a
couple of weeks and then we’ll figure it out.’ Now, we’re looking at what could
possibly be something that extends into the summer for us.”
So in the midst of that uncertainty, how does company
culture not only survive, but maybe even thrive? For Guizlo and The Fearey
Group, the recipe includes a strong emphasis on the week. Every Monday through
Friday, workdays include a variety of virtual check-ins meant to monitor
“On a weekly basis, we’re having three touch points with
folks,” says Guizlo. “Monday staff meeting is our normal business staff
meeting. Wednesday afternoons we’re doing just a quick 15- or 30-minute check-in
with folks. Then on Fridays we have lunch time together if you can make it. And
then one-offs we’re having with people just to check in on peoples’ mental
status to see if they need anything else.”
Those one-offs have featured a kind of divide and concur
approach – not to be confused with divide and conquer, a more isolating tactic
– led by Fearey Group’s executive staff. Senior management rotates which
employees to check in with and the line of questioning gets to the heart of
what’s most important to their reports at that moment.
“We’re checking in on a regular basis just to ask, ‘How are
you doing? What do you need?’” explains Guizlo. “The answers could literally be
everything from ‘I’m running out of office supplies’ to some of our junior
staff saying, ‘I’m running out of coffee.’”
Satisfying physiological needs like a caffeine craving can
end up creating cultural opportunities, too. Take lunchtime, for example. Prior
to the pandemic, Fearey Group provided lunch for its entire team every Friday.
Now that everyone is working away from each other, the meals have continued but
the format has taken on a more community-based focus.
Each Fearey Group employee is given a stipend to use at a
local restaurant of their choosing. The lunches purchased are then enjoyed
together as an organization. It’s an opportunity for team members to support neighborhood
businesses important to them and carry on the type of coworker conversations
that company cultures typically rely on.
“It’s a time to connect with each other with no agenda and
just have the kind of normal water cooler talk you would get in the office,”
The Friday lunches shared by The Fearey Group, along with
most of the business’ other interactions, are held via videoconferencing. And according
to Guizlo, if your company isn’t already utilizing those types of tools to
connect virtually, they may be the right resources for keeping your team
together during times they may feel far apart. Just make sure you’re striking
the right balance.
“I would recommend folks think about making as many of your
interactions as possible, if you can, via video,” says Guizlo. “We just use it
so that we can make sure we have that face-to-face connection and can read
peoples’ body language, read their emotions, try to spark creativity. It can be
fatiguing for some people, so take it with a grain of salt and scale it
appropriately to what makes sense, but we’ve found a lot of success in that.”
It’s important to keep in mind that these are tactics that
work right now, not necessarily in the future. As more industries begin to move
toward reopening, employee needs are expected to keep shifting. That means
efforts to preserve or build organizational culture are going to have to move
with them. Planning ahead is an especially tall task right now, but in order to
preserve your company’s personality, it’s imperative to try.
“Right now, we’re making a plan for re-entry and what that looks like,” says Guizlo. “What are our protocols and procedures? We’re just starting that process, but it is something that people should be thinking about.”